Make’em laugh (if you can)

by Setsuko Kamiya

As with many traditional Japanese arts, aspiring owarai comedians once had to apprentice themselves to popular comedians to learn their craft.

Since around the early 1990s, however, the art of making people laugh has been formalized by comedy schools. This trend has been another boost for the owarai boom. “It’s not easy to be a star, but as long as you have the talent, the path to becoming a comedian has been made more accessible,” said comedy scholar Noboru Saijo.

Initially, only comedy production companies like Yoshimoto Kogyo, Shochiku Geino and Jinrikisha ran such schools, but now general entertainment producers have begun to recognize the business opportunities.

Tokyo Show Biz, a comedian training school, was established last year by Sun Music Planning, a major production company that manages singers and actors such as Noriko Sakai and Kane Kosugi.

Sun Music actually formed its comedian division, called Project Get, about seven years ago, and helped jump-start many popular comedians. “There’s been a rise in demand for comedians, and we’ve been building our foundations over the past few years. We’re finally at the point where we can nurture the next generation of comedians,” said Chisa Yamanouchi of Sun Music.

Applicants who pass an audition go through a year of various courses at the school, which include instruction on writing comic dialogues and skits, voice-training, and performing in front of classmates and instructors.

The highlight is performing on stage with other comedians. “Audience response at a live show is what really educates comedians,” said Tokyo Show Biz instructor Hiroyuki Oka, 46, who’s also a member of the duo Bucha Brothers.

At the end of the school year in mid June, two first-year students, Yoshitaka Hazama, 23, and “Say You” Maeda, 24, were given the opportunity to strut their stuff for two minutes at a Sun Music show in Shimokitazawa.

Hazama dressed as a monk’s apprentice and asked his invisible master rhetorical questions. Maeda did a silly flamenco flourish before each of his jokes. For the most part, their routines fell flat, with only a few chuckles from the packed house.

Later, though, during performances by Sun Music’s popular comedians, the laughter flowed easily, especially when Hiroshi, a regular on a number of TV shows, was on stage. His original routine, in which he humorously mutters to himself, in Kumamoto dialect, about his personal problems, was obviously what many people had come to hear.

Despite Hazama’s failed debut, he was fairly upbeat. “I think my seniors know what it takes to make people laugh, and I envy them,” he said. “But I also know that it took them a lot of effort to get there.”

He’ll obviously be back in class this summer. And who knows? You might see him mugging for the cameras one day. Stay tuned.