Aiming to become the first-ever Japanese cast member of Saturday Night Live is a tough enough challenge for a young stand-up comedian trying to make it big in the United States.

It’s even tougher when a global pandemic comes along.

“I was doing at least 10 shows a week, mainly at comedy clubs in Chicago,” says Saku Yanagawa, a 28-year-old stand-up comedian from Nara Prefecture who has been performing in English in the U.S. and other countries since 2014.

“I also tour a lot, and I was supposed to do showcases in 20 states,” he says. “I was going to headline the North Carolina Comedy Festival in March. Then I lost all my jobs.”

Yanagawa has never shied away from hard work. A former high school baseball star and Osaka University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in literature specializing in theater and music, he took his first steps into comedy after watching a TV show about Rio Koike, a Japanese stand-up comedian who had found some success performing in English in New York.

Yanagawa contacted Koike on Facebook, and the very next day he jumped on a plane to New York to meet him. Once there, Yanagawa went around Manhattan’s comedy clubs and asked for a chance to perform. When he had been granted his wish and made his first audience laugh, he decided to move to Chicago, a city known for its comedy scene. There, he honed his craft, going on to make a name for himself at renowned comedy clubs such as Laugh Factory, The Second City and Zanies.

Yanagawa’s comedy career has since taken him all around the U.S. and to more than 10 different countries, including a 2017 tour of Africa to perform in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. Despite the trail he has blazed for Japanese comedians overseas so far, however, nothing could prepare him for the impact of COVID-19.

Yanagawa was in Chicago when news of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, was first reported in January. As the virus started to spread around the world and U.S. President Donald Trump began referring to it as the “Chinese virus,” Yanagawa felt the mood change on the streets of the Windy City.

“When I walked down the street, I finally understood racism,” he says. “I had never experienced racism against Asians. When I first went to America, I sneezed on the street and even strangers said ‘bless you.’ I was like, ‘Wow, they’re nice. That never happens in Japan.’ But in February, when I sneezed on the street, people said ‘f— you’ to me. Then I was like, ‘Wow, it’s a time of division in America.’”

Yanagawa says he was subjected to racist abuse “at least once a week” around February and March, whether it came in the form of people shouting at him on the street or refusing to sit next to him on the subway. At times, he even had to deal with it on stage.

“When I got up on stage in February, a drunk man said ‘hey, corona!’ or something like that,” says Yanagawa. “But he was drinking Heineken, so I called the waiter and told him, ‘Bring three Coronas for him.’ I have to deal with that because people need the comedian to deal with the situation. Sometimes it’s so hard, but I have to do something.”

Yanagawa soon found that he would have to deal with more problems than just hecklers. On March 15, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all bars and restaurants in the state would close to prevent the spread of the virus, before issuing a “stay-at-home” order less than a week later.

With all his shows canceled and unable to even leave his apartment other than to go shopping for groceries, Yanagawa had time to reflect on what he wanted to achieve in his career.

“As a comedian, corona gave me a chance to think about what I really want to do,” he says. “I realized that I became a standup comedian because I wanted my point of view to reach American audiences and make them laugh even though they have different opinions. If I can’t do it right now because of corona, I can find another way. Corona gave me a chance to think about what I really want.”

Make ‘em laugh: Saku Yanagawa has made a name for himself at comedy hot spots in Chicago such as Laugh Factory, The Second City and Zanies. | COURTESY OF SAKU YANAGAWA
Make ‘em laugh: Saku Yanagawa has made a name for himself at comedy hot spots in Chicago such as Laugh Factory, The Second City and Zanies. | COURTESY OF SAKU YANAGAWA

Yanagawa began experimenting with new ways to reach his audience during the state-wide lockdown, including a podcast and an online workshop for Japanese clients on how to communicate in English. He also started writing a movie.

Like millions of others around the world, Yanagawa also became more familiar with video-conferencing application Zoom. He tried using it to perform his stand-up routine to an online audience, but he was distinctly unimpressed with the results.

“It was hell,” says Yanagawa. “People would turn off their camera and mute the sound, so it was just like I was talking to the camera. It was like a monologue. There’s no interaction.

“When I did stand-up in America for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, this is face to face,’” he says. “You get into a groove. It’s much more of a live show than a Japanese comedy show, because Japanese audiences are much more passive. With Zoom stand-up, there is no groove. And besides, I don’t stand up. I sit down in front of a computer.”

Yanagawa returned to Japan on May 20 to renew his U.S. visa, and missed the Black Lives Matters protests that sprang up after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

Yanagawa intends to go back to Chicago as soon as he receives his visa, but he is aware that comedy is going to be “a completely new world” in the wake of the tumultuous events of 2020.

“I have to be careful,” he says. “There’s a woke culture and cancel culture. Even a one-line tweet could lose me all of my jobs. That’s why I have to be careful, but that’s why comedy is needed. With corona and Black Lives Matter, America is in a time of division. People need comedy to communicate and to laugh at other people’s opinions.

“There is a border between what you can say and what you can’t say, and that border has been changing every single second,” he continues. “Comedians should be really careful and they should be aware of where the border is. But we also have to challenge where the edge is. People might complain but we still keep challenging that line. Even though corona has changed the comedy world, I still have to keep aiming for that line.”

Yanagawa’s ambition, when he does make it back to the U.S., is to become the first-ever Japanese cast member of seminal sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. Once he has achieved that, he wants to return to Japan and make stand-up comedy popular with a domestic audience more comfortable with traditional forms of entertainment such as manzai. By the age of 35, he wants to have performed a solo show at the Nippon Budokan.

Yanagawa is aware that many theaters and comedy clubs will not survive the economic impact of the pandemic, but like most things in his life, he believes it presents just another challenge to be overcome.

“I learned history in high school, and I still remember that in 1929 there was the Great Depression,” says Yanagawa. “After that, vaudeville, which was the mainstream comedy of that era, died because many theaters closed. Then, a new type of comedy happened, with radio and ‘talkies.’ That’s how stand-up comedy was born. So, I believe that after corona, a new kind of media will become really big and comedians will move to that place. That’s why I have to get ready to surf that wave.”

For more information on Saku Yanagawa, visit www.sakuyanagawa.com.

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