A variety show is a form of entertainment that consists of assorted, or a variety, of acts such as comedic activities and performances. Although it does not necessarily refer to a television show, that is its most popular form today. In the United States, variety shows seem to have declined in popularity during the 21st Century. The most notable American variety show was The Ed Sullivan Show, but it ended in 1971. Today few of these types of shows remain, with the most popular one being Saturday Night Live. 1 In contrast, variety programs (综艺节目) have become extremely popular in China recently, with countless different shows in this genre. One aspect of Chinese, and Asian in general, variety shows that make them unique is that they often include bold pop-ups, sound effects, and comedic bantering. 2 Variety is listed at the top of genre lists on various Chinese video websites, and many variety shows are commonly found in overall top hit lists.
Happy Camp, or 《快乐大本营》, is a popular Chinese variety show that premiered in 1997. Over the past 16 years, it has acquires tens of millions of viewers and has won many awards. Filmed in Changsha, fans are able to sit in as audience and enjoy the behind-the-scenes entertainment. It is currently hosted by five MC’s collectively known as the Happy Family. Each episode, one or more famous figures are invited to be on the show. These people come from all over the world, and are anyone from musicians, singers and actors, to sports players. They participate in various activities such as performances, games, and interviews.
History of Variety Shows in China
To understand the popularity of Chinese variety shows, we must first look at its history. On June 1958, a Chinese television channel broadcasted a live performance done by injured army men, which is now considered the first variety performance in the country. Two years later, what is now known as the Spring Gala Festival was held for the first time, becoming the first stage performance to be broadcasted on television. After this, a small variety show called Xiao De Wan Hui aired on television for two consecutive years, but afterward all of these shows came to a halt due to the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, variety programs made a return with the Spring Gala Festival. In 1981, Guangdong TV broadcasted the first “official” variety program, called Wan Zi Qian Hong. As opposed to the previous shows that were informally presented, this show was the first variety program to be formally televised, in episode format with specific air dates and times. Other broadcasting channels began to follow suit with their own variety shows, such as Shanghai TV and Beijing TV. In the early 90’s, CCTV premiered Zong Yi Da Guan, which quickly became popular. At this point China had quite a few variety programs to satisfy viewers with. However, due to the abundance of these shows and their lack of uniqueness, people eventually began to lose interest. But just as the enthusiasm toward variety shows was diminishing, Happy Camp premiered. With its combination of elements from various older variety shows and contemporary, innovative ideas, it created a new style of variety that was able command the attention of and re-spark interest in the fading audience of variety programs. And thus we have the variety shows of today. 3
But what is it about variety shows, and more specifically Happy Camp, that has made them so popular recently?
To answer this question we must understand two aspects of the show: its use of language and featured themes in each episode. In language use, many of the words and phrases used on Happy Camp have new meanings that the older generation would not understand, such as “pose out” and “oh my Lady Gaga!”. In addition to using English words, there are also new Chinese phrases. These were created in various ways, such as by incorporating different dialects into Mandarin, changing the sound of certain Chinese words, or giving new meaning to old Chinese words. 4 For example, if something is niu (牛), it does not mean it is an ox; it means it is cool, or awesome. The MC’s of the show are the ones who create such phrases, and they are the ones who help communicate these phrases to their audience and beyond. (“《快乐大本营》的主持人既是流行语的传播者也是流行语的创造者默…” ) 5 Many of these phrases catch on really quickly, eventually becoming mainstream and a part of everyday conversation. And it is because of these new phrases why the show is so popular; people watch it to learn about the phrases so that they can stay on trend and up to date on life.
However, since these phrases are all newly created, the middle-aged and elderly are likely to not understand them, nor would they have any interest in learning such phrases. Even if they take the time to memorize these phrases, it wouldn’t make a difference because they would rarely use such phrases. (“即使被词典收录的‘好’字句也很少在中老年中使用”) 6 For example, in America, “cool beans” used to be a popular term among teenagers, but their grandparents would probably never burst out saying “cool beans.” This is because the younger generation has more connections to the rest of the world, which leads them to have a greater appreciation for such language use as compared to the older generation. Therefore, it can be concluded that the use of language on Happy Camp mostly attracts younger viewers.
