Daodao (2nd L) watches footage with other cast and crew members in Urumqi, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, June 7, 2018. (Xinhua/Wang Fei)
URUMQI, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Few people call Memettursun Memeteli by his given name. To millions across China, he is better known as Daodao, the zany lead character in an online comedy show.
Daodao's exploits in "Anar Pishti" (The Pomegranates have Ripened) are very much rooted in life in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
"Viewers in Xinjiang can relate to our sketches, while those from other parts of the country watch as they are intrigued about our remote region," said show producer Henizat Tohti.
Xinjiang locals are immensely proud of the delicious pomegranates grown in their region. Like the fruit, "Anar Pishti" was cultivated in this far-western region of China: The seeds of the show took root during a discussion among two friends.
Since the first episode was released in 2016, the show has gained something of a cult following, and it now has over 15 million followers.
The show's success was made possible, in part, by the rapid development of the Internet in China. More than 753 million Chinese access the Internet on mobile devices, and short videos have become an important format for expression. There is even a term for the online celebrities spawned from this phenomenon -- "Wanghong" or Internet stars.
The Wanghong industry is huge in China. It was worth more in 2016 than China's box office in 2015, according to CBN Data, a commercial data company affiliated with Alibaba.
Live streaming is the preferred format for many Wanghong, but the market is becoming so saturated that -- in an attempt to stand out -- many stars have been accused of releasing "sensational" videos that favor style over content.
The "Anar Pishti" team did not want "fame for fame's sake," and rather than a live streaming format, they decided on a scripted-and-edited show. They wanted their show to stand out for what people learned from it, and what better way to learn than through laughter.
Daodao grew up in a tiny village. He said his world was very small until Internet cafes began to open up around the time he was a student. Rather than news or current affairs, however, he found that he naturally gravitated toward funny videos.
"These videos showed me that the world was full of people with the same sense of humor as me! They revelled in making people laugh," he said. "I instantly knew that this was my calling -- I wanted to make people happy online."
For a spell, Daodao worked for a TV shopping channel. It was here that he met Hezreteli Yasin. The two friends bonded over a love of situation comedy and lamented that Xinjiang was poorly under presented in this niche. It was Hezreteli who suggested that they could fill this void.
And so, the character Daodao, a young Uygur from Xinjiang, was born.
Daodao is a shortened version of "Bishi Daodao," the Uygur phrase for powerful man. In the show, he is a country bumpkin, a hapless sheep herder, who can roll call his flock by name but struggles to remember what his wife is called. He clamors to speak out for his friend but less forthcoming when he is faced with a group of brawny men.
"It is the contrast between his name and his personality, and the plot reversal that makes people laugh," said Hezreteli.
Hezreteli is a natural at scripting comedy, while Daodao was born to act. This, added to their ability to identify relatable trends and memes, means the duo are the lynchpin of the production team.
In "Counting Sheep," the 30-second sketch that catapulted "Anar Pishti" to fame in August 2016, Daodao struggles to get his flock to react to him. At his wits end, he calls them by their social media handles: the sheep are instantly more responsive to their online personas.
The success of this sketch motivated the team to release the show in weekly installments. They recently commenced their fifth season, and now publish episodes daily.
The show does not have an outlandish budget, and the crew must wear many hats. Aside from acting, Daodao helps Hezreteli -- who also directs -- with the script and editing. Unarhan Seitqazy is the show's gaffer and sound recordist, and, when she is not acting alongside Daodao, Zubeydam Hasan must source all the costumes.
"'Anar Pishti' was not created by just one person, just as a pomegranate is not made of a single seed," said Daodao.
The show is multilingual, with Mandarin, Uygur, Kazakh and other dialects spoken interchangeably.
"That's how we talk in Xinjiang. It is a multi-ethnic region and we borrow terms from all our different languages. Language is not a problem. Neither is ethnicity," said Daodao.
In fact, this ethnic diversity is often a source of inspiration.
In one musical sketch, Daodao plays a street food vendor whose girlfriend leaves him for a rich man who, she says, can afford steak and spaghetti. Beside himself, Daodao turns to song: "I was your kebab, and you were my noodles. We used to such a perfect match. What happened to us?"
In the first few seconds of another episode, Superman and Spider-Man look set to go head-to-head in battle. When the camera pans-out, however, the fight turns out to be a naan-bread baking contest.
Viewers from across the country have praised "Anar Pishti" for the way it challenges stereotypes.
"I thought Xinjiang was just meadows and horses. I didn't know that the region was actually quite modern and that it had high-rise buildings and cities, too," said one netizen.
"Life in Xinjiang is not all about cows and sheep, or singing and dancing. Many people outside Xinjiang know little about life here," said Hezreteli. "It is this desire -- to educate people about this place -- that keeps us going."
As the show has become more popular the team has had to face the fact that with fame also comes great responsibility.
"Being funny is not enough," said Henizat. "So we have decided to incorporate public awareness themes." In 2017, this meant a short film about drugs, which won first prize in a national contest.
The "Anar Pishti" production crew now has 35 members. As the team has grown, so has its ambitions.
"Some people have called us 'the Xinjiang Mr. Bean.' That's okay right now but as for the future... What about 'the Xinjiang Christopher Nolan'?" said Daodao, laughing.