Apolitical Chinese version of ‘Saturday Night Live’ breaks 100 million views in debut

Society & Culture

The first episode of the Chinese version of Saturday Night Live (周六夜现场 zhōu liù yè xiànchǎng) debuted on June 23 with more than 100 million views on Youku (full episode here, though paywalled). It retained recognizable elements from the original American version; the opening, for instance, will look familiar, as actress Kitty Zhang 张雨绮 (movies include The MermaidLegend of the Demon Cat) walked out on a red carpet — and cracked several jokes about said carpet — before introducing the show’s permanent hosts, Michael Chen 陈赫 (IPartment) and Yue Yunpeng 岳云鹏 (Buddies in India).

CORRECTION: Kitty Zhang’s appearance was in Episode 2. (We’ve also swapped the link above to the proper debut episode.)

But while user reviews on the streaming platform have skewed generally positive, not everyone seems to be happy with the localized version of the iconic late-night variety show. One commenter on Zhihu — on this otherwise enthusiastic review written by an audience member — called the format “stale,” pointing out that internet users who have already seen the American version might not care for the formula of cold open followed by skits followed by Weekend Update followed by musical guest.

Other comments include, “In this country, there’s basically no way to replicate what makes the original good,” “I hadn’t heard of the original and was looking forward to this, but I was greatly disappointed — I was expecting a score of 80 and think they barely scored 40,” and, “The most unbearable aspect was, they changed Weekend Update into a crosstalk segment????”

The original Weekend Update, of course, is a sketch that parodies current events.

One of the biggest obstacles in adapting Saturday Night Live for a Chinese audience is China’s draconian censorship system. In the past few years, China’s administration has ratcheted up its supervision of online content. Regulation of online media has been varied and expansive, ranging from the “body searching” of mobile games for violence and obscenity to the shuttering of jokes app Neihan Duanzi (内涵段子) for vulgar content. China also doesn’t take too kindly to mockery of its political figures in foreign talk shows, either. Last month, John Oliver’s name became a banned term on Weibo after Oliver did a hard-hitting segment on Xi Jinping in a Last Week Tonight episode. His show, as well as other shows from HBO, was also blocked in China.

Xi Jinping and China get the John Oliver treatment

Media outlet Yulezibenlun has pointed out that while the Korean version of Saturday Night Live skirted issues of censorship by opting for a late-night rating for more mature audiences, the Chinese version went with a different tack. Political satire, a defining feature of the original show, is largely absent from Youku’s SNL because of the government’s increased oversight of media content. Last year, Behind the Headlines (锵锵三人行 qiāng qiāng sān rén xíng), a popular talk show that discussed political and social issues, was canceled as part of the government’s concerted efforts to suppress dissent and potentially negative opinions.

It would seem that the producers of the Chinese version of SNL will be careful to toe the line to avoid a similar fate. Instead of skewering politics, the producers have stated they’re using issues in young people’s professional and personal lives as well as entertainment news and sports as creative fodder. One of the topics, for instance, that the show has grappled with in its first few episodes is gender inequality. It has also drawn on the World Cup for humor. While it’s hard to imagine an iteration of Saturday Night Live without political bite, the show’s 242 million total views (including clips, etc.) would seem to suggest that there’s still an audience in China willing to embrace a defanged version. The question is how long the creators will be able draw on material that is fresh and relevant.