How comedy sketch alters over time
The spring festival, for Chinese people, is the most significant festival. It is a high time when family members should get together to have dinner. “With the intrusion of the small screen, especially after 1983 when the first Spring Festival gala was introduced, family gatherings have taken on a distinctively national character”[i] (Popular Family Television and Party Ideology: The Spring Festival Happy Gathering”). In order to celebrate the very special day when family members get together, China Central Television hosts an annual grand gala, starting in 1983. The Spring Festival Gala “is broadcast live from CCTVs (China Central Television) studios in Beijing between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m. on the Chinese New Year’s Eve (in January or February, according to the traditional Chinese calendar) Provincial television stations also relay the Gala. The Gala was a huge success in the 1980s, when television entertainment was still scarce, but now, with many other channels and amusement options at hand, young urban people have become less interested” (Rydholm). Due to the fact that watching the Spring Festival Gala is a tradition for most Chinese people, this gala typically presents “Contemporary Chinese Performance Culture”, which is the emphasis of our class. This gala is considered as “the biggest entertainment spectacle of the year. It presents cultural performances of all kinds: singing, dancing, Peking opera, short plays, ‘ comic dialogues, martial arts, acrobatics etc. It reflects some of the best parts of ancient and contemporary Chinese culture. The Gala features the most popular artists, pop stars, film stars and performers. Invited sports stars, recent Chinese Olympic games winners, also provide important symbols for national pride during the Gala”[ii] (Rydholm). Thanks to the diversity of performances in the Spring Festival Gala, it would be difficult to analyze all types of performances in a short paper. As a result, in this paper I will focus on one type of performance which we have not talked about in this semester, comedy sketch (Xiao pin), and analyze how it has changed over time.
In 1983 when Spring Festival Gala was first broadcasted on CCTV (Central Television Station), it is also the first time for the comedy sketch (Xiao pin), which refers to “theatrical skits performed on stage or television,”[iii] to be introduced to the audience. At that time, comedy sketch in particular presented a mime to the audience. Performers utilized their extraordinary imagination and excellent physical actions to perform a plain theme, or a simple situation to entertain the audience. To illustrate this special Xiaopin performance, let me take the skit entitled “Eating chicken” (“Chi Ji”) as an example. Since this is a mime, the performer is not supposed to say lines, so Wang Jingyu briefly described that he was going to eat chicken.
On stage, he first braised the chicken, using one hand to hold a plate and the other trembling, indicating that he was cooking a chicken. Then he smelled the dish, showing the audience this chicken must taste delicious. Then he tried hard to eat it with chopsticks, but he found it impossible to tear at it. He began to use his hands to tear at the chicken, and finally he could taste chewy chicken. He presented how chewy this chicken was with exaggeration; eating this undercooked chicken, though delicious, was indeed a tough task. In order to eat it, Wang not only used hands and feet to pull apart the chicken, he even fixed the chicken by a nail with one stroke of the hammer, and tried to tear it. However, as a part of the audience I started watching a stimulating tug of war. As Wang was sparing no effort to tear the chicken, the chewy chicken somehow pulled him back, which undoubtedly made the audience burst out laughing. The mime “Eating chicken” reminds me of a dance drama “The Peacock” performed by Yang Liping, which was shown by my classmates when they were introducing Yang Liping, an outstanding Chinese dance artist to the rest of the class.
“As a precious bird in the sub-tropical zone, the peacock is beautiful and tame. To the Dai ethnic group, it stands for auspiciousness and beauty. Thus they create Peacock Dance to reflect their respect for peace, honesty and beauty.” During the in-class presentation, I got to know that Yang Liping is expert in presenting the beauty of peacock. To perform Peacock Dance is a difficult task as well. “First of all, the dancers’ knees always wave flexibly. It is the common feature of Dai dance. The knees don’t wave mechanically but flexibly according to the change of performers’ sentiment. Secondly, the elegant dance is shown by the flexibility of performers’ arms, wrists, and fingers. The movements are soft and elegant to show the docility of peacocks. Thirdly, the performers’ legs move promptly and the eyes move flexibly to show the flexibility of the peacock”[iv] (“Peacock Dance, the Essence of Dai Ethnic Culture”). In my eyes, when Yang is presenting peacock to the audience, she is using her imagination, just as how Wang was performing how to eat an undercooked chicken. The Peacock Dance and mime like “Eating chicken” are both presented through physical movements and performers have to paint a picture in their minds, which guides them how to perform. In the meanwhile, in order to appreciate their performances, the audiences are supposed to exert their imagination to the greatest extent. They are expected to imagine something truly exists when the performers are performing on the stage. What makes them different is that comedy sketch intends to amuse the audience. Since the Spring Festival Gala is a national event, I cannot help wondering what would happen if folk dance is added to comedy sketch as an element. If elegant ethnic dance could amuse people through a form of comedy sketch, I would assume for both of the performances it would be a new impetus for improvement.