Themes and Guest Stars
The different themes used in each episode also seem to capture the attention younger viewers. Every episode of Happy Camp has a different theme, and everything in that episode is centered around that theme, from the activities to the guest stars. For example, an episode that aired in 2009 had the theme of “I Like to Watch Movies. ” Not only were famous actors invited to appear on this episode, but a professional sound effects guy appeared as well, giving an entertaining performance on how sound effects in films work. 7 What is significant about these themes though, is that they are relatable, especially to a younger crowd, and because they are relatable they can easily attract viewers.
What do the themes and language use of Happy Camp have in common? They are both directed toward the younger audience. Happy Camp targets young viewers, and it is exactly because of this why it has become so popular. Young people like to stay on trend and crave popular culture. They have more connections and therefore know more about what is going on in the world than those who are older. They are easy to please and therefore not difficult to market to. So of course Happy Camp chose to target this audience. The show purposely uses a certain type of language to attract these people. The show purposely selects specific themes that will entertain these people. And based on these themes the show purposely invites certain celebrities that will further engage these people.
For example, episode 130406 (April 6, 2013) had the theme of “Oppa Oppa.” This theme was based off of one of the songs of the same name sung by two members of the featured Korean boy band, Super Junior-M. The song’s lyrics are about living the life and having fun, and the activities planned for this episode were centered on that. 8
Another episode that aired later in the year had the theme of “Here’s to Never Growing Up.” To match this theme, they chose to invite a famous Korean boy band, EXO. Comprised of twelve members, four Chinese and eight Korean, EXO had only made their debut a little over a year ago. Yet, in this short time they were able capture the attention of many people around the world with their youthful charms, good looks, and natural talent, topping charts and seeing an immense amount of success that some artists who have debuted for years have never even achieved. Prior to this episode, EXO had already been on Happy Camp two times. This episode marked a year since their last appearance on the show and “Here’s To Never Growing Up” perfectly described their changes and increase in maturity over the past year. During the episode, they played games that let fans get a glimpse of their childish personalities, such as a pole hugging game and a game that involved them chasing each other in round chicken suits. 9
Happy Camp Episode 130706 featuring EXO
The Influence of the Hallyu Wave on Happy Camp’s Audience Contributes to Its Popularity
But why invite Korean artists onto a Chinese television show? Because of the Hallyu wave. The Hallyu wave, or the Korean wave, refers to the increase of South Korean culture over the past few years. 10 With K-pop and K-dramas, Korea offers unique forms of entertainment that seem to be spreading around the world. Although this wave had already started taking over earlier, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” gave it a significant push when his single took the world by storm. Being geographically the closest to Korea, countries such as China, and Japan are the most affected, as “The impact of the Korean popular culture affected… [these] countries in terms of fashion and social trend and the fans tend to imitate their favorite stars.” 11 When news breaks out that their favorite idol has arrived in their country, fans flock to the airport and go crazy just to get a glimpse of their “oppa”’s, “noona’s”, or “dongseng”’s. K-pop songs are always scattered throughout top hit lists on Chinese music portals, and lists of most popular artists almost always contain more than a few Korean ones.
Korean television shows also see the same amount of popularity in China, as South Korean variety shows such as Infinite Challenge and Running Man often rank high, if not higher, on Chinese top hit video lists. When Chinese video streaming site Tudou asked viewers on social media about their favorite variety show, the Korean show We Got Married turned out to be the most talked-about show. 12 In fact, the currently trending Chinese variety show Dad, Where Are We Going? is based off of the Korean show of the same name. Korean dramas are popular as well, as you can find pirated versions sold everywhere on the streets, and popular Chinese television channels broadcast these dramas fairly often.
