Filming Television with Heroes

I sat beneath the bright lights onstage in a Tianjin TV studio. My hair was blow-dried and gelled into a unnatural mesa above my head. To my left a Romanian man dressed like a vaudeville-era dandy rambled on about his time living in a forest. To my right, a blonde Russian girl tapping away on her iPhone, looking up only to glare at everyone for reasons mysterious to all.

Meet the Heroes.

Last week, I was in an episode of a Tianjin TV show discussing Xiangsheng, Chinese comedy, and laughing across cultures. The show was called “群英会”, or “Group of Heroes.” I thought describing my companions and I as “heroes” was awfully generous, but the sentiment was appreciated.

One of the fun parts about doing cultural exchange shows is getting to meet amazing people from all corners of the earth. If my story of becoming a Chinese comedian is unique, the other guests had similarly unusual stories—they were models, singers, language competition champions. Not quite heroes, but not bad either.

Performing on TV seems glamorous, and if you’ve ever had a friend who has done a TV show, you’ve seen the endless stream of selfies and stage photos. This is not just pure vanity; rather, it reflects on a surprising truth of what shooting television is like: it’s honestly quite boring.

Ninety percent of shooting a TV show is waiting.

Waiting for makeup.

Waiting for lights.

Waiting for audio.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Half an hour of edited content can take a full day to shoot and leave you surprisingly exhausted. When dressed up to the nines on a cool TV set, the selfie urge emerges even in the most highly selfie-resistant of us.

This is where these global heroes are critical. When you spend most of your time waiting, whom you wait with makes a world of difference. Good people make the whole process fun; bad people make it unbearable.

In this show we had a mix: I swapped stories with my new Romanian friend, and the Chinese Xiangsheng host was genuinely a funny guy. A French guy I met on set worked for the oldest foreign-language magazine in China, and told me a lot about the French history of satirical music. The Chinese producer and I went out for chuanr (串儿)  at night and shared a long conversation about the possibilities and challenges of incorporating improv into Chinese TV.

Balanced against these heroes was the Russian girl. Blonde Russians are a Chinese television staple and every show is willing to sacrifice an awful lot in terms of articulation and performance skill to get one on stage. On a previous TV show, I had once been tasked to joke with a Siberian girl who spoke about fifty words of Chinese. It was perhaps the one time in my TV career I was happy for the inundation of slide-whistles and bells constantly pumped into Chinese TV shows.

This Russian girl was actually better than some of the other girls I had seen on TV sets. Onstage she was fine—if aggressive. The problem was that the moment the talk show cameras turned off she didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. She spent the majority of the shoot on her phone sitting next to the assistant she had inexplicably brought along with her to the shoot, whose job was presumably to help her wait.

Her one moment coming out of her shell came when I was rehearsing a Chinese version of a song written by Flight of the Conchords. (Video at 14:30!) A New Zealand friend of mine had brought his guitar to the show, and as he strummed away, she smiled. “I used to play the guitar when I was a kid,” she told us, “but then I realized I cared more about my nails.” The Chinese TV world needs all types of heroes.

In the end, I enjoyed this show because of the challenge it presented.

To be a good talk show panelist requires quick thinking, humor, and broad knowledge about many topics. “Group of Heroes” was a chance to go off script and play around onstage. Some of these moments even made it into the show, and while I wasn’t a fan of everyone I met, I did walk away with a few more good friends on my WeChat.

Oh, and I think we might be the first to do Flight of the Conchords in Chinese.

Every show, a new milestone.


Jesse, Beijing

Jesse Appell

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