Stand-up is basically free therapy. The thing that always lay heavily on my mind is that despite being able to make a living from writing in English, I still speak the language with a heavy accent. Imagine Boris Badenov from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon if he was gargling gravel and you’ll have an idea of what I sound like. But at my very first stand-up performance in Tokyo, I managed to take that fault and turn it into what I now consider my strongest joke. It took a long time to get there, though.
Japan loves comedy, but it’s not really the kind most Westerns think of. A popular form of Japanese humor is called manzai, which somewhat resembles the classic double act consisting of the straight man (tsukkomi) and the funny man (boke). Similar to the acts of Abbott and Costello, manzai is all about spoken comedy performed at breakneck speed and focusing on absurd situations and puns. There is also rakugo, which consists of a single performer telling comedic stories (often with a nostalgic twist) while using a single fan and a piece of cloth as pantomime props. While manzai and rakugo aren’t a million miles away from stand-up, they just aren’t the same.
It might be why so few Western stand-up comics visit Japan. This year was considered super busy because three big names performed here: Jim Jefferies, Jim Gaffigan and Dave Chappelle. Jimmy Carr was also supposed to visit but ultimately canceled because Japan apparently went over their annual Jim limit or something like that.
For years I admired stand-up comedy from afar. Then one day, while idly googling, I discovered that a group called Stand-Up Tokyo hosts weekly comedy shows in English at Good Heavens Comedy Club and at other bars all over the capital. Every Monday, they organize an open mic at the Titans Craft Beer Taproom & Bottle Shop in Otsuka. It turns out the opportunity to perform stand-up was right there the entire time. Naturally, I immediately wasted another 2-3 years still not doing stand-up.
As long as I didn’t actually get up on that stage, the fantasy would remain perfect.
I have spent so much time imagining what it would be like to perform stand-up, that the whole thing became this unattainable, unblemished fantasy. And as long as I didn’t actually get up on that stage, the fantasy would remain intact.
Then about a month ago, I dragged that fantasy out into the real world. I can’t tell you exactly why I finally had the guts to go through with it, but there I was on stage at Titans Craft Beer Taproom & Bottle Shop. In my imagination, I stood on stage, under a hot spotlight, blank faces staring back at me. However, the Titans open mic is just you in front of a mic stand (no stage) in a cozy room above a bar that’s packed with the nicest people possible.
You will never hear more cheers and encouraging applause than when someone performs there for the first time. A lot of the Titans guests do stand-up professionally or as a hobby, and they know better than anyone how nerve-racking getting in front of that mic can be. So they try to make the process as inviting as possible. They still won’t laugh unless you put your best effort into your jokes. Seeing as my first performance got a few chuckles, I guess I did alright.
I’ve done the open mic thing many times since then, and I love learning more about the world of English stand-up comedy in Tokyo. Not everyone in the audience speaks Japanese or has lived in Japan for that long, but most have at least a working knowledge of how the language and the country work, allowing performers to weave in some clever bilingual puns or cultural observations into their acts.
If you’re ever in Tokyo, check out the Stand-Up Tokyo Facebook page for open mic dates and try it out yourself. Now I just have to come up with new jokes more contemporary than Rocky and Bullwinkle.
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