On Happy Camp, they not only have invited EXO, but other Korean celebrities as well, such as girl groups Wonder Girls, f(x) and Miss A, and actors Jang Geun Suk, Lee Min Ho, and Kim Hyun Joong. Response to the Jang Geuk Suk episode was described as “explosive”, as the show received over 350,000 ticket requests as opposed to the usual 100,000 to 200,000. 13 Lee Min Ho’s episode ended up taking the number one viewership spot in China, and was the highest rated program in the past two years. 14 Kim Hyun Joong’s episode had higher ratings than both Lee Min Ho’s and Jang Geun Suk’s, and normally free tickets were being sold for up to 3,500 RMB. In 2012, two episodes aired that were probably the most important in the show’s whole life: the 15th Anniversary special. Since this was such a big deal, the special was split into two episodes. And who were the guest stars for these two episodes? None other than Jang Geuk Suk and EXO, respectively. The fact that the show chose to invite Korean stars onto such important episodes shows just how popular they are in China.
By inviting Korean celebrities onto Happy Camp, the show is targeting younger viewers by allowing them to take a look at their idols. They are taking advantage of the Hallyu wave by purposely inviting these celebrities in order to please the younger crowd. And it is because of this aim towards the younger generation, through language use, episode themes, and guest stars, that the show’s popularity has been able to increase lately.
Connections to Class
How does this relate to what we have learned in class? The most prominent theme seen in Happy Camp is interculturalism. Aside from Korean and Chinese stars, the show has also featured various famous figures from other parts of the world, such as American gymnast Shawn Johnson, NBA basketball player Shane Battier, and others from Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, etc. Patrice Pavis states that “ ‘Intercultural’ does not mean simply the gathering of artists of different nationalities or national practices in a festival.” 15 But Happy Camp does not do this. In many episodes with foreign stars, they will play games that are related to Chinese culture, and the MC’s will often ask them questions about their country, which allows the Chinese audience to learn about a foreign culture. The use of language on this show also reflects interculturalism. As previously discussed, many of the phrases used involve words from English. Those who understand such phrases must understand English, even if it is just a little bit. These people gain their knowledge of English through their connections with the world, and through these connections they are able to learn much more than those who are not interested in these things. The incorporation of English into Chinese allows people to learn a bit about American culture. For example, “oh my Lady Gaga” became a popular phrase because Lady Gaga was extremely popular in China at the time. If someone wanted to find out the meaning of this seemingly absurd phrase, they could look it up, learning both about the singer and the meaning.
Certain aspects of Happy Camp can also be compared to the Chinese tourism performance model. I believe three central components of this model are people-ness, social experiences, and commodification. According to Jing Li, “people-ness” means for the people, both pleasing them and representing them. 16 With its quirky, fun activities, comedic banter, and well-known guest stars, Happy Camp is giving the people exactly what they want: satisfaction for their cravings of popular trends and culture. The MC’s represented the people as well, just like how the ethnic dances of Mengbalanaxi represented the Dai people. 17 The MC’s don’t present themselves as any more than a plain commoner; they are interested in the same things as their audience, they make mistakes, and one even dropped his phone into a pool of slime once. 18 Their language use makes them even more relatable, as they use trendy words and phrases that are popularly used in everyday conversation. The social experience of Happy Camp can be compared to that of Zhang Yimou’s Impression Liu Sanjie. While watching this performance against the backdrop of the Guilin mountains, viewers are able to interact with each other and share their ideas. 19 Similarly, the audience members of Happy Camp can enjoy the filming while also laughing and discussing their opinions together. Finally, commodification is a big part of Chinese tourism. The Chinese like to commodify, or turn goods into something purchasable, 20 anything that is possible, from tickets to souvenirs and entrance fees. Commodification can be seen in Happy Camp, in a slightly different manner. Due to the fact that people are continually raising standards as to what entertains them, television programs such as Happy Camp have to keep up. To do this, they rely on advertising. They put in the money to create appealing ads, and this draws in more viewers, generating greater revenue that can be used to improve the show. The new improvements further increase viewership, and when interest begins to dwindle the process repeats all over again. 21 So essentially the show is utilizing a never-ending cycle of commodification.
