Before my first stand-up comedy performance in Shibuya, a performer sitting next to me told me he thought everyone should try stand-up comedy — to experience facing fear. My heart was racing in my chest and I wondered if the anxiety was worth it.
Still, I’d convinced myself discomfort is key to growth. It’s easy to feel yourself stagnating in Tokyo. I wake up in my Ikea-furnished apartment, walk to the Seven-Eleven and listen to the same set phrases from the staff. The greatest thrill of a day is sometimes the kick of the morning’s cheap convenience-store coffee.
I compare my mind-set in Tokyo to living in a sensory deprivation tank. I feel cut off and tune out from my surroundings. The likelihood of any unexpected interaction is small, and conversations too can be predicted. I notice myself adjusting to the likelihood nothing unexpected will happen and feel myself losing my edge.
There are benefits to a detached state of mind: You can become highly focused and work without interruption. I believe this is true for Japanese people as well, and a reason for the obsessive otaku interest in specific hobbies here at the cost of a varied life.
However, there’s a numbness to being surrounded by people yet disconnected, and at its worst it can feel like merely existing in the background as a ghost. I wanted something to jolt some life into my numbed mind, and I chose stand-up. I never thought of comedy as a solution, but at least it felt like something to do.
I had a notebook full of self-deprecating ideas, and I wanted to see if any of them would work in front of an audience. Luckily, there are regular stand-up comedy open mic nights in Tokyo, such as Tokyo Comedy Night in Double Tall Cafe, Shibuya (held every third Thursday of the month).
I remember the first laugh I got: “Tokyo is an amazing city, there’s so many things to do, like going to the supermarket; that’s something you can do.” Not a joke, but a transition. Compared with writing articles and short stories, I liked the immediacy of acceptance or rejection for material I’d written.
After appearing at Shibuya’s open mic, I got a spot on the Wednesday weekly comedy night at the Good Heavens British pub in Shimokitazawa, a night organized by Tokyo-based comedian B.J. Fox. The Shimokitazawa show, which is at times packed, is the most likely night to attract international talent. In 2016, famed comedians such as Hannibal Burress, Eric Andre and Stuart Goldsmith performed there.
The audiences at these nights are a mixture of expats, travelers and Japanese people looking for a different night out. It was a challenge to write material for a varied audience like that. I had some material about Japan, but if the jokes were too specific I would alienate the travelers in the audience.
When my material failed to get laughs, it was a killer of self-delusion. No, I wasn’t a hilarious negative truth-teller, I was a guy in an open mic attempting humor but receiving silence. Japan is an easy place to foster self-delusion, and a failure at comedy is like a bucket of ice water to the face.
Even as a mere open mic act the unease before a show was intense, but the anxiety was matched by the same level of relief when it was over. As an anxious person, I found it cathartic to have a specific place to direct the fear with a clear end point. This structured anxiety is preferable to fears of vague outside threats that may or may not ever become realities.
Certain notions — that fear is dimmed by repeated exposure, that waiting to be “ready” to face it will only lead to more procrastination, and that the mind needs stimulation from new experiences — all these are things that trying stand-up has brought into sharper focus.
After my conversation about the benefits of stand-up on the night of my debut, I got my number to perform: number 13, of all numbers. I saw it as a sign of things to come, and hoped the universe would reward me to balance things out.
My time to perform came. Fear pushed against my chest, my hand trembled with the mic, and I told a “joke” about waiting for women to get divorced so they’d appreciate my dark thoughts. Surprisingly to me at the time, this bit was met with stunned silence.
I went home dejected, but I wanted to get up there again. I saw this urge as not just about stand-up, but as a message to myself that I can do more than I think I can — in Japan or anywhere else.
William Bradbury is an English teacher, writer and stand-up comedian. His debut novella “Tokyo Low Life” is available at bit.ly/williambradbury. English comedy in Tokyo: www.standuptokyo.com and www.tokyocomedy.com/tokyo_comedy_store. In a rare alignment of the stars, two big British comedians will be on stage in Tokyo this week: Eddie Izzard (www.tokyocomedy.com/eddie_izzard) and Jimmy Carr (iflyer.tv/en/TokyoComedyClubJimmyCarr ClubJimmyCarr). Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion on life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org