In the 1990s, comedy sketch started showing the audience the impact of the growth of economy and the reflection of their society. “During the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee congress of the Communist Party of China (1978.12), Deng Xiaoping took over the reins of power and decided to open up China’s gate.”[v] From then on, the living standard of Chinese people began to improve rapidly. Just as Deng mentioned, “modernization does represent a great new revolution. The aim of our revolution is to liberate and expand the productive forces. Without expanding the productive forces, making our country prosperous and powerful, and improving the living standards of the people, our revolution is just empty talk”[vi] (Gabriel 99). Furthermore, “In June 1992, Comrade Jiang Zemin explicitly put forward the concept of "socialistmarket economic system" for the first time on the basis of Comrade Deng Xiaoping’ssouthern talk.”[vii] The year after that, a comedy sketch “Paying a New Year call” (Lao Bai Nian) was performed in 1993 and lines of the performance perfectly reflected what the society had changed thanks to “socialist market economic system”. At the very beginning, Yan Shuping gives a present to Zhao Benshan to pay a New Year call to one of his apprentices, who no longer performs traditional Opera and owns a luxury hotel, and she wants him to provide a job for Zhao. This dramatic change of identity might seem to be impossible before the Chinese Economic Reform, but this phenomenon exists in the society and is depicted in the “paying a New Year call”. Zhao further explains that the small town where he lives has a Qigong training class and the rehearsal room is rent to all manner of hawkers and street sellers to make a living, and that is the reason why Zhao, an art director, is out of job. When Zhao is talking to his second apprentice and imitates the behaviors of his first apprentice, who is not an actor of traditional Opera and becomes a real estate general manager, when he makes a call. Zhao says, “What? City Hall is going to sell? Save it for me. No matter how expensive it is, you save it for me. I will contact the foreign merchant this afternoon.” Through these lines “Paying a New Year call” reflects it is common for Chinese companies to establish a close cooperation relations with foreign tradesman.
In the early 21st century, comedy sketch tends to closely reflect social change. It is widely known that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games took place in Beijing, China. During the 2008 Spring Festival Gala, a comedy sketch named “torchbearer” was performed to the audience, and I take this comedy sketch as a case in point to illustrate that comedy sketch has a close connection with what happened in the society. At that time the "Lucky Cloud Torch"(Xiang Yun Torch) was carried by torchbearers on the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay and the comedy sketch “torchbearer” depicts how a torchbearer is selected in a small town. The host Liu comes on stage and tells Song Dandan and Zhao Benshan that there will be a little change in the show and says that Zhao is highly supported by some netizens, and the support for Zhao exceeds that of Song. As a result, the Organizing Committee gives the power to netizens to make a decision on who will be the farmer torchbearer of northern Liaoning region. Through a funny “race to be the first to answer a question” section of the competition, Song is supported by more voters. In order to make the final decision, Song and Zhao are expected to talk about the relationship of themselves and the Olympic flame. The performance not just aims to amuse the audience, it also tells the audience that the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay encourages nationwide participation and even those villagers who live in a small town should not be left behind. What’s more, through Song and Zhao’s competition the citizens’ enthusiasm for the Olympic Games is perfectly reflected by the comedy sketch.
Likewise, in 2009 Spring Festival Gala a comedy sketch “Got the money anyway” (Bu Cha Qian) shows how people react in the society where all types of talent show, which gives opportunities to competitors to become an overnight sensation. In “Got the money anyway”, grandfather Zhao wants a judge of the Avenue of Stars to take his granddaughter Yadan to attend this show. As a result, grandfather Zhao intends to invite a judge name Bi to have dinner in the most expensive restaurant of Tieling. Unfortunately, Yadan forgets to bring a bag which contains the money to pay for the meal. Therefore, Zhao gives a waiter named Shenyang a tip with the hope that he helps to avoid an embarrassing situation that they could not pay for the meal. “Zhao: When my guest comes, you put on a show with me. If I order expensive food, you should stop me doing so. Shenyang: Like how? Zhao: Showing respect for my guest, yes. However, spending too much on a meal, no. What if I ask for something expensive? Shenyang: I’ll say “sorry, this we don’t have.” After they have made a deal, Bi comes on stage. After they chat for a while Zhao invites Bi to order a meal and says “Now we peasants have got rich, much better off than before. Eat as much as you want, it will not be a big deal anyway.” This line indicates that the living standard of Chinese farmers has improved, which is a realistic portraiture of some formers. After Zhao orders a meal he asks Yadan to show her talent to Bi by singing “Qingzang Plateau” by Li Guyi. Then Shenyang has a strong desire to present a mock show of Liu Huan’s “You and Me.” However, Zhao wrongly assumes Shenyang wants Bi to sing with him. “Do it alone, won’t you? Mr. Bi’s tired from his trip. How can he sing with you?”(Got the money anyway) The song “You and Me” becomes a famous one after the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony. That Zhao, who symbolizes senior citizens, is not familiar with newly sprouted things which appreciated by the young generation is common in the society. And this comedy sketch happens to show to the audience that with the development of the society, the gap between generations is wider than before. It might be difficult for the old to understand the latest trends, and therefore it needs the young to explain these novelties with patience.
Comedy sketches in Spring Festival Gala always is and always will be the most extraordinary part that the audience do not want to miss. On spring festival, an occasion of great festivity, creating shows such as comedy sketch to entertain people is a must for the China Central Television. With the development of the society, the content of comedy sketch is trying to diversify to amuse the audience. It is believed that comedy sketches, compared to other types of performance, are able to more directly let the audience experience the joy of the Spring Festival. For those people who choose to watch the Spring Festival Gala, aren’t they trying to search for fun? Occupied by endless work and gradually growing lack of time to pursue happiness during their spare time, the audience would tend to expect the Spring Festival Gala to amaze them more. Therefore, making a high quality comedy sketch that will not upset the audience becomes a vital and challenging task. In order to satisfy the audience, performers on stage and those who work hard behind the scenes are expected to create shows that are closer to the life of the public and reflect changes that have taken place in the society. Perhaps besides laughter, comedy sketches would provoke people to think and care about the society.