On Stand-Up Comedy - My New York Research on Performing Arts


Wu Yandan (also known as nunu kong) is an independent choreographer, performance artist, dance producer, and curator based in Shanghai. In 2004, Wu graduated from the pioneering modern dance class at Beijing Dance Academy foounded by ACC Fellow Yang Meiqi. Wu established "brand nu Dance" in 2007, which is one of the few platforms for cultural exchange in the field of independent dance in China. She is the 2007 recipient of the Doen Foundation grant (Netherlands), and the 2008 recipient of the Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation Award for Cultural Talent. In 2014, nunu received the ACC Cai Fellowship to travel to the U.S. and explore new possibilities in the performing arts. Her explorations led her to a surprising medium that is entirely new to her: stand-up comedy.


As my 6-month long art research in New York went on, I discovered the medium of stand-up comedy, a type of performance that I haven’t been too familiar with in my 20 years of experience in the performing arts. I mean, I have had a lot of experience with all kinds of stages and all types of performances, but none of them are anything like this. Stand-up comedy looks like nothing fancy, but the truth is, it is super magical and bloody challenging!

The magical part is: it is a stage! The challenging part is: I am dealing with a totally different type of audience here. This audience is not here to turn off their mobile phones, sit back, be quiet, and watch bodies move in space for an hour before they clap at the end of the show. This audience requires you to be present, as they are. This might sound simple, but I am talking about being a performer behind that microphone… it’s tough, because your audience will let you know within 30 seconds if they like you or not. By saying that, it means that the audience is here to scrutinize you from head to toe, and they are expecting you to be good, and you need to meet that standard, that definition of GOOD. So each comedian is a performer on the wire, ready to fail but still pushing forward.

My first stand-up comedy performance ever was at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club on the 30th of January this year. When I heard the master of ceremony say: “Making her debut, please welcome…” and then I heard my name…OMG! I haven’t felt that kind of nerves for a long time, but that nervousness was so fresh that it gave me a new type of energy, which is super concentrated and a fully focused type of attention. I have learned something from this kind of nervousness. As my teacher once told me: “Nerves are a great gift for a performer. Apart from the energy that it provides for you, remember: anytime you are directly in touch with your feelings, you are in good shape.”

So here I am, holding my microphone…but what’s my job?

“Tell us a joke!”

Well first of all, I don’t. That’s not my job here.

A perfect joke has one (big) laugh at the end, which can take a minute or two, or even longer, to get there. When it is like how it is in a party, when we’re gathered in a circle and someone tells a joke, that would be perfectly fine. But a stand-up comedy audience does not expect to wait a minute or two or even three minutes in between laughs. They expect it to happen much quicker than that. Their ears have been trained over years of listening to stand-up. They expect you to speak the language of stand-up comedy, and it is a kind of language of its own. Proficiency in this language means that you should be getting upwards of four laughs per minute. Punch it! As quick as you can.

Secondly, what are my chances for successfully presenting myself as a performer on a stand-up comedy stage?

The key to success is ORIGINALITY. I know that that is something that might take a lifetime to discover, and it is the key to everything in the world of performing arts.

What are the most important things that I have learned from stand-up?

Number one: Comedy isn’t all about laughs. Being funny is WORK.

Comedy is a crucible for performance. One can work for years on a routing (let’s say from five minutes to an hour) and use only a small part of it. For example, I worked for days for one piece of my material and my teacher looked at it and chose only two lines of material from my two pages of writing. Two lines!!! What a life. Being ‘Funny’ is about not settling until you’ve nailed it.

Number two: I believe that one of the reasons why we have created so many different kinds of art forms is to enable different ways of expressing ourselves. Comedy is one of the very special art forms, and has its own way of expressing emotions and feelings. Behind all those laughs is our attitudes towards our lives and our observations on it.

As a performing artist, my confidence won’t last forever if I do not continue to work on it. Moving forward, I have to never stop learning something new. By doing this, I allow myself to start again from zero, over and over again. I see this as a way of taking myself from being a performing artist to becoming a great performing artist.