There was a time, and it seemed like decades ago, that Tokyo had become a regular destination on the global stand-up comedy circuit. Jim Jefferies, Aziz Ansari, Doug Stanhope and Iliza Shlesinger all appeared in Japan’s capital pre-pandemic. Through the great work of various companies, comedy groups and individuals such as Paul Davies at Good Heavens in Shimokitazawa, foreign residents of Tokyo were treated to some decent international comedy.

The venues and audiences were disparate and possibly unreliable, though, and this is where British entrepreneur BJ Fox comes in. Fox, a well-known and respected stand-up comedian and MC in Tokyo, in addition to being recognized for his work as writer and performer on the NHK drama, Home Sweet Tokyo, decided in the spring of 2022 to open Tokyo Comedy Bar, the capital’s very first and only comedy-centric venue. The bar’s first anniversary is approaching in May, so we sat down with Fox to talk about the highlights and challenges of the last year. 

How has your first year been?

Good. Glad we made it, thanks to a lot of support. It’s been a good year for sure. Starting something like this takes time, so we had to gamble when we thought the country would open up again and we were about six months too early, but it’s been amazing since the turn of the year.

Have you achieved what you initially set out to achieve?

In terms of providing a first-class venue with stand-up comedy every night of the week yes. Having a club where local comedians can grow and visitors can perform easily then definitely yes. But we have big plans, so there’s still lots to do.

What have the highlights been in the first year of operating the Tokyo Comedy Bar?

We’ve had some amazing overseas guests: Tim Key from Alan Partridge, Melissa Villaseñor from SNL and an incredible night where we had Atsuko Okatsuka from the US and Yuriyan Retriever from Japan jamming on stage together. On a more down to earth note, it makes us very happy that one of our Japanese comedians who started with us is now skilled enough that he’s gone on a working holiday to Canada and is currently picking up paid comedy gigs in Toronto.

What have the challenges been?

Outside of starting-any-business-in-Japan challenges and the constant threat of a pandemic, the biggest challenge is marketing to the various audiences we have: foreign residents, international Japanese, tourists and then Japanese people who maybe are not sure of what stand-up is. I definitely think we need to do more to reach a Japanese audience, because when they come, they have a great time.

What are the audiences like in terms of attracting both Japanese and foreign visitors?

It’s about an 80-20 split for foreign audiences. We do Japanese shows too and they are 80-20 Japanese  with I guess the 20 percent foreign audience just being curious about what stand-up in Japanese sounds like. The biggest challenge in terms of audience is how to balance your jokes for a Japan-based foreign audience and tourists. One group loves to identify with jokes about shared experiences of living in Japan and then you have those who have been here for just a few days and are not even clear what “irasshaimase” is. Having a front row made up of Japanese people with intermediate English, a few people from the Yokosuka base and a group of Taiwanese tourists is not uncommon for us. It’s hard to find the sweet spot of mutual understanding.

Has anything crazy or unexpected happened?

Maybe our craziest night that broke the bar’s record was our St. Patrick’s Day show. However, reflecting on  that, I am not sure I can say that was too unexpected given the audience. Maybe the strangest thing is the fact that our most popular shows are the Roast Battles insult comedy shows. I am not sure what that says about Tokyo audiences.

How do you manage to split your own time? You are a working stand-up comedian, you often MC shows, and you run the Tokyo Comedy Bar.

And I had a baby in the past three months and sold a podcast to Amazon Music, which means I have to produce four episodes per week. It is tough but rewarding and I have a great team around me, both in terms of the club and the community at large. I would say that the reality of running a comedy club can relegate your own comedy to the backburner and it’s less about making people laugh and more about putting out chairs and scheduling shows, but that’s a goal for 2023. Do a bit more myself.

Are there any comedians on your dream list?

Oh yes. Ali Wong? Frankie Boyle (although I hear he has a fear of flying). James Acaster? We are blessed with a stream of great visiting comedians though, who come here on holidays and are thrilled about the opportunity to add “performed in Tokyo” to their bio. We have Alice Fraser coming in May too. She took over from John Oliver on The Bugle Podcast. Award-winning comedian, on Amazon Prime and now at Tokyo Comedy Bar.

What should we expect for your anniversary celebrations?

We are filling out the whole of Golden Week with shows to celebrate, and then having a couple of special shows with our whole community on Friday May 5, with a Year in Review show from 7pm, then a show and party starting at 9pm. We were going to have another show on Saturday but it clashes with the coronation of King Charles, so we are going to do a comedy live watch show for that.

What do you have planned for your second year?

We want to keep growing both in and out of the club. We are looking to do more events out of the club, bringing people over and hopefully extend the reach of stand-up in Japan. There is still lots of room to grow with our Japanese audiences too. Finally, we want to keep bringing up new comedians too, so if you read this and feel inspired, come to one of our workshops or open mic nights.