“What about your career in showbiz?” – Working as a low level entertainer during COVID-19 in Japan

It’s day two of my new “write more crap!” mindset and, I’ve gotta tell ya, I’ve run out of things to tell ya.

In case you’re just emerging from a long medically-induced coma or living in the COVID-free paradise of New Zealand, the world has been in the grips of a raging pandemic over the last year, which isn’t really