Spotlight on stand-up comedian He Fangzhou

He Fangzhou is introduced by the MC at Ottawa Yuk Yuks Club. It’s a Wednesday night and he is one of the weekend acts appearing from Thursday to Saturday at the popular downtown club.  Fangzhou arrived in town earlier in the day and has happily agreed to do a short extra set as the ballots are counted to find out who will win that night’s Mike MacDonald Comedy Competition, the annual Festival to pick Ottawa’s best up and coming comic. The winner will compete in a national event later this year. MacDonald was the legendary Ottawa comedian, a Brookfield high grad whose brilliant material, wit and performances made him a revered and loved comic across throughout Canada and the United States.  In 2013 MacDonald underwent a   liver transplant operation and returned to performing, which he continued until his passing in 2018.

Fangzhou knows of MacDonald and was thrilled to be able to do a set to honour his legacy. His deadpan delivery is killer and his subtle references of his Chinese ethnicity and how it sometimes plays with Canadians who think all Asians all look the same is an immediate hit with the audience. His clever twist on the subject becomes a key part of his set. Big laughs all around. Fangzhou’s friendly and disarming demeanor is a softer but very effective contrast to some of the earlier acts. Applause dictates if you’re a hit or not in comedy…and he’s a hit…at least in Ottawa. Watch out…Thunder Bay, Sue Saint Marie, Toronto and Winnipeg because he is coming your way!

Fangzhou is on a summer trek across the great white North spreading humour and Chinese culture through his stand-up comedy. He’s been interested in comedy since he was a kid. At school, in China, he was able to practice stand-up comedy, which he says is different than Canadian comedy. Chinese comedians are all clean in their material, so I am influenced by that. Respect is highly valued in Chinese culture, so I incorporate this into my act -“I’m very respectful-but that can be funny. It is different in North America so I am observing this and learning from it too, he says”.  He says his Chinese culture and background influence material.

He says one thing that is the same here as in China is that a comedy career is not something often encouraged as a profession. Most parents prefer their kids to study to become doctors or lawyers or have a trade. Fangzhou says he was lucky because his parents were “surprisingly, supportive. They used to work with foreign companies, and were very open minded about other career paths. They were not restricting about what I would do.”

He is travelling from one city to the next via a combination of Greyhound bus, air and even hitchhiking. “People tell me that [hitchhiking] is a part of the culture and a great way to experience different cities and different people,” says Fangzhou. You really get to know this Canada closely by doing this he says with a lighthearted laugh. He has accommodation figured out too, saying “Apart from the hitchhiking, I couch surf, which is staying with friends, using their couch,”

For Fangzhou, hitchhiking and couch surfing are part of the culture of the comedy business. It is a lonesome (but not lonely) craft travelling from province to province to perform stand-up comedy at a different venue each week. Generally, Fangzhou will spend four to five days in each city or town he visits. He wishes he could stay in one place for a longer period of time but, by doing so; he will lose the opportunities for performing more acts. “During the day, I spend most of my time traveling to the next venue”, he says. “At this point, when I don’t perform, I travel to the next city. I travel with people a lot, and I am forced to make conversation so, I get a lot of practice from that. I am a people person. I always like to talk to people on the street and that's how I practice for my upcoming shows,” explains Fangzhou.

Performing stand-up comedy can be difficult, especially when English is not your first language. He says it can cause a challenge as you have to make sure people understand what you are saying. Speaking English as a second language in stand-up comedy can also be positive.

“I talk through a different perspective and because English is a second language, I understand things differently than others,” says Fangzhou. This helps in making his acts unique compared to others.

Fangzhou has performed with Yuk Yuk’s, a Canadian Comedy Club, over the past two years. “Yuk Yuk’s was the club I started with years ago, and I really appreciate their opportunities they gave me during those two years. They always bring me back, that am very nice of them,” says Fangzhou.

A comedian’s reality is that it comes with plenty of challenges: low wages, constant travelling and long hours. But for those who love the art of comedy, these challenges are worth the sacrifice.

“You need to travel a lot, which can be a challenge. You have to be okay with the low pay in the foreseeable future. The environment includes a lot of alcohol and smoking, so if you’re physically not okay, it's very difficult. Now that marijuana is legal, there are a lot of shows happening at marijuana launches, because they provide a lot of stage time. If you’re not ok with that, then you’re in trouble,” Fangzhou explains the environment comedians are forced to enter.

Friendship is also a huge part of comedy culture. Most comedians stay with friends when travelling, in turn meeting friends of friends. Fangzhou explains how he has formed friendships with others, in most provinces across Canada, which gives him a sense of community.

His next stop: Sault Ste. Marie.