An Iraqi-American comedian stands onstage in Tokyo and tells the crowd how her lack of Japanese has led her to play “pick and pray” when ordering in restaurants: pointing at the ubiquitous food photos and hoping for the best. “I’m a Muslim so I don’t eat pork,” says Reem Edan. “But, erm, now I do,” she adds to a burst of laughter. “People are like, ‘what does it taste like?’ and I’m like, ‘infidelicious.'”
While Edan’s take on an outsider’s experience in Japan has its own slant, it plays well in a small but vibrant stand-up scene that gives foreign residents a chance to share stories and laughs about life here, often alongside curious locals.
It is “a very forgiving scene” for comedians, says Hager B, who runs Stand-Up Tokyo with fellow comic Alex Camp. The duo say this is partly due to the polite and respectful local culture rubbing off on the expat community, which Hager estimates makes up at least 90 percent of their audiences. “In places like London or New York, people are like, ‘I know comedy, impress me, make me laugh,'” says Camp, who is British and goes by the stage name C-Dogg. “People are more chilled out here. It’s not like America where everyone is shouting and doing whatever they want.”
Stand-Up Tokyo — which Hager describes as “a collective of comedians” — supports regular nights across the city and helps bring over well-known international comics. “There are different showrunners but they all fall under the same umbrella,” says Hager, who was born in Egypt and raised in the Netherlands.
Los Angeles-based Edan, who has played at legendary U.S. venues the Comedy Store, Laugh Factory and Gotham as well as in Berlin and Amsterdam, says performing in Tokyo and Osaka was “on-par” with the States and Europe. “The audiences were some of the best I’ve had, and I was surprised to see that there were both expats and native Japanese speakers laughing along,” she says.
She also notes the way comics in Japan supported each other, for example by openly laughing at each other’s jokes — which she describes as a “refreshing” change to the “cutthroat” LA scene, where comedians “sometimes acknowledge a great joke by silently thinking how it was better than theirs.”
Edan headlined on April 4 at Stand-Up Tokyo’s flagship event held every Wednesday at Good Heavens, a British-themed pub in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood.
She warmed up by performing at an open mic night called Get on the Mic! that Stand-Up Tokyo started staging last year, due to demand from comics, every Monday at Titans craft beer bar in Otsuka.
Accommodating up to 16 comedians, who can book a slot up to 15 minutes before it starts, the night is a testing ground where established performers such as Edan can try out new material and budding comics can make their first steps. One such rookie is Fergal Daly, who was performing for just the second time on April 16.
“Years ago I was really interested in stand-up but never had the courage to do it,” says the Irishman, who works for an internet company in Tokyo. “It’s such a supportive crowd here. It’s still really nerve-wracking, but I felt I could get up in front of these people and that they were really sympathetic to people making an effort.”
Camp had kicked the night off by declaring, “We have four Japanese comedians tonight, we’re squeezing them in like a rush-hour train.”
First up was local comic Ryo Wakabayashi, who was dressed in a traditional Japanese hakama robe and opened his routine by saying, deadpan, “I always wanted to be a samurai,” but abandoned the idea as he could not stand the idea of sticking a knife in his belly.
Another homegrown participant pointed out the close similarity in the pronunciation, and sometime the reality, of the Japanese words for husband and prisoner.
There were semi-serious moments, too, such as when comedians told of when they have received unwanted attention from local police because they are immigrants. And in the best traditions of stand-up, there were jokes that sailed close to the wind. As Camp says, “Comedy is about pushing the envelope and surprising people.”
Evans Musoka from Kenya told the audience he always wanted to be African-American because they are cool, “not like white Americans.” He joked that he could never pass himself off as African-American in the U.S. or U.K., but in Japan he has more success.
William Bradbury has an altogether dryer, more British sense of humor. Like many of the comedians, his main source of income is teaching English, and he said: “I tell my students, ‘Do not copy. That is pointless. You have to paste as well.'”
“You can play in front of 70 to 100 people here and there’s no way someone doing comedy for as long as me would get that chance as quickly elsewhere,” says the Englishman, who has been performing for two years. “You can get in front of a lot of people very quickly as there is not a lot of competition.”
While the open mic night can be an opportunity for foreign comedians to vent their frustrations at life in Japan, Hager says they strive to keep the vibe positive. “We don’t want to encourage people to slag off the country, but at the same time the motto is ‘as long as it’s funny.’ It has to be funny,” she says.
Stand-Up Tokyo also puts on a monthly show called Okomedyaki that features non-Japanese comedians doing the usual Western-style observational, confessional stand-up, but in Japanese. “The audience really like that style of comedy but can’t find it by Japanese performers in Japanese,” Hager says.
But most of what happens under the collective’s umbrella is about bringing together a disparate group of foreign residents who share a passion for laughing, often at the expense of their own cultures.
As Hager said in her set that closed the open mic night, “My parents pray five times a day. I like to drink five times a day.”
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