Jokes, free speech, and race: a UFV prof tries stand-up comedy

Amateur stand-up comedy is not always funny, Sumin Fang has learned. But it's a good way to share your perspective, talk about big topics, and learn about lives other than your own.

By Grace Giesbrecht | December 16, 2022 |5:00 am

Curiosity about how to best reach her undergraduate students led Dr. Sumin Fang on a search for funny. So she started attending the Fraser Valley Comedy Club’s open mic nights, where amateurs stand up on stage and try their material.

Fang is an assistant professor of communications at the University of the Fraser Valley and has studied and worked in China, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

In setting foot on the stand-up scene, Fang started to see humour as a tool not just for teaching, but for communicating different, sometimes-uncomfortable stories about race and gender outside the classroom. And, while sharing her experience of the world, she got to hear the experiences of others.

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FVC: When did you decide to try stand-up comedy? Was there a moment you remember saying “I want to do that?” 

I was teaching undergraduate courses in communication. I was wondering, ‘What kind of professors do students prefer?’ Because if I know what kind of persona and profile they prefer, then probably I can make my lectures more attractive to them. [Students] told me that they prefer someone who’s humorous—when sitting in his or her lectures is like sitting in a comedy show. You love to laugh, and then you easily pick up difficult concepts…Then I realized, ‘Oh, maybe humor is a pedagogy—is a good way to help me deliver my content.

FVC: When did you first try performing stand-up and telling jokes outside of the classroom?

A friend’s friend told me about an open mic for amateur comedians in Abbotsford.

Usually, you get about five to ten minutes to try your jokes. So I tried to think of a few. I went there three or four times, to watch other people’s jokes. And some were very good. Some were not as good—and I especially appreciated those not-so-good jokes, because they gave me courage. Like, ‘Oh, okay, if it’s not so good, it’s not funny, you still can try it out. Why not? So I performed in September.

The atmosphere at amateur events, Fang said, is usually very supportive. 📸 submitted.
The atmosphere at amateur events, Fang said, is usually very supportive. 📸 submitted.

FVC: There’s funny, and then there’s fun— What do you enjoy about stand-up comedy?

I think I want to get my stories out. Recently, I had lunch with a few male friends. And they asked about racism in Abbotsford. So I told them about my real-life experience of racist remarks at the park around Mill Lake. One of my friends was shocked, because he goes there every day. And he said, ‘No, like, that’s like my home yard.’ He couldn’t believe this. He asked me again and again. So I told him that this wasn’t the only time it had happened. I actually transformed those encounters into jokes in my script.

I realized… that a lot of [women’s] encounters, our life challenges, or potential risks are totally ignored by the other, the opposite, sex. They don’t have to face it, or haven’t faced it, until we women stand up and share our stories.

Comfortable spaces to share those experiences are in short supply, Fang said. Like using humour as a teaching tool in the classroom, Fang realized telling jokes from a comedy stage is also a method for sharing her experience of the world as a woman of colour.

Sometimes, it’s hard to share a serious story, like at lunch, when everybody’s relaxed. And suddenly, if I brought up a story about racism when nobody asked about it and nobody invited me to talk about it, it might be inappropriate. It might be too serious. Whereas when people go to see a comedy show, it will be totally fine to share my experiences. It’s especially important for minority women’s voices to be heard. So I think it’s a good way for me to share those stories.

FVC: So, it can make serious experiences more easy to share about? Does it help connect others with similar experiences as well? 

I have worked with one professor for a long time and we never talked about racism. Until one day, I rehearsed with her and told her about this experience. And then she said ‘Oh, me, too! You’re not alone. I encountered that too.” And then I felt relief.

That has also been the case in more public settings, Fang explained.

There was a Christmas party for all the university employees and professors on campus. I volunteered to be the emcee, and I shared the same story. And then another Chinese-Canadian woman approached me and she said that she can relate to my stories. These jokes can make people feel that they’re not alone.

Fang volunteered to emcee a faculty holiday party. 📸 submitted.
Fang volunteered to emcee a faculty holiday party. 📸 submitted.

