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A funny way to fortune

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2016-04-03 14:58

Venture capital is constantly scouting for new opportunities, and a budding comedienne whose cottage industry of producing and posting video clips of one-woman sketches has proven that a laughing matter can be serious business

I had never heard of Papi Sauce until the news broke that she had got an infusion of 12 million yuan ($1.85 million; 1.65 million euros) in venture capital. Reports put her value at 300 million yuan.

Papi Sauce is the online handle of Jiang Yilei, a 29-year-old graduate student at the Central Academy of Drama. She has produced, starred in and released dozens of short videos in which she plays a variety of characters and lampoons things like dating rituals.

A funny way to fortune

On Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, she has amassed 6 million followers; Youku has registered a total of 26 million views for 31 of her skits; many of her videos have got millions of clicks and thousands of praiseful messages, including WeChat rewards that range from 2 to 166 yuan, from thousands of admirers.

And Jiang's star emerged just in October, which means it took only half a year to mint what many are calling "the first Internet celebrity of 2016". In Chinese, "sauce" is a homonym of "Jiang", her surname.

What distinguishes her from other Internet starlets - who, by the way, are mushrooming all over cyberspace - is her comedic thrust.

Although she touts herself as "a combination of beauty and talent", it is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and is part of her comedic persona. She is studying to be a director at the famed school, and without the talent part she may not be able to stand out in a large crowd of oval-shaped faces.

A funny way to fortune

Others who use video to achieve fame or notoriety tend to be bombshells or peddlers of beauty tips or computer-game know-how. Some verge on striptease and other forms of titillation or profit from offline trades of suspicious services.

As a comedienne, Jiang has great potential.

Comedy has a huge market in China. Yet platforms for it have shifted, which has been disorienting for both artists and fans. Crosstalk, or xiangsheng, a two-person standup routine, peaked in the 1980s. Its biggest personalities maintain their hold on public imagination only through television variety shows, especially big galas like the one on China Central Television for Lunar New Year's Eve. Comedy clubs have never caught on, even though Guo Degang had a hugely profitable business that served as a training ground for up-and-comers.

Sketch comedy is also part of the TV variety show. It rarely develops into sitcoms, which is a new thing and heavily influenced by American shows like Friends and The Big Bang Theory.

However, sketch shows, which have popped up online in recent years, are much shorter and raunchier than the TV versions and with a sensibility closely tuned to the young demographic.

Dapeng, a host-turned-entertainer at Sohu, is behind two such Internet-only shows. They are more fully developed than Jiang's video skits and feature better production values. But they generally adopt a male perspective in their satire.

Dapeng parlayed his online fame into a blockbuster movie, The Pancake Man, last summer, entering the higher-profile and more lucrative arena of film comedy. Most of China's domestic films are either comedy or have a strong dose of comedy.

For example, all three major releases for this year's Lunar New Year holiday - Mermaid, The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas to Macau 3 - were designed to elicit waves of laughter. While China's comedy films are not sophisticated, their enviable return on investment has drawn a phalanx of money men and talent.

It seems to be much more difficult to create a television series with comedy as the main selling point. In the 20-plus years since the sitcom was introduced to China, only a few have stood out. And it's definitely not for the lack of trying because sitcoms require very little in production cost.

Finding the writing talent who can churn out an assembly line of jokes and gags sounds much easier than it actually is. Part of the reason is the culture of sharing jokes, even among professionals, without giving credit or compensation. The best jokes are often passed from cellphone to cellphone, with no attention to copyrights or loyalties. Even cash-earning shows would simply lift material without a hint of guilt.

Into this scene of chaotic and constant realignment came Papi Sauce, a professionally trained entertainer with a wicked sense of humor and a solid grounding in the culture of her generation.

There have been much better developed comedic formats on which her skits are based, but her material does not miss a beat, as most TV sketches do, when it comes to taking the pulse of the day.

When singles of an awkward age were to go home and face the pressure of marriage, Jiang came up with this punch line: "A: Why do Americans not ban weapons? B: It's none of our business. And why don't I get married? You ask. Because it's none of your business."

New technologies have thrown a monkey wrench into the machine that creates products of entertainment and mint new stars.

In the old days, stars like Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi broke out by appearing in prestigious - and widely watched - movies. Later, television showed its prowess in familiarizing unknown faces to the whole nation.

In recent years, the star-making power has been shifted to, or is at least shared by, online platforms, which easily attract tens of millions of viewers.

While the hierarchy of big-is-better has not been demolished, the small screen of the computer and mobile gadget cannot be ignored any more. With every killer app comes its ingenious user.

The blog had Xu Jinglei, whose star was on the wane when she started posting chicken soup. The queen of Sina Weibo is Yao Chen, who was on an upward trajectory even without her socially conscious posts that made her a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

But grassroots personalities who rise from the bottom all the way to the top have not appeared yet. Most will have their 15 minutes of fame, then get pushed to the sideline and replaced by a new crop that represents new platforms.

It remains to be seen whether big capital can elevate a comedy newcomer like Jiang to a sustainable level of creativity and profitability.

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 A funny way to fortune

Papi sauce plays a variety of characters in her videos. Screenshot by China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 04/01/2016 page22)

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