Probably the biggest paradox of stand-up comedy is that while there are no schools of humor — no Bachelor of Laughs degree, not even a “funny” skill on Linkedin to endorse your friend for — stand-up comedians are out there in good numbers. Even in Tokyo, where speaking English can be a struggle, English-language stand-up is finding an audience.
The Tokyo expat comedy scene has grown from an occasional show here and there to a full-scale entity with workshops, open mic events for everyone who wants to try and regular showcases with international headliners. Many comics told their first jokes in Japan’s capital and advanced from being open-mic performers to traveling comedians. But, most importantly, they still make Tokyo laugh every day. Here’s a quick who’s who of some of the local scene’s key players.
BJ Fox is possibly one of Japan’s best-known of these names. Having appeared on Netflix’s “Terrace House” and NHK’s “Home Sweet Tokyo,” he made his stand-up comedy debut during a business trip to Tokyo from Singapore.
“My mother asked me if I had planned anything for my trip, and I told her I was probably about to get very drunk,” he says. “So she sent me a comprehensive list of alternative options that included yoga, shrine prayers and a comedy show. I already had the idea in my brain, and the circumstances were perfect — if I was about to die on stage no one would have known about it.”
Fox’s debut was not fatal. After his trip, he took to doing stand-up in Singapore for two years and then relocated to Tokyo in 2015, where he found a scene that allowed “a small pool of people without many shows to develop their jokes and skills.”
Fox went on to start a new event, “Stand-Up Tokyo,” and he now hosts and performs at both English and Japanese shows. Last year he enjoyed telling Japanese people that rugby reminded him of Japanese business meetings.
“Things look like they are going forward, but the ball — and the topic at hand — are typically being thrown sideways, if not backwards,” he quipped.
Fox also mentors young comedians, holds regular workshops for people who want to try stand-up and works as an ambassador for the nonprofit organization Tokyo English Lifeline.
Luana Elena Matei
A Romanian woman once diagnosed with performance anxiety, Luana Elena Matei is now a roast battle winner, host of a weekly comedy show and a mentor for female comedians making rounds on the Tokyo scene. She introduces herself with brutal honesty.
“I am from Romania. Not a stripper. Could use the money though,” she says. “Have you ever been to Romania? Like, on purpose? You should go, your wallets are probably already there.”
Matei saw her first comedy show in Tokyo while on a spontaneous Tinder date. The MC, during crowd work, asked her who was her favorite superhero. She answered, “Thor. Because he is handsome,” making her the butt of the MC’s jokes for the night.
Romania and its communist past is one of Matei’s favorite topics.
“We finally got ‘Game of Thrones’ in Romania,” she says. “In Romania, we get Western stuff a bit late, like Netflix, HBO … democracy.”
She also jokes that Romania had a part to play in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
“Let’s say we have a crisis in Romania in which 100,000 people die,” she says. “France would send us food, Germany (would send) money. And the U.K.? 100,000 Romanians.”
In searching out material and inspiration, Matei travels a lot.
“I love to go to the U.S., but I make sure to leave just before I remember what an ounce is,” she says. “Just the same as when American people going to Europe leave before they remember what a kilometer is, or what real history is. Or what real football is.”
Harry Metcalf says his goal is to be the “best gaijin in Tokyo,” which was always going to be a challenge, given the many others vying for the title, as well as the stigma associated with his job teaching English.
“People often think it’s easy to become an English teacher,” Metcalf says, with a pained look. “They think we just step off the plane and become teachers. But actually, it’s even worse than that. When I stepped off the plane, I didn’t just become an English teacher … I looked at my residence card and I realized I was also an engineer, a specialist in international services and a specialist in humanities. Which humanities? All of them! I mean, I was a moron in Australia.”
Metcalf has been delighting and confusing audiences with his deadpan wit for over four years. Although now one of the more experienced expat comics working in Tokyo, he began his comedy career with a series of failures.
“I think the first joke I did that actually worked was during a typhoon,” he says. “People were panicking about it, so I said something like, ‘This typhoon is really scary, hey? High winds and pounding rain … as a man losing his hair, this s— is terrifying.’”
While he still makes fun of himself in his routines, recently Metcalf has been turning his attention toward his fellow comics in the popular “Tokyo Roast Battle” shows.
“Doing the roasts is great,” he says. “I’m not worried about the mean stuff people say about me because I’ve made most of the same jokes about myself.”
Jon Sabay, an American comedian of Philippine origin, addresses his Tokyo audience: “The difference between an immigrant and an expat? If you ask someone, ‘Hey, why’d you move to a different country?’ and they’re all, “Ah, just because,” then they are probably an expat.”
Coming from “an immigrant family of engineers and nurses” and pursuing a degree in computer science and “really hating it,” he started hitting stand-up open mic events in Dallas, Texas, where he was “really bad.”
Sabay relocated to Japan, where one day he found himself with an issue of Metropolis magazine, which featured an improv group in Tokyo. Never having considered himself a performer before, he went to an improv workshop and hasn’t left the stage since. Tokyo’s stand-up and theater scenes soon followed.
Sabay is now one of the headlining comedians of “Stand-Up Tokyo,” a cast member with the Tokyo Comedy Store’s Improvazilla group, a writer and a director. Together with Tokyo Theater for Children, he wrote and directed a musical called “The Weirdest Kid I Know,” about an alien child living on Earth — a sci-fi metaphor for being an immigrant.
An actress, a stand-up comic, an improviser, a public speaking coach, a storyteller and a Brit, Christiane Brew brings an edgier take on life in Japan to the Tokyo comedy circuit.
“I live in Japan, the land of head massages at the hair salon and jaw massages at the dentist,” she says. “So you can imagine my disappointment when I went to the gynecologist.”
Brew got a business degree in the U.K. and worked as a project manager on resourcing for a global company. But then came the 2008 financial crisis, which she saw as an opportunity and ended up in Japan, where she found her true love — the stage.
“Working as an English teacher, I was commuting 1.5 hours to a 2-hour improv class just to not hang out with other teachers all the time,” she says. Brew went on to become a recognized stand-up comedian and the director and producer of the “Perfect Liars Club” storytelling show.
In just three years, Brew has trained 96 performers and produced more than 20 original stories. Her stage has been the first performing experience for many active comics on the Tokyo scene, to whom she always gives a piece of advice: “If it scares you, do it. Fail. Then do it again. If opportunity doesn’t present itself, then find it and make it happen.”