China: Among urban auds, satire takes hold as laffers challenge dramas

SHANGHAI — Comedy shows — in particular those with a satirical spin — are all the rage in China, especially with younger, savvier urban audiences.

The Mainland has a rich comic tradition, but satire and parody are not part of mainstream TV programming. Costume dramas set in mythical or historical times have dominated content for a decade or more, and still rate highly with older audiences.

For teen and twentysomething urban auds, however, the old staples are starting to seem bland. Increasingly sophisticated TV commercials aimed at just this demographic, which often play off pop culture references, are having an influence. And pirated comedic U.S. and U.K. fare such as “Desperate Housewives” and “The Office” sells like hotcakes in the country’s pirate DVD stores (but get no play on legit TV).

The trend found its local poster boy recently in Hu Ge, a 31-year-old Shanghai-based multimedia editor, who put together a 20-minute online parody of Chen Kaige’s film “The Promise.” The short film, which featured redubbed scenes from the original and was entitled “The Steamed Bun Murder,” was hugely popular with China’s increasingly free-minded netizens, before it was reportedly threatened with legal action.

In a sign that satire has finally hit the mainstream, Central China Television’s drama channel recently found a hit in “Untold Kungfu Tales.” Designed to look like a traditional costume drama, the show features quirky anachronistic modern dialogue.

For the national broadcaster, it represented a risk, and local media reported that early viewing figures were low. Now, however, it’s one of the biggest shows on TV, has taken in more than 50 million yuan ($6.2 million) in ad revenue, and is syndicated across the country.

The other big trend of the past year has been the return of the Korean TV series. Hunan TV, which last year mined a rich new content vein with “Super Girls,” an “American Idol”-style talent show, has struck gold again with Korean series “Da Changjing.” The 80-episode series is based on the story of Jang-geum, the first and only woman to work as head physician to the king in heavily patriarchal social structure of the Joseon Dynasty.

1. “A Lifetime of Misplaced Love,” STV

2. “The Nine Phoenix Family,” BTV

3. “The Gateau Affairs,” TVB Jade