Sitting behind a desk and dressed in a loud tartan jacket and a skinny blue tie, Taiwan’s answer to Stephen Colbert has the audience eating out of his hand. “China loves to fuck us over. I don’t even know if I have an STD because China won’t let us join the [World Health Assembly].” There’s a big round of applause and Brian Tseng, the country’s bravest comedian, beams for the cameras.
The “Night Night Show”, the first American-style weekly satire show in Asia, began in August 2018 and is only in its second season. But its 28-year-old host is already a star. Social-media influencers, actors and politicians – including Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen – have sat on Tseng’s sofa. YouTube clips of the show rack up millions of views. Every weekend hundreds of 20-somethings, tapping at their smartphones and sipping boba-milk tea, queue up for the chance to catch a live recording. There’s even a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Tseng for fans to snap selfies with.
Tseng’s favourite thing to joke about is a subject no other comedian will go near: Taiwan’s complicated relationship with China. The relationship status between the two countries goes way beyond “it’s complicated”. In the seven decades since the Chinese Communist Party took power in mainland China, defeating the Nationalists, who then fled to Taiwan, the two countries have maintained an uneasy truce. Taiwan is a democratic, self-governed island with its own army, currency and passports. But the Chinese Communist Party sees Taiwan as a breakaway province. At least 1,600 ballistic missiles are pointed at the tiny island – Taiwanese residents have to take part in an annual air-raid drill so that they know what to do if China invades. China has already succeeded in eroding Taiwan’s status on the world stage: Taiwan has no official representation in the United Nations and many of its former allies have switched allegiances to China.
“China shoves more money down their cleavage than we do,” says Tseng, whose merciless mockery of Chinese tub-thumping has made him an unlikely hero. For him, comedy is a way to “tell the world what Taiwan is going through and what Taiwan is about.” But some of Tseng’s fans are on edge. “I fear that Brian will disappear,” says one of them, Jin Lin. He’s not joking. It’s not uncommon for people who speak out against China to vanish without warning. China’s political and economic machine can destroy careers and sink profits. With Hong Kong in turmoil, is it wise to be making fun of China?
Tseng doesn’t appear overly concerned. In between takes, his off-camera persona is likeably goofy. He laughs at his own jokes and fluffs his lines. “Brian just likes to emphasise those awkward moments,” says 26-year-old Wade Wang, appreciatively. But when the cameras start rolling, Tseng’s face becomes serious, his personality intense. “If you still want to remain silent while China is bullying us because you want to suck its dick, that’s fine,” he says, referring to Taiwan’s former allies. When he takes pot shots at Xi Jinping, China’s president, the audience is unsure whether to laugh or to leave. The show is “still in the Wild West right now” admits Hauer Xie, its producer.
Tseng comes from a well-off family whose house overflowed with books. When he was a child he spent seven years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father was studying at MIT and Harvard Medical School. Tseng describes himself as a “typical nerd”, the kind that reads Chinese philosophy for fun. When his family moved back to Taipei, he attended its top high school, where he got high marks. He went on to graduate from the best university in Taiwan, majoring in literature and psychology. “I always wanted to be a professor,” he says. “I thought it was normal to get a PhD.” He studied neuroscience and biology in London and Paris, getting not one but two masters’ degrees. But his real passion was comedy: he discovered his talent at high school and cultivated it during open-mic nights at university. Eventually he abandoned what might have been a cosy career in European academia to join the small world of Taiwanese stand-up.
Taiwan’s comedy scene has come a long way in recent years. During the four decades it spent under martial law, from 1949 to 1987, it was “an island of tragedy”, says Chen Sy-shyan, professor of political philosophy at National Taiwan University. “Taiwan always lacked a tradition of comedy, with no environment or culture to foster a sense of humour.” Instead, the immigrant society had “a sense of mourning and drifting, like autumn leaves falling and withering”.
Chen sees the birth of political satire as an important moment in Taiwan’s history, describing the “Night Night Show” as a “milestone”. But even though jokes about punching China in the nuts go viral, Taiwan is not a happy place. Taiwanese millennials have coined the term guidao, or Ghost Island, to refer to the country’s global isolation, economic stagnation and disappearing traditions. In addition to the usual problems – unaffordable housing and meagre wages – young people in Taiwan live with the possibility of Chinese invasion. It’s no wonder that many Taiwanese feel a sense of impending doom, or wangguogan. To a certain extent, Tseng suffers from the same malaise as his fans. “I’m dead inside,” he says. “I don’t have any emotions. I’m a nihilist. I don’t think anything has value. I don’t think there’s anything to be happy or mad about. That’s my philosophy.”
Tseng’s show is fast becoming the main source of news for young people in Taiwan, much like the “Daily Show” and the “Late Late Show” – both of which have inspired Tseng – are for many young Americans. It’s a worrying trend that Tseng admits is “terrifying”. Is he starting to accept his new-found responsibility? “As a pioneer in this industry, I feel like I have this mission,” he says, putting the word in air quotes to reassure me he knows how pompous it sounds. Tseng admits he’s not intrinsically a political animal. Rather, “I force myself to care about stuff that I naturally don’t give a shit about.” For him comedy should be as uncomplicated as possible: “My satire should be the kind that just wants to poke fun at everything. I just want to laugh.” Millions of Taiwanese people would agree.