If you’d gone down to Shimokitazawa that day — the Saturday before Christmas, around 3 p.m. — you’d have been sure of a big surprise. No, not a teddy bears’ picnic, though in Shimokita you never know; instead, among the usual bustling crowds of hipsters, a load of people just stopped moving. For five minutes they stood stock-still, frozen in position, seemingly impervious to the world around them. Then, as abruptly as they had stopped, they started moving again, continuing about their business as if nothing had happened.
This freeze and others like it around the world were inspired by one staged in January 2007 at New York’s Grand Central Station by ImprovEverywhere, a network of pranksters based in the Big Apple. On their Web site is posted this mission statement: “We’re big believers in ‘organized fun.’ Our missions are a fun source of entertainment for the participants (and) those who happen to see us live. We get satisfaction from coming up with an awesome idea and making it come to life. In the process we bring excitement to otherwise unexciting locales and give strangers a story they can tell for the rest of their lives. We’re out to prove that a prank doesn’t have to involve humiliation or embarrassment, it can simply be about making someone laugh, smile or stop to notice the world around them.”
While ImprovEverywhere are based in the States, there’s plenty such japery going on here in Japan. Chris Wells is a 42-year-old native of Missouri who has been involved with Tokyo Comedy Store since their first show in 1994. As well as helping to run their regular stand-up and improv shows, he also sometimes takes comedy out onto the rails.
“One of my favorite stories is the time I met comedian Cloudy Bongwater on the Yamanote Line,” he recalls. “He loudly greeted me with a carefully enunciated, textbook ‘Hello, how are you today?’ and when I responded equally carefully ‘Fine, thank you. And you?’ he replied, ‘I am doing well. What are your hobbies?’
“And we then proceeded to perform a basic English textbook conversation, allowing everyone in the carriage to actually understand two gaijin friends having a chat on the train — probably for the first and last time in their lives! You could see the comprehension in their faces, a look that said ‘Wait, I understand them!’ It was awesome. That’s what we call guerrilla theater, and Cloudy does it all the time.”
That’s no understatement, Bongwater gushes. “I’m equipped and ready all the time,” says the “around 40-something” Sydney-born comedian, a Japan resident since 1993 currently based in Tokyo. “Hey! I do five minutes when the fridge light comes on. Doing comedy and living the way I do is a good combo. I usually tend to take over the largest crowd around me with whatever means are available. Billy Shakes Beer said ‘All the world’s a stage,’ but I tend to look at it as, ‘All the world’s a prop.’ “
So, what kind of tomfoolery does he get up to?
“Instead of just sitting on a seat, I sit in the train on a hammock that rolls up into nothing and hangs off my belt ready for action. You’ll find blogs and photos by dozens of people that explain the writers’ strange encounter with a weird gaijin sitting in a swing on the train.”
“I also have a bicycle bell which, when rung loudly twice, causes mass searching from all those in earshot who are walking through the crowded train station, shopping center, platform, airport or wherever I find myself. That’s probably my favorite thing to do, as in minimum input with maximum outcome. It’s really hard to tell where the sound is coming from; I have people looking behind them who are behind me, and of course I look around as well so as to blend in. Another reason I like ringing the bell in a really crowded place is that no matter how noisy it is pre-ring, it goes deathly quiet for about two seconds post-ring. Read Pavlov’s dog.”
“Pavlov’s dog” refers to the phenomenon of conditioned response to stimuli: For example, talking about comedy in Japan should naturally bring Osaka to mind, and it will come as no surprise to learn that random silliness can also be seen on the streets there. Much of it comes courtesy of the Pirates of the Dotombori, a crew who perform regular stand-up and improv shows in Japan’s comedy capital as well as organizing pranks around the city.
“We’ve done quite a few guerrilla comedy events,” explains Pirate Kwame Alexander, 32, who hails from Ontario. “In random order, we’ve read very big newspapers on a public train; taken a large group and frozen in place in Hankyu Umeda Station; welcomed complete strangers to Kansai airport with flowers, balloons and 3-meter banners with their names on; taken a very large cell phone and talked very loudly on it; given Japanese salarymen and OLs (office ladies) high fives on a busy escalator in the morning; and had a bubble battle in front of Osaka Castle.”
The locals are known for their love of manzai, traditional Japanese double-act slapstick, but Alexander says the Pirates’ brand of comedy buccaneering also seems to go down well in Kansai.
“Generally, they get it. They have fun,” he says. “The average person is a very good sport. Welcoming strangers was fun for everyone, except one guy who didn’t have a sense of humor. The giant newspaper and giant keitai amused and annoyed bystanders in equal measure. The bubble battle was probably the most fun for all involved, I think. It was a good chance to get silly for no good reason.”
Getting silly for no good reason sounds like harmless fun but, as Bongwater explains, the reactions from the public can be as unpredictable as the pranks themselves.
“I get a mixed reaction from the locals, ranging from calling the cops on me and screaming to uncontrollable laughter. I’ve learned that if only one local is upset or offended at what I’m doing, the other people will culturally and morally have to side with that person and frown on my behavior, no matter how funny they themselves think what I’m doing is.”
Indeed, his keenness to push the envelope has also attracted the attention of the law.
“The cops know me quite well,” he says. “I wear handcuffs on my right wrist, and that does peoples’ heads in, when I board a train just before the doors close with one end undone and hanging from my wrist, while I’m panting heavily as if I’ve just escaped from custody. Once coming back from Haneda I got a call from the cops telling me to please stop doing the loose handcuff thing, as they’d just had three calls from different people about a handcuffed gaijin on the run on the monorail.”
If it gets him into trouble so often, why does he do it?
“I think it’s providing a kind of public service,” he explains. “Instead of a person going home and having nothing new to say about their day while eating their fish, rice and miso, they can go home and say ‘I saw something really strange today.’ That brightens up the family meal, I’m sure. I want people to laugh, and I think it’s a great honor to be able to make them do so.”
The Pirates have a similar philosophy.
“It’s fun, and gives us and our conspirators a chance to cut loose a bit,” says Alexander. “However, the biggest reward is knowing that we’ve brought a little light into the lives of overworked Japanese salarymen and OLs. They go through life doing the same things over and over — I know, as I was a programmer at a Japanese company until recently. We get to snap them out of it, if even for a short time. I like to imagine that we’ve caused one or two of them to question their lives and make some sort of positive change.”
For those who might be inspired to spread some such joie de vivre themselves, he stresses that these stunts are collective actions.
“It’s important that everyone involved is committed and buys in completely,” he says. “The freeze is a good example. If one or two people had broken and started moving when security had come by, it would have ruined it.”
Bongwater counsels, “A good prank is always one where nobody gets hurt, everybody laughs and nobody forgets it. My advice would be to make sure of your surroundings, understand the people of the country you’re in, and have an exit ready or, as we say in the public disturbance trade, an ‘out.’ “
“Horace wrote ‘Carpe diem’ — seize the day,” he adds. “But I think the whole day is much too large to be considered one unit of time. I say, ‘Seize the second.’ “
English teacher Peter Sidell performs regularly at Improv-a-Go-Go at The Pink Cow in Shibuya — see www.thepinkcow.com or www.tokyocomedy.com for other stand-up and improv shows in Tokyo. Cloudy Bongwater will perform monthly at The Hobgoblin in Shibuya from Thursday, March 25, with Eric Jacobsen of NHK’s “Eigo de asobo.” The Pirates’ Web site (www.piratesofthedotombori.com) has videos, information about shows in Osaka, and carries announcements of their events. And www.improveverywhere.com has lots of fun stuff. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org