Production Diary #1 – Writing a Chinese Sitcom

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Note: The image above is from the popular Chinese sitcom, iPartment. It has recently been accused of stealing jokes and scenarios from both Friends and How I Met Your Mother. We will not be doing that >_>

Yeah, you read that right, I’m lead writer in a team working to put together a Chinese sitcom. More than that – I’m also one of the star characters.

Ten years ago when I received my Bachelor of Arts with a major in theatre, I never once dreamed I’d ever have the chance to be in a genuine television show. And I certainly never anticipated that the show would be being filmed and aired halfway around the world in China.

Hell, I didn’t think I’d ever even live here.

Recruited

How does a humble ESL teacher/travel blogger become involved in a Chinese sitcom? Well, that’s a long and not very interesting story. Suffice to say, a friend saw a post on a Nanjing expat website and suggested another friend and I get in touch about doing some extra work.

Heading to our meeting with the producer at Blue Sky, we had no idea we’d take on such crucial roles in the entire process. Over beers with Tian, the man behind last year’s hotly debated web-series, Nexpats, we began to realize that he had something entirely more ambitious in mind than a series with low production values and a cast made up of people with no real experience in acting.

Above: The trailer for the original Nexpats. You can see Nexpats episode one here.

As we talked, it became clear that Tian had set his sights high. We weren’t making some crummy web series. We weren’t even aiming so low as to compare ourselves to a basic cable series. No, Tian likened what he had in mind to How I Met Your Mother or Friends, but for a Chinese audience?

Did I think it was possible? Not on your life.

Do I think it might be possible now? I’m starting to think success isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

The Premise

Like all successful sitcoms, the series focuses on the lives of some relatively ordinary people. And unlike the overly serious (and often melodramatic) tone of last year’s Nexpats, this one aimed at being a funny and engaging show about expat life in China, or more specifically, in Nanjing.

Let’s meet the cast:

  • Marcus: A 28 year old Englishman who came to China in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics and hasn’t really left. He works an unsatisfying teaching job beneath an oppressing boss and where he shares office space with Cherry, Obama, and Cindy. As of late, he has begun questioning whether it is time to return to the real world.
  • Cindy: Marcus’ 26 year old Chinese girlfriend. Like Marcus, she feels the pressure to become a ‘grown up’ and has begun to push Marcus for more commitment than their largely clandestine affair.
  • Obama: Marcus’ Chinese roommate. A man-child obsessed with American culture, he believes he and Marcus to be better friends than they actually are.
  • Cherry: Marcus’ co-worker and a girl who showers him with unrequited attention. Aggressive and sometimes downright psychotic, she’s determined to make Marcus hers at any cost.
  • William: Marcus’ oldest friend in China. A 29 year old Australian who quit the teaching life to cross over into business in Shanghai. A womanizing, arrogant, and often offensive lout – he does have a soft spot that he keeps buried underneath a magnificent ginger beard and a gruff exterior.
  • Natalie: A 25 year old American student studying Chinese traditional medicine. She is naive, bullish, and often overwhelmed by just how different China is to what she had expected. Prone to trusting what she reads over what she experiences, she ends up in embarassing situations entirely too often for her liking.
  • Aaron: Natalie’s 26 year old American boyfriend. It’s never quite clear what Aaron does for money, but he does have a steady stream of random jobs. A man with a laid back demeanor and an odd sense of humor, he and Natalie couldn’t be less alike.
Chinese sitcom cast
Myself (William) and Kara (Natalie) long before we knew we’d be co-stars

At this point only the ‘white’ roles have been cast. I will (if it weren’t already obvious) play William while my friends Hoggie and Kara will play Marcus and Natalie respectively. Barron, the only survivor from the original Nexpats cast, is commuting from Shanghai to participate in filming. If you’ve watched the trailer above, he’s the larger guy pictured. Very funny guy and a talented actor.

The Writing Process for a Chinese Sitcom

Fairly early on, it became evident that we weren’t just going to be acting. Nor was our input going to be limited to simply suggesting a few common foreigner ‘mix-ups’ to base scenes around.

No, we three would be the lead writers on the entire show. And if you had the misfortune of reading the cliche riddled and comedy lacking original script, you’d better understand just how much work it looked like it was going to be.

But the biggest challenge (bigger than the prospect of writing six episodes from scratch) was writing a Chinese sitcom that would be funny to us as Westerners, but also accessible to a Chinese audience. That challenge remains the biggest hurdle we face every time we sit down to write – even two months on.

