Zhou Libo’s distinctly Shanghai shtick

Zhou Libo is an impeccably dressed comedian.

His typical uniform, a black sport coat accented with a red handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket, looks just right as the 42-year-old comedian bursts onstage to the “James Bond” theme song, laser lights flashing and smoke machine on full blast.

“Everyone needs a theme song,” he explained onstage this year, clutching a fake gun, staring through sunglasses at an adoring audience packed into Shanghai’s Majestic Theater.

Zhou is Shanghai’s homegrown rock star. Born and raised here, he began his career with a local comedy troupe before taking the stage on his own. His routines are filled with local humor and performed mainly in “Shanghainese” -- a local dialect with only a passing resemblance to Mandarin.

Zhou’s choice of language has given him flexibility that most Mandarin-speaking comedians don’t have because authorities in Beijing don’t speak the dialect, and until now his limited audience has meant limited official interest.

Despite his Shanghainese, Zhou is gaining national fame. Fans scoop up his DVDs and buy tickets to his shows months in advance, responding to Zhou’s dedication to the city of his birth and his willingness to speak frankly on topics as varied as Shanghai’s storied past and the antics of China’s top leaders.

“From the small, like the common people, to the big, like Obama, I’ll talk about it all,” said Zhou, facing reporters at a Shanghai hotel last month. That Shanghainese is understood by only a fraction of China’s 1.3 billion people probably helps keep him out of trouble, because Zhou is practiced at making fun of leaders who, generally, don’t take ridicule well.

“He has an uncanny ability to poke fun at all the present-day problems in China and the world,” said Adam Schokora, founder of NeochaEdge, a Chinese culture and trend-spotting consultancy. “This is not easy to do well in China.”

In one of his most famous skits, the comedian does an impersonation of China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, with arched eyebrows and slow, high-pitched speech. “Wen Jiabao is my favorite government leader,” Zhou declares, just before launching into his routine -- an impression of Wen at the scene of a natural disaster.

“Premier Wen finds the dirtiest person available to shake hands with,” Zhou says, and then turns to his audience, eyebrows high, face serene. He slowly mimes a handshake. “My friend,” he says in his slow, reedy Wen Jiabao voice, “we have come too late.”

Though Zhou says no one is safe from parody, he does tread carefully.

“I respect the leaders,” he said at last month’s news conference. “I’m not making fun of them; I’m making fun of the whole world.”

Zhou has coined the term “Haipai Qingkou,” or “Shanghai-style clean talk,” to describe what he does. His style strays from traditional Chinese comedy, or “cross-talk,” which features two performers playing off each other. Haipai Qingkou is performed solo, and the jokes, delivered deadpan, emphasize Shanghai-specific stories.

In particular, Zhou loves to talk about how things have changed since the 1970s, touching on the poverty in Shanghai’s past and covering topics that, until now, have been discussed mainly with embarrassment.

“He’s talking about my generation and the generation before me,” said Fish Zhou, a Shanghainese graphic designer who was born in the 1980s. “Some of his jokes are about things I can remember, and others are about the history of Shanghai, things I would like to learn.”

Zhou’s love of his hometown is emblematic of a city embracing its own personality, unique in China. As cities such as Shanghai become more affluent, they are becoming more confident in their identities. Many are revisiting local culture, and dialects are gaining a sheen of hipness. There also is more money to help support grass-roots performers.

Zhou is not the only one to have benefited. Other popular comedians, such as Guo Degang and Xiao Shenyang in northern China, have also relied on local audiences to build their national reputations.

Zhou’s success in Shanghai is so great that he has turned down offers to perform at the annual Spring Festival Gala in Beijing, a television event famous for launching performers to national stardom.

“Zhou Libo will rarely leave Shanghai,” he said, slipping into the third person. “If I leave Shanghai, it’s basically the same as leaving the country.”

This regionalism has not escaped criticism. Zhou has been accused in the Chinese press of driving a wedge between Shanghai and the rest of China. With the use of dialects on the rise, the central government has taken steps to limit their spread. China’s broadcasting watchdog released a statement this summer demanding that dramas and children’s shows be in Mandarin. News and TV presenters are required to pass tests on Mandarin pronunciation.

Zhou isn’t deterred, however. “A language’s development and extinction can’t be controlled by the government.”

The comedian also has other media to rely on; his popularity has been aided by the Internet and, as more people purchase cars, radio. With his DVD sales, a new live show and a new dictionary of funny Shanghainese words, Zhou is doing fine.

“Shanghai culture and language will change,” he said. “But there will always be something to talk about.”

Hilgers is a special correspondent.