Think “pirates” and you probably imagine frightening sword-wielding thieves with eye patches, but the members of comedy troupe Pirates of Tokyo Bay are anything but intimidating. In fact, these swashbucklers are on a mission to get people laughing, regardless of their native tongue.
Formed by American Mike Staffa with the aim of popularizing Western-style improvisation in Japan, the Pirates, who claim to be Tokyo’s only bilingual comedy group, have been bridging cultures through humor since 2010.
Comprised of both Japanese and non-Japanese members, the Pirates churn out unique improvised performances for each show based on suggestions from the audience. Much like on the popular U.K. and U.S. improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the comedians create scenes, characters and songs on the spot in the form of improv games.
So, in Japan, where comedy styles like manzai (double-act stand-up) are dominant, what motivated the Pirates to attempt to blaze a trail for improv in Tokyo?
“We want to make people feel free to share their thoughts,” says Staffa, 34. “In improv, the audience has to give feedback, and maybe that isn’t really the Japanese style, but we think it’s a fun style that people will eventually warm up to.”
Unlike other improv groups in Japan that use only English or Japanese, the Pirates alternate between the languages in their performances in a bid to keep both the Japanese- and English-speaking parts of the audience engaged.
“The kind of improv we do is short-form, so these are three- to five-minute scenes,” he explains. “How we balance it is we’ll do one three-minute scene only in Japanese and then the next scene will be only in English. We also have pantomime and gibberish games that have no language — that is another way we communicate with the audience, and it doesn’t matter what language since there is no language.”
“The singing games too,” chimes in Masahito Kawahata, 30, a Japanese member who joined the troupe in its early days. “You may not understand fully, but you can still enjoy the music and the beat.”
Translating the comedy simultaneously would slow everything down and kill the comedy, reckons Staffa. “We try to feel the audience’s heartbeat,” he says.
The Pirates have already performed in a number of cities across the rest of Asia. The performers study the culture beforehand so that they can localize their performances and connect with the foreign audience, Staffa says.
A third of the performers are Japanese, but Staffa says he would like to see more of the locals pick up the mic and try their hand at improv, to the point where the Japanese Pirates reach parity in numbers with their non-Japanese crewmates.
“I want to get maybe half,” he says. “That would really show that we’re gonna stay here in Japan for a long time.”
The group sees a valuable role for improv skills beyond just making people laugh.
“We’re starting to do more business training for Japanese companies,” says Staffa. “To do improv you have to trust your teammates, you have to think quickly, you have to adapt. So we really want to grow in that field — of not just being comedians on stage, but bringing improv skills into businesses.”
Staffa also hopes to establish the Pirates as the go-to guys for improv in Japan.
“We want to be the first phone call when Western comedy groups come to Japan,” he says. “I want to build the Pirates and get more brand awareness that we specialize mainly in improv. My goal in five years is to really be known as the Japanese improv group.”
Their upcoming show promises to be their biggest yet, as the Pirates of Tokyo Bay celebrate their first five years in the business. On the night, Staffa says the audience can expect celebrity “appearances” (on a big screen) by American and Japanese YouTube stars, who will assign improv challenges. The 5th Anniversary Show will be held on Sunday, Nov. 29, at Super Deluxe, Roppongi.