Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Saturday Night Live Japan!

Say what? Saturday Night Live Japan?

Yes, it’s true. As of last month, one of the longest running and most loved comedy programs in the United States — the live-to-air weekend institution that is “Saturday Night Live” — has a new, locally-produced version in Japan.

But how could a program that mixes standup-style monologues, skits and tongue-in-cheek news commentary possibly be adapted to the Japanese market? How could a Japanese version possibly hope to emulate the success of the show that launched the careers of Chevy Chase, Mike Myers and Chris Rock?

To answer these and other questions, The Japan Times is pleased to welcome to its pages superstar comedian and one of the program’s regular performers, Koji Imada! (Rapturous applause …)

OK, so we weren’t exactly able to get Imada to do an SNL-style opening monologue for us. He did, however, talk us through the differences between comedy television in Japan and the U.S. But before we get to that, first the facts about the new show.

“SNL Japan” has two regular hosts, Imada and Sanma Akashiya — the latter being the big-mouthed and bucktoothed comedian who is one of the most recognizable men on Japanese television. Working with them is an ensemble cast of 11 young comedians and actors.

Unlike the original, which is weekly, SNL Japan airs monthly, at 11:10 p.m. on the Saturday of the first full week of each month. Like the original, each episode features a different guest host who joins the regulars on stage. The guest host of the first episode, last month, was Takashi Okamura, of comedy duo Ninety-Nine. The guest on July 9 will be 25-year-old actor and musician Eiji Wentz. SNL Japan also has regular musical guests who perform live — last month, pop-crooner Ken Hirai; this month, jazz singer Juju.

The new program is the brainchild of leading entertainment-industry company Yoshimoto Kogyo, which formed a partnership with the producers of the U.S. show, Broadway Video Enterprises, in 2008.

And now we’ve got all of that out of the way, it’s back to our host, Koji Imada!

“When I first heard that they wanted to do an SNL in Japan, my reaction was, ‘How could they make it work?’ Japan doesn’t have a tradition of evening show-style television, where there is an audience and a host standing on a stage,” Imada said.

Nevertheless, he did feel an affinity with the American original. “A long time ago I watched some of the shows — the ones with Eddie Murphy and people like that,” the 45-year-old said. “Looking at the way they did skits and sometimes went out into the town to do routines made me realize how they had influenced Japanese TV.”

The skit Imada had in mind was Murphy’s legendary “White like me” sequence, where he puts on special make-up to make himself look white and then goes out into the town to discover that suddenly he is treated very differently.

Imada went on to explain that he and his fellow comedians were used to doing skits on prerecorded shows and that they were also in the habit of doing manzai (two-person comedy routines) or talk shows live-to-air. Live-to-air skits, he said, were something that hadn’t been done for a while.

“With live skits, you’re up there with several other people, so there is a nervousness associated with knowing that if someone slips up then you have to help them out,” he said.

Still, in last month’s program, Sanma, Okamura and Imada, who have worked with each other on TV for over two decades, were equal to the challenge.

The show opened with a precredits skit in which Okamura, who had in real-life been out of action for much of the preceding year due to ill-health, was in his dressing room feigning a desperate attempt to get out of doing the show with the famously talkative Sanma.

“Doctor. Hello, doctor,” he whispered into his mobile phone after Sanma stepped out of the room. “They didn’t tell me I’d be on the show with Sanma Akashiya! He’s the one you said I should avoid, isn’t he?”

By the time the show had finished, the skits had all come off well — so well, in fact, that many viewers apparently didn’t realize they were live.

“I had a people come and say, ‘You mean those skits were all live?’,” Imada reported. “Next time, I think we need to roughen them up around the edges some more.”

What clearly were live were the talk sessions. Judging from comments made on some online forums, they left a little to be desired.

“They were trying so hard to fit the talk into the SNL mold that some of the jokes bombed,” one commentator said in a Youtube video.

That criticism was probably directed at the final sequence, which was modeled on SNL’s popular “Weekend Update” segment, where comedians make cracks about recent events in the style of a newscast.

Okamura played the role of an expert analyst on the new “super cool biz” campaign (whereby air conditioning in office buildings is set to 27 degrees to reduce electricity consumption). Every time he uttered the word “hot,” his co-announcer (actress Natsuna) splashed him with a glass of water.

The segment eventually escalated awkwardly into a full-fledged water fight involving even the studio audience.

While some Japanese viewers might have interpreted this as a failed attempt at U.S.-style humor, viewers more familiar with the original show might have had a more serious complaint: that it was a missed opportunity to get some political or current affairs content into the jokes.

Asked his response to this, Imada was unapologetic.

“In Japan, the relationship between comedy and news is very different than it is in the West. In Japan, the hosts of supposedly serious nightly news programs actually make humorous asides about current affairs — people like Monta Mino and Seiji Miyane,” he pointed out. “So, if someone wants to do that kind of mix of politics and comedy, there are very prominent avenues where they can.”

He continued that most Japanese comedians, however, see direct commentary on political goings-on as being a bit obvious and “easy.”

“Japanese comedians would prefer to create their own characters, their own world, and to set those up as antitheses to the real world. That is how they make their critiques,” he said.

Thus, viewers of SNL Japan hoping for a Japanese version of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin are likely to remain disappointed.

One aspect of the new show that should not disappoint anyone is the attention given to music. Last month, Hirai performed two songs — one lasting over 4 minutes. That’s a lot considering that in recent years, industry wisdom has been that live singing tends to prompt viewers to change channels.

The other aspect of the show that won’t disappoint is the quality of the ensemble cast. It was reportedly the desire to give such comedians a new vehicle that attracted Yoshimoto to the SNL format in the first place.

Yuji Ayabe and Naoki Matayoshi (from the manzai duo Peace), Takashi Yoshimura and Kenta Tokui (from Heisei Nobushikobushi), Naomi Watanabe and the others not only make clever foils for the bigger names, but they also work well together.

Some of the credit for that chemistry must go to the Fuji TV producers who, in a programming master-stroke, gave them what amounted to an eight-month pre-SNL training run. Since October, those young comedians have hosted a separate, pre-recorded skit program called “Pikaru no Teiri” (“Picard’s Theorum”).

That show proved popular and has now been moved into the same time slot as SNL Japan — appearing on the weeks when there is no SNL. (Pikaru has the same main sponsor as SNL Japan, too — Coca Cola — and uses the same device of having the cast members perform in a skit-as-advertisement during the show.)

Many of the Pikaru skits make a point of including “foreign” characters. One staple routine sees Watanabe, who got her break by imitating singer Beyoncé back in 2008, having “American-style” arguments with Ayabe — arguments that invariably start from nothing and end with a lot of finger pointing, close-up eye-balling and repeated exhortations that the other “Shuddup!” or “Geddout!”

Watanabe played Lady Gaga in a skit in the first SNL Japan, and it is highly likely that this foreigner-imitation seam will be mined further in future episodes.

With that, SNL Japan may well achieve what would probably be the best outcome for the program: a show whose foreign roots aren’t seen as cause for slavish imitation but as fodder for new comedic riffs by some good local talent.

The next episode of “Saturday Night Live Japan” airs from 11:10 p.m. on July 9, on Fuji TV and affiliated networks.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.