FVC: What have you learned about humour and making people laugh over these last few months? 

What I learned is that expectations are important. Because humour is outside of people’s expectations. People expect Asian women to be obedient and gentle. And then I tell them that I want to practice kung fu and show them that I’m outspoken. I stand up on stage to tell my stories. I dare to volunteer to be an emcee at the Christmas party. We want to break people’s expectations: that’s what makes humour.

FVC: Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself?

Absolutely. Before performing, I would definitely think that I’m a very serious person. I seldom smiled, if I recall. Like, yesterday, my colleague and very good friend said, ‘I think you’re a very serious professor.’ I didn’t know I would be able to tell jokes.

Still, my jokes aren’t always funny. Yesterday, at the Christmas party with 100 people in the audience, I didn’t hear a lot of laughs. But I think that as long as I’m trying, I’ll put myself out there. It’s already a brave thing to break the stereotypes about Asian females.

Fang previously attended and performed with the Fraser Valley Comedy Club, which has stopped holding amateur nights and other events while it plans to relocate.

FVC: Do you plan to go back when the club starts holding amateur nights again?

Yeah, I think it’s worth pursuing because writing and performing jokes is very challenging. And it’s rewarding to see people’s laughter when they get my jokes.

FVC: Is there something that you would tell a young person who is just kind of poking their toe in the water of amateur comedy? Is there something you’d like to tell them?

I will repeat the slogan of the Chinese comedy competition: “Everyone can perform a five-minute set.” It’s a super-empowering slogan.

Because, first of all, we need people from diverse backgrounds to gather together to share their perspectives and experiences. For example [at the Fraser Valley Comedy Club open mic] I got to hear experiences from a gym instructor, from a cashier at Walmart, from a truck driver, from a drug addict, from university administrators and professors, and from bartenders.

My social networks are very tied to my university life. And I think my colleagues are very likely a group of people that share a lot of common values— often liberal values, like concern for climate change, minorities, indigenous rights, women’s rights. [Comedy] is like going to the marketplace of free ideas. People from different backgrounds come to share their experiences. It definitely opens my mind about how other people will process and think about things.

Fang said it’s also usually a supportive place. 

The environment among comedians and the audience is very encouraging. So I perform my jokes, then [the host] and other professional comedians pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘that was a great job. Keep doing this, keep revising. That was great!’ It gave me a lot of encouragement.

Fang, though, also saw boundaries crossed that made her more uncomfortable than a learning experience elsewhere would warrant. In one case, a female comedian performed a set where she roasted other male comedians. At the next event, when she wasn’t there, a man stood up to roast her back.

As I said, it’s a market of free ideas. I also observed once how some people attacked a female comedian. It was only once, even though I went there so many times…the male comedian went up on stage. And he called her names, and then said something like ‘whoever fucks her is a loser, he’s an idiot.’ Like he was saying that she is so bad that nobody wants to have sex with her. Basically, that was the gist of his jokes. I didn’t find it funny.

Fang’s academic training kicked in as she watched his performance.

From my education I felt like, ‘Okay, so this means this man uses sex as a reward to women. So if this woman is not likeable, we will not give you sex. Whoever among us straight men who gives her sex will be dispelled from us.’

I found this argument crossed the boundary a little bit. But I won’t tell you that I was angry. I thought, instead, that jokes sometimes are a little bit offensive. Sometimes they say things that you wouldn’t say on other public occasions. If I want to hear politically correct discourses, I would withdraw and go back to my university settings…

The point of going out of my box to the market of free ideas is to get myself exposed to all kinds of ideas. This may include inappropriate jokes that I feel uncomfortable with….when I heard the sexist attack on the female comedian, I realized that it’s important for women to stand up to share our stories. There are already so few female comedians. Otherwise, our voices will be just buried. Our experience, how we feel, will be ignored. I feel like people from diverse backgrounds and at different life stages can and should share their story with the audience.

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Grace Giesbrecht

Grace Giesbrecht is a reporter with the Fraser Valley Current

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