Last but not least, Happy Camp is connected to the Sinosphere. The Sinosphere refers to all of the areas around the world where there are Chinese populations and where Chinese culture has had an influence. 22 For example, people in Taiwan and the PRC constantly feel lonely. When Taiwanese mandopop artists started to sing about loneliness, their songs quickly became popular in not only Taiwan by the PRC as well because they were relatable. 23 Therefore, both mainland China and Taiwan are a part of the Sinosphere thanks to their connection through mandopop. Much like the transnational nature of mandopop, Happy Camp is slowly bringing Chinese variety culture around the world. It not only has a large fanbase in China, but in other parts of the world as well, whether they have been watching since it first aired, or if they started to watch it because they found out that their favorite celebrity would be guest starring. This aspect of Happy Camp allows people from all over the world to connect and relate to each other. For example, even though I on the opposite side of the planet from my cousins in China, we are close because of our shared love for Happy Camp; it gives us something to talk about. Through this spread of Happy Camp, the world’s Sinosphere is able to connect both culturally and socially.
In the end, it turns out that Chinese variety shows, and more specifically Happy Camp, has many connections to other aspects of Chinese culture. What makes this show so popular is its specific choice to target the younger generation, with its language use and well-known guests. Through this on-trend, Internet-savvy audience, the show is able to make its way around the world, entertaining variety lovers everywhere.
1 “Variety Show.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variety_show>.
2 “Variety Show: Other Countries.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variety_show#Other_countries>.
3 Chen, Xuguang. “电视综艺节目: 历史及本体特性.” 学术天地 6 (2001): 35-37. CNKI. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
4 Guo, Wei. “从《快乐大本营》主持用语看流行语及其规范化 .” 安徽文学 1 (2010): 242. CNKI. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
5 Guo, Wei. “从《快乐大本营》主持用语看流行语及其规范化 .” 安徽文学 1 (2010): 242. CNKI. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
6 Guo, Wei. “从《快乐大本营》主持用语看流行语及其规范化 .” 安徽文学 1 (2010): 243. CNKI. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
7 Ma, Linlin. “电视综艺娱乐节目: <快乐大本营> 发展之道探究.” News World 11 (2010): 77-78. CNKI. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
8 mykikiikyu6. “130406 Super Junior M on Happy Camp 快乐大本营 (full).” Youtube. 6 April 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
9 sophielfhyuk. “[Full] 130706 Happy Camp 快樂大本營 EXO.” Youtube. 6 July 2013. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
10 “Korean Wave.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Wave>.
11 Kong T.Y., Francesca. (2013, May). Does the Korean popular culture influence on Hong Kong Generation Y’s consumer behavior on fashion?. Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013, from http://www.itc.polyu.edu.hk/UserFiles/access/Files/BA/ FYP1213/14090/10619178D.pdf (pg. 32)
12 “Tudou Now Top Destination for Korean Variety Shows | Asia Rising TVAsia Rising TV.” Asia Rising TV. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://asiarisingtv.com/tudou-now-top-destination-korean-variety-shows/>.
13 “Jang Geun Suk’s Appearance on Chinese TV Draws in 350K Viewers.” Soompi. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://www.soompi.com/2012/06/18/jang-geun-suks-appearance-on-chinese-tv-draws-in-350k-viewers/#.UrL6VkQzI7B>.
14 “Lee Min Ho Continues to Rule Chinese TV Ratings.” Soompi. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://www.soompi.com/2012/01/18/lee-min-ho-number-one-in-china/#.UrL6WEQzI7B>.
15 Pavis, Patrice. 1996. “Towards a Theory of Interculturalism in Theatre?” In The Intercultural Performance Reader, 5.
16 Li, Jing. “The folkloric, the spectacular, and the institutionalized: touristifying ethnic minority dances on China’s southwest frontiers.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 10 (2013): 75. Print.
17 Li, Jing. “The folkloric, the spectacular, and the institutionalized: touristifying ethnic minority dances on China’s southwest frontiers.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 10 (2013): 75. Print.
20 Nyíri, Pál. “Two Sites And A Non-Site.” Scenic spots: Chinese tourism, the state, and cultural authority. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. 54. Print.
21 Sun, Pengbo. “从《快乐大本营》看大众传播的娱乐化.” Manager’s Journal 13 (2009): 1. CNKI. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
22 Wilcox, Emily. Lecture. November 4, 2013
23 Moskowitz, Marc L.. “Message In A Bottle: Lyrical Laments and Emotional Expression in Mandopop.” Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2010. 55. Print.
Finding Happy Camp episodes online
These videos can be found by searching “Happy Camp ___name of guest star___” on Youtube.