Six episodes are done and we’re now working on a seventh and final one. We’ve explored common foreigner issues such as racism, miscommunication at work, pressure from ‘the real world’, the risks of traveling abroad with a partner, dating the Chinese, making friends in China, and language barrier. I’m pleased to say that only one episode ends without me having bedded at least one nubile Chinese girl.

And that was the episode I wrote.

Womanizing Australian
I ask you, does this look like the face of a womanizing jerk?
Don’t answer that!

What’s our process? Kara, Hoggie, and I regularly get together to brainstorm ideas and bounce jokes off of one another. Combining an Australian’s often crude sense of humor with an Englishman’s love of the surreal & absurd and an American’s love of convention hasn’t been easy, nor has been working to ensure our jokes are both accessible and inoffensive for a Chinese audience.

When an episode is complete, it’s passed on to Tian who reviews the plot and generally picks it apart. A meeting is held and Melanie (our production assistant) joins us in brow-beating Tian into submission when his ideas are bad. When they’re good, they’re taken down and we try and find a way to work them into the script.

Occasionally, our production company chimes in. And that leads us to…

Production Headaches and Miscommunication

We’ve only met our production team (Dream Street) once and it was an unmitigated disaster. Nobody on their staff speaks or reads English, and nobody on our cast/writing team speaks or reads Chinese.

What ensued was the most awkward two hours of my life. The foreign crew huddled on a couch and were occasionally instructed (through an interpreter) to stand up and ‘act out’ the unfinished script. We would then be criticized for not using the imaginary props or knowing the script (which was not one we’d written) off by heart.

On our end, we quickly became frustrated with being largely ignored as the Chinese in attendance talked amongst themselves and we were left out of the process.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed a somewhat frosty relationship with the people who will be directing and filming the show. And the biggest issue?

The Casting Process for a Chinese Sitcom

While Kara, Hoggie, and I seemed to land our roles in the show by default – Barron was brought back on board after being the sole genuinely talented member of the Nexpats cast. But since bringing together the foreign contingent before my US trip, no progress has been made on casting the Chinese cast members despite our continued requests.

With filming on episode one supposed to be in the can before Kara heads to Europe on September 18th, we’ve still yet to meet a single member of the Chinese cast. When you consider one of them needs to look like they’re comfortable dating a foreigner and another (Obama) is supposed to be my character’s bestest bud, you can see why we might want to spend some time building a rapport with our co-stars.

But it’s more than that. The biggest frustration we’re having as writers is that we’re creating these amusing characters (Obama is the show’s comic foil and Cherry isn’t far behind) – we have no idea whether the actors exist to pull off the roles. It’s not just having an understanding of English – it’s going to require genuine comedic timing.

And as somebody who landed a good many HDs (high distinctions) as an actor in comedic roles, I can tell you that comedy is not as easy as reading funny lines from a bit of paper. Don’t let Jerry Seinfeld convince you otherwise.

We’re around three weeks from the proposed wrap for episode one’s shooting, and we’re short a cast, locations, and a shooting schedule. To say it’s seeming a little disorganized is an understatement and I feel bad that Tian has to hear our worries because he’s our line to the production company.

But when/where can I see it? (And what’s it called?

The name, at this point, remains a mystery. The schools of thought are split between Tian and we Western writer folk. We’re still battling to come up with something mutually pleasing. Care to help?

  • Go East
  • Lost in Transit
  • Chinatown Bus
  • This is China (TIC)
  • Be Gentle, I’m Oriental
  • When in China

Any of those grab your attention?

As soon as I know, you best believe I’ll be sharing it on my YouTube channel and letting you all know. The tentative filming schedule has/had us finishing our pilot by September 18th and filming the other six episodes in time for a December release. We’d then begin work on season two writing for a Spring Festival (Jan/Feb 2013) shooting schedule.

Between the pilot and filming the remainder of the season, we’ll be doing the rounds with the media. I’m talking newspapers, local magazines, TV, and even being wined and dined should things get off and running in good order. And you best believe they’ll all be receiving Aussie on the Road business cards…

Stay Tuned

So there’s the story so far. We’ve got seven (I think) funny episodes, half a cast, and big dreams. Hopefully you’ll all get to see them realized.

Hopefully, this show launches me from teacher/travel blogger to teacher/travel blogger/mega-star in China. That’d be nice.

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11 comments

  1. Depending on how much disservice you feel you’d be doing to the name you’d be ripping off, “Journey to the East” could at least resonate with the Chinese audience. Count me in for wanting to see it when it’d done!

  2. Awesome. If you need more media contacts, I know people in show biz in Shanghai in Beijing — one guy hosts shows for the international tv channel and the other owns her own theatre company. Both speak fluent Chinese now too as a result of all their work I believe!

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