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NBC and Youku Combine to Launch Chinese “Saturday Night Live” this Weekend

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There are comedy sketches, celebrity guests, and mock music videos, but the new Chinese version of Saturday Night Live will diverge from its NBC counterpart in several key ways when it airs this Saturday on video streaming giant Youku.

NBC Universal inked a deal with Youku back in April 2017 to make China the latest in a long line of countries to get its own version of the Lorne Michaels-created TV show. It was initially supposed to launch in autumn last year, but delays pushed the first episode’s airing back to June 23.

Hosted by two male comedians — Chen He and Yue Yunpeng — the first episode will feature pop star Zhang Jie as the main guest, something we know in part because of the teaser clips already available on Youku, which suggest the show has been pre-recorded. It seems unlikely that Chen, Yue, and Zhang will therefore be shouting, “And live from Shanghai… it’s Saturday Night!” as part of a cold open.

Other aspects of the iconic American TV show that we’re not expecting to be replicated include the political caricatures that have been at the heart of its recent renaissance in the States. An official blurb for the show — which will stream a new episode every Saturday at 6pm for the next 10 weeks — announces that,

The program will combine the topics that today’s young people are paying most attention to, to create the most relaxing hour of leisure time every weekend.

Yet against the backdrop of the ongoing campaign to remove “vulgar content” from China’s media platforms, it seems the show will be playing things decidedly safe. Admittedly, we’re yet to see a full episode but judging by the preview clips available on Youku so far the show will be serving up jokes about eating crayfish and football, rather than anything that might land themselves in hot water or see the show sent off air. The sketches also appear largely male-dominated and hew to some fairly traditional formats.

That’s not to say SNL China won’t be popular. A mock music video featuring the comedians delivering alternative lyrics about being unable to lose weight to an old hit by pop star Xue Zhiqian racked up hundreds of thousands of views in just a few hours when it was released as a teaser this past weekend. The rating for the show on its Youku landing page is already at 9.2 out of 10, despite not having aired a full episode yet.

It’s also not to say that all social commentary will be a risk for the series. Avant-garde director Meng Jinghui’s stage show Two Dogs, albeit operating in a different cultural space, continues to run in theaters in China to this day, having used its open format and dark comedy to explore a plethora of social issues since its first performance back in 2007. And the American version of SNL does stream in China seemingly without censorship, though of course it’s one thing to make jokes about Trump and another to make them about the occupants of Zhongnanhai.

It remains to be seen whether SNL China will attempt anything risqué or simply occupy a place on the lighter end of China’s light entertainment spectrum, though our money is on the latter. You can find the show on Youku under 周六夜现场 from 6pm on Saturday, but it’s probably best not to get your hopes up for an Alec Baldwin cameo.

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Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.