It all started with a broken toilet seat.
“The Benza” is an Amazon Prime Video series about Chris (Christopher McCombs) and Kyle (Kyle Card), two Tokyo-based, Bill-and-Ted-type friends who go on an epic quest to replace their busted benza (toilet seat). Along the way, they encounter lascivious Japanese teachers, Swedish treasure hunters, deadpan ghosts and the “final benza,” a toilet seat with the power to destroy the world.
This literal toilet humor comes courtesy of McCombs, an American actor who has been a fixture on educational and variety television since he arrived in Japan in 2010. Frustrated with the lack of substantial roles for non-Japanese actors, he decided to create his own content. “The Benza,” which started out as a 14-minute short film shot in 2017, was inspired by McCombs’ real-life travails in Tokyo: getting lost in the labyrinthine Shinjuku Station, dealing with coffee shop clerks who refused to believe he could communicate in Japanese, and being clueless as to where to buy a replacement toilet seat.
“When I read the script, I thought, ‘I’ve been in every one of these situations, too. This is an opportunity to show what it’s like living in Japan using comedy,’” says Card, who is originally from Canada.
The cast of “The Benza” is made up of people from all over the world, but it was important to McCombs that they deliver their lines in Japanese.
“I wanted to show our agents and the people we work with professionally that it could be done, and that times have changed,” he says. “How do you reflect Tokyo in 2020 without somehow including foreigners in a storyline?”
“And show them communicating with each other in the same language,” adds Card.
Despite having a minuscule budget and a cast and crew that worked for free, the scrappy short film racked up awards at multiple film festivals. Services like Korea Telecom and Amazon showed interest in streaming an entire season of “The Benza” adventures, prompting McCombs and crew to create a six-episode series that premiered on Amazon Prime Video in April 2019.
The series, which is now available in dozens of countries, has continued to win awards at festivals such as the Eurasia International Monthly Film Festival and Seoul Webfest. It has also found fans far from Japan, like in Austria, where a song from the show went to No. 1 on the iTunes pop chart.
“There’s something about ‘The Benza’ that transcends culture,” says McCombs, “maybe because of how many different cultures are involved with the project, all pooling together their comedic resources.”
The latest addition to the universe of “The Benza” is “Benza English,” a spinoff that began its run on Amazon Prime Video last month. It’s a parody of Japanese educational television programs in which characters from the original “Benza” series teach viewers English-language phrases related to topics unlikely to be found on broadcast TV anytime soon, including drinking, insults and pickup lines (McCombs says the phrases on offer have been approved by a language professor for their grammatical, if not practical, value).
Like the main series, “Benza English” pokes fun at Japan and its occasionally awkward relationship with its non-Japanese population, though it just as often turns the tables. The fourth-wall-breaking characters even have some choice words for viewers who gave the original “The Benza” one-star reviews online.
Guiding viewers through the world of “Benza English” is host Kaori (Kaori Ikeda), who does her best to keep a straight face despite the chaos unfurling around her.
“We decided it would be funnier if I played the role straight, as a serious presenter trying to get these ridiculous English phrases across,” says Ikeda. She was impressed by the atmosphere on the set, where actors would rush to help set up lights or move equipment following a take. She was also impressed by the positivity to be found among the cross-cultural barbs.
“It’s a ridiculous series, but it’s not vulgar. It actually feels very pure,” says Ikeda.
“It’s a series about hope,” says Card. “It’s a story of people from all over the world working to make something together.”
McCombs is now planning new episodes of “Benza English,” two more seasons of “The Benza” and a free smartphone role-playing game featuring the cast of the series. With its streaming success, he now has major Japanese networks coming to him for advice on how to get their own programming to catch on online.
“Sure, it doesn’t have a huge budget, and you can tell sometimes, but it’s up there on Amazon being recommended next to high-budget TV shows,” says McCombs.
Not bad for a show about a toilet seat.