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Wannabe comics find their voices in Tokyo

by Peter Sidell

“Everyone likes a laugh now and then, right?”

So says Chris Wells, and he should know: He’s one of the movers and shakers behind Tokyo’s lively English-language comedy scene.

In bars and cafes around the city, you can watch live standup and improv (think “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” on stage in front of you) performed by seasoned professionals. Not only that: Tokyo Comedy Store also runs a couple of beginners’ open-mic nights, allowing would-be comics the opportunity to try their gags out on real, live audiences.

That’s what John McBride did. A high school teacher from England living in Kanagawa, he took the plunge last year to live up to his own bravado.

“I’ve always loved standup,” he explains. “I saw an advertisement for the Tokyo Comedy Store open-mic night, so I went along by myself to watch. I thought ‘I could do that’ and told my friends I would do it the following month. Once I said I would do it I couldn’t back down in front of my friends who all wanted to come and watch, even though I really wanted to drop out!”

Another recent arrival on the scene is proofreader and translator Jay Hoare, who was also drawn to the comedy scene by the desire to perform, though in a more roundabout way.

“The performer in me really came out when I took a job at an English conversation school and had to teach kids from the age of 1 — seriously — to 11,’ says Hoare, also from England. “Dealing with kids that young, who don’t really have a strong grasp on their own language, let alone a second one, you have to be more physical, use bigger gestures, change your voice and so on, which strangely inspired me.

“Once I left that job I started to miss performing and became obsessed with the idea of performing in Japanese. Eventually, my lack of Japanese speaking ability and lack of patience made me realize that it’d take years before I could actually perform anything on stage that wasn’t just based on my having a ‘funny’ accent.

“Panicking about my future, I wrote an e-mail to my friends and family telling them I wanted to be a comedian but didn’t know what to do. I got incredibly positive responses back and amongst them was a Web site address — www.tokyocomedy.com — which led me to two things: Dave Gutteridge, who organizes standup nights in Tokyo, and an improv class in Azabu-juban.”

Originally from Canada, Gutteridge has been involved with Tokyo Comedy Store since shortly after it started in 1994, and for almost 10 years has been running the TCS Cynics shows, where you can see sets by professional standup comics after a brief open-mic session.

“There are of course ups and downs,” he says. “Not so much with the audience; if we have a stable venue we tend to build up an audience. Wherever we’ve performed, we’ve always built up a following to the point where people can’t get in the door.

“The hardest part is finding venues to perform at. Unfortunately, in Tokyo, venues tend to come and go, so we tend to lose shows despite our success because the venue closes.”

As well as standup shows in Tokyo, there’s Improv-a-Go-Go, a monthly improv night held at The Pink Cow in Shibuya for fledgling performers such as Jasmine Ngan, a corporate English instructor from Toronto.

“I found out about IAGG through an article I read by a guy who crossed the line from observing to taking part,” she recalls. “He was an English teacher, but in his first show he forgot his ABC!”

So what’s it like to have crossed the line herself?

“It feels great!” she says. “I can’t believe I just watched for six months before joining in. You get to spend an hour or two of your day not being yourself, or being a series of someone elses, depending on the games. It’s a lot better being a participant than being in the audience; you get more out of it.

“For me, it’s stress relief! It’s like an escape from reality. You get to explore different sides of yourself . Improv is all on the spot. You have to think on your feet.”

Wells, an American, points out that improv is not a “foreigners only” gig: TCS also runs a weekly Japanese-language improv show, as well as workshops.

“Improv really opens up the creativity and expressivity of anyone, and it’s especially striking to see its effect on Japanese people, who as we all know have a sort of — ahem — highly structured society.”

Budding improvisers should bear in mind a couple of IAGG ground rules. First, to guard against a descent into chaos and disorder, performers are only allowed one drink before going on stage. Second, they are required to have had at least some training, such as one session at the Azabu-juban improv class.

“That’s a good place to start,” says Wells, who runs the class. “You can read improv books, but since it’s a group activity, there’s no substitute for a workshop.”

“I really enjoy improv — it’s free-style mountain climbing for the brain, and still exciting after all these years,” explains Wells. “I also enjoy creating a space for the foreign community to come together, both onstage and off, and I get to meet interesting people I otherwise wouldn’t have. Our cast members range from actors and narrators to engineers and NHK television writers. Our audience comes from the English-speaking expat community, and is very wide-ranging, from fresh-off-the-boat nama-gaijin to 20-year veteran expats.”

Ah, yes, the audiences, eternal bane of the new standup . . . or are they?

“Audiences in Japan can be kind of tame compared with other locations,” says Gutteridge. “Heckling is rarer, but it does happen. In Tokyo, when you’re not doing well on stage, the audience tends to be agonizingly quiet, as opposed to making comments. That’s true for both foreign and Japanese audiences.”

Hoare has found the audiences markedly different at the two venues he has performed at: TCS Cynics at The Hobgoblin in Shibuya, and a beginners’ open-mic night at Ben’s Cafe in Takadanobaba.

“The Hobgoblin usually has a lot more energy to it, perhaps because it’s a bigger venue and more people are there to drink and make merry. This also means that there are a few more hecklers, but they’re usually just excited to be seeing some comedy live.

“The Ben’s Cafe gig is built to be a sort of ‘experimental’ night, what with it being solely an open-mic night, so it’s pretty chilled.

“Or at least it should be. At one gig I did, my parents came to watch, as did my sort-of-girlfriend who doesn’t speak English. Also, there was my best friend and his girlfriend. Then, to make matters worse, most of my friends and peers from the improv class turned up. So what was originally supposed to be a casual gig where I could try out a few one-liners turned out to be an everyone-I-know-and- respect gathering. Pressure overload to say the least.

“I did two sets that night. The first went down well enough, but the second . . . well, let’s just say it was embarrassing and I practically ran off stage when I’d clawed my way to the end.”

The excruciating on-stage “death” is something McBride has also suffered through.

“The second time I performed it went really well. The audience were very receptive and I thought I had it cracked. So the third performance I wrote what I considered my most edgy material, and I died on my arse. That was a bit of a weird feeling, dying the first time, but what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. Everyone dies on stage at some point, and I actually look back on it as a relatively positive experience.”

This reflects what seems to be a general attitude of positivity among the organizers and performers.

“The members of TCS have long since realized we’re more successful working together than apart, so we support each other and try to help each other get better,” says Gutteridge. “The standups in Tokyo are all willing and able to try and help new performers make their acts funnier, which is not something you get everywhere.”

Hoare agrees. “My sempais have been kind enough to provide me with their thoughts on my performance. However, what I’m learning to do, as I gain more experience, is to pick and choose what advice I should listen to, because at the end of the day I’m the only one who can create my own style.”

McBride also stresses the importance of finding your own voice.

“My advice for anybody wanting to do it would be, ‘Just do it,’ ” he says. “Be your own person. You can watch all your famous comedians and try to emulate them but it will come across as a bit false. You have to develop your own style.”

Wells’ advice for aspiring standups is to read “The Comedy Bible” by Judy Carter. “It takes you through a process of jotting down your ideas on a daily basis and finding the part of your personality from which to create your onstage persona. When you have three minutes ready, you can do open mic at a Cynics show.”

So if you do dive in and take to the stage, what are the rewards?

“I always enjoy making my friends laugh, and the buzz from making a roomful of people laugh is very addictive,” says McBride. “But to be honest, the writing process is the thing I derive most pleasure from. Writing comedy and thinking of gags gives me a chance to exercise my imagination.”

For Hoare, getting into comedy was a game-changer.

“Besides the obvious answer of a whole lot of enjoyment, standup has given me a sense of purpose in my life. It took me a while to get the confidence but, when I finally admitted to my family, friends and myself that I wanted to stand up in front of people and make them laugh, it was like standing on the world’s stage and saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Sorry to keep you waiting! It is now time to present you with . . . me!’ “

English teacher Peter Sidell performs regularly at Improv-a-Go-Go, having now learned the alphabet. Details of Tokyo Comedy Store shows and classes can be found at www.tokyocomedy.com; Improv-a-Go-Go information at www.thepinkcow.com. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp