Saturday Night Live: US satire comes to China – but will the government see the funny side?


A popular online video site is bringing the irreverent, topical humour of Saturday Night Live to China.

The late-night US comedy sketch show that regularly mocks politicians, popular culture and celebrities is being shown exclusively on the website of Sohu Video. But in China where criticism of leaders is censored, many are wondering how much of the show they will be allowed to see.

The NBC network show has been a comedy proving ground since its inception with Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell among its cast over the years. Many of its original sketches and musical performances have been made into movies, including the 1992 hit Wayne’s World, or gone viral online.

The show has featured China on occasion, including a sketch of a press conference with then Chinese President Hu Jintao berating President Barack Obama over the national debt. But Sohu Chairman and CEO Charles Zhang said he didn’t expect the show’s edgy themes to get them into trouble in China.

“Things that are controversial in America are probably not controversial in China,” he said. “And this talk show is in the spirit of fun and humour. I don’t think there will be any problem.” Chinese films and TV shows are routinely censored to prevent criticism of leaders or socially sensitive content, including sexually suggestive humor. SNL often tests those boundaries.

Ten episodes from the current 39th season of SNL are available now. Future episodes will be available online without subtitles the Monday after airing in the US, and a version with Chinese subtitles and explanations of cultural references will be available at 10pm the following Saturday, Sohu Video said on Thursday.

Mr Zhang said the show, if popular in China, could inspire Chinese companies to produce shows with similar formats, although content was another matter. “It’s a different political setting,” he said at a news conference, also attended by American stand-up comedian Joe Wong and Beijing-born TV host and musician Kelly Cha. Sohu Video’s site, like many other Chinese online video sites, licenses many hit US TV shows alongside Japanese animation series, Chinese variety shows and in-house programmes. Sohu’s early US programmes were Lost and The Big Bang Theory, and last year it obtained the exclusive online broadcast rights for the second season of hit reality show The Voice of China, which had 2 billion video views, claims the company.

China’s government restricts foreign access to the country’s television audience and bars most of its cable operators from carrying foreign channels. Online video provides more access for foreign productions.

Unlike a few years ago, most of the Western TV shows and movies found on Chinese websites today are licensed, although pirated content still exists. Zhang welcomed an announcement this week from a government agency labelling China’s largest search engine, Baidu Inc., and software company QVOD the top two copyright violators last year. The National Copyright Administration of China fined both firms 250,000 yuan ($40,000). They had linked to websites hosting infringed content.