Live, from Beijing, it's Saturday Night ... Really?

Updated: 2015-03-05 11:42

By Amy He in New York(China Daily USA)

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One of the US' most venerable comedy shows, Saturday Night Live, is headed to China for a local remake and experts say the comedy sketch program, known for its irreverent lampooning of society and culture, could do well, as long as it stays away from political satire and focuses on other forms of humor.

Beijing-based online distribution platform Sohu announced on Tuesday that it will partner with SNL to launch a Chinese version of the program, with a cast of Chinese comics and localized material appealing to Chinese audiences' tastes. Like the original, it will feature live music and comedy skits, according to a statement from Sohu.

"It's totally possible that a show like SNL could work in China, because that sort of comedy has been all around the Internet. I think criticizing the government is a potential problem, but if you want to do satire, you can make fun of many things. You can take other subjects as targets, rather than politics," said Xinghua Li, assistant professor of media studies at Babson College.

Mocking the government would cause problems with censorship, she said, but it wouldn't be a problem with audiences that are getting more and more accustomed to criticism of the government.

"SNL is not strictly just political satire - it's just sketch comedy. Satire is just one of the forms that its sketches take on," Li said. "I'm thinking about the satire that Chinese netizens are used to. The Internet has become the voice for the unspoken in mass media and therefore the Internet is full of satire."

The NBC program, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, already has versions in South Korea, Japan, Germany, Spain and Canada.

Wendy Su, media studies professor at the University of California-Riverside, said that a carbon copy of the US edition of SNL "probably won't work for China", unless the producers can find a way to negotiate between the government and the audience, something that is "not easy under the current political structure".

Beijing-based Sohu, which began streaming the US version of SNL to viewers in China in December 2013, will be producing the show. It is unclear at the moment if Lorne Michaels, creator of the original SNL, will be involved, according to a Sohu marketing representative who spoke with The New York Times. The show is set to begin airing later this year or early in 2016, the representative said.

NBC Universal, which has rights to SNL, did not respond to a request for comment.

Rob Cain, a longtime China media and film analyst, said that China has a big appetite for comedy.

"If you look at the movies that are working in China at the box office, many of them are comedies that deal with the hot sociological issues of the day. This would be a TV show that would capture that in a sketch format, and surely they have a good chance if they go after a young audience," he said.

The latest available season of the American version has garnered 36 million views online, which pales in comparison to other US programs that also stream in China, such as Netflix's House of Cards, whose first season drew close to 120 million viewers.

"The American version is very culturally specific, and a lot of times things get lost in translation," Cain said, adding that a Chinese version catering to local tastes could do better.

If SNL China does well, it will provide impetus for other American television show producers to make their own China-specific content, he said, as the country has been open to adapting foreign shows for Chinese consumption, like it has with US reality TV shows and Korean serial dramas.