Appell is an American standup comedian and Chou a Chinese comedian who perform together off and on. In August, they came together again, virtually, to talk about the pandemic and how humor can bring people closer together. Their video posted on YouTube has gone viral.
Appell, who first visited China in 2010 to learn Chinese, returned two years later for a longer stay as a Fulbright scholar to study Chinese comedy. He became a student of Ding Guangquan, a wellknown maestro of Xiangsheng, traditional Chinese standup comedy in which two performers crosstalk, using humor, satire and references to what's happening in the country and around the world. Now he is a Xiangsheng artist himself.
Chou, a former teacher and journalist, is an established comedian who uses both Chinese and English in his crosstalks and has performed in China, the U.S., Ireland and Thailand.
To connect China and the West, bridging the cultural gap with laughter, Appell founded LaughBeijing, a project that shares insights into Chinese culture.
"Laughter is an amazing bridge that connects people," he says on the project website. "When people from different cultures share funny stories from high school or describe ludicrous situations from work, we open a window onto our lives, our cultures, and our values."
Appell calls laughter "a safe zone where topics that normally might cause friction can be explored and investigated respectfully."
For Chou, humor needs to be linked to culture. In an interview in 2013, he talked about different audience preferences, saying while foreign audiences are mostly interested in China and the relation between China and their home countries, Chinese audiences care more about daily lives and relationships.
During the Chinese New Year, celebrated in January this year, Appell went home to the U.S. and found himself unable to return to China due to COVID-19. He decided to "tell the story of the people… in China that Americans might not be able to see," so that "people could get a real sense of what was going on."
During a coronavirus charity standup in February, Appell made a video to show “what Chinese people were doing when staying home” to American audiences.
"They were not just being indoors doing nothing," he explained. "People in China were staying home to keep themselves healthy and they were staying home to keep the country healthy but they were also keeping you healthy… So I want to give a round of applause to all these people for staying indoors."
He said he was struck by how the Chinese, who were "in an unimaginably horrible situation," were focusing on "ways to keep a good sense of humor and get through it."
Though he is in the U.S., Appell says his heart is split in both the U.S. and China. While trying to connect these places with comedy, he felt "I’m walking this path alone and the path is getting narrower and narrower."
Then he talked with Chou and realized he was not alone: "Whether it is another standup or a business person, or Chinese exchange students in America, there are a lot of people in the middle. So when I walk next to Tony, and those others walk besides us, as we walk it together"”
So he teamed up with Chou again, resulting in the August video. The two comedians hope their performance will make people see beyond American prejudice and stereotypes about China in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.