Published: 17:02, March 4, 2024 | Updated: 12:58, March 5, 2024
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Universal appeal
By Li Yingxue

Reality TV comedy duo continue their mirthful and meteoric rise in acclaimed new series, Li Yingxue reports.

Stand-up comedian Zhan Xin (left) and actor Zhang Zhehua co-host the 12-episode TV series Our Parallel Universes. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hit TV shows sometimes spark spin-off reality programs, fueled by the fans' love for the actors. Stand-up comedian Zhan Xin and actor Zhang Zhehua are a special case — their popular appearance on a variety show earned them a devoted following, paving the way for the success of their future projects.

In 2022, their respective roles as young master Liu Bo and butler Long Aotian in the comedy reality show Super Sketch Show won the hearts of viewers, later leading them to clinch the title of Audience Favorite for their series Master and I. Their on-screen chemistry and comedic timing generates plenty of buzz.

This is my second time working with Zhang and my first with Zhan. After getting used to the filming environment, Zhan became really relaxed and was a lot of fun on the set.

Wang Li, director

Just last month, their latest venture, the 12-episode drama, Our Parallel Universes, aired on streaming platform iQiyi. Zhan and Zhang took on multiple roles, as each episode told a different story of chance encounters.

Reminiscent of the animated short Yao-Chinese Folktales, the series packs a punch with its succinct, quirky narratives, and has earned a solid rating of 7.3 points out of 10 on Douban.

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During the recent Spring Festival, Our Parallel Universes became a binge-worthy treat for many, attracting a fresh wave of viewers. The hashtag of "short show Our Parallel Universes" racked up a staggering 160 million views on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo, while the show's debut on Douyin earned it a spot at the top of the trending charts.

Director Wang Li says that when they began planning this series, they thought about continuing the story from the duo's performances on previous reality shows. However, they decided to create 12 entirely separate stories for them instead.

"There was always a warm feeling to their reality show appearances, so we wanted to keep that," explains Wang. "Our main goal was to tell 12 good stories with a comedic touch."

Zhang acts in an episode telling a story about schoolmates. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Filming 12 different stories was a big challenge for the team. "Each episode had its own unique setting, costumes, props and filming style. It was like making 12 small movies," Wang says.

"This is my second time working with Zhang and my first with Zhan. After getting used to the filming environment, Zhan became really relaxed and was a lot of fun on the set. His spontaneous jokes during breaks kept everyone laughing," Wang says.

"Zhang and Zhan are very talented, and both are quick learners," she adds.

Wang also says that the chemistry between the two actors often led to unexpected surprises during filming. "Sometimes, I let them keep going with their improvisation, which often sparked new ideas," she says.

For actors, tackling 12 different roles is much tougher than playing one character in a regular TV series.

Zhan (left) and Zhang discuss the script. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

For stand-up comedian Zhan, 36, who isn't from an acting background, it was an even bigger challenge.

"Stand-up comedy is about direct audience interaction, where you get instant feedback. Filming movies and TV shows, however, is quite different," Zhan explains.

"After playing one character, I had to completely switch to the next," he says. Initially nervous, he gradually relaxed as filming progressed.

Zhan also wrote an episode. It was inspired by a moment during his stand-up tour when he couldn't stop laughing on stage. "I created two silly characters without specific roles for myself and Zhang," he says.

Zhan feels that the routines he and Zhang performed on Super Sketch Show were well-received because both characters shared a certain silliness.

"On stage, we always portrayed ourselves as earnestly asking about something absurd," he adds.

Zhan plays a swordsman in one episode. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Switching between characters presented its challenges, but the film set was filled with joy. The chemistry between Zhang and Zhan, honed during their reality show experiences, shone brightly on set. The actors, who both come from Anshan, Liaoning province, consistently sparked fresh dialogue and interaction.

Zhang says the atmosphere on the production team was different compared to his previous experiences.

"Everyone, from cinematography to art direction and lighting, was deeply devoted to enhancing the story," the 30-year-old says. "The realistic set helped us, as actors, to dive deeper into our roles and performances."

Many other actors from Super Sketch Show also make guest appearances in the series, injecting more creativity into the script. "Their involvement enriched our stories," Zhang says.

Lately, familiar faces from both seasons of Super Sketch Show have been popping up frequently, entertaining audiences not only on China Central Television and local channels during the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival galas, but also in film and TV projects.

Director Wang Li. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

These most notably include the comedy film Johnny Keep Walking!, which has already raked in nearly 1.3 billion yuan ($180.6 million) at the box office, and the TV series Run, Gousheng, which has been well-received by viewers.

With years of comedy experience, Wang is thrilled to see fresh comedic talent emerging. She believes that making people laugh is no easy feat, and that exceptional comic actors are hard to come by. She says that the good ones can shine in any genre of film or television.

"Comic actors naturally exude charm and humor," Wang says.

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Facing a packed schedule due to the show's popularity, Zhan plans to continue his stand-up comedy career in the long term, and he hopes to find time to develop his stand-up routine, which is drawn from a wealth of stored materials and ideas on his phone.

"I've got plenty of material waiting to be turned into full-fledged routines," Zhan says, with a grin. "But when I do have downtime, you might just catch me playing video games."

Contact the writer at liyingxue@chinadaily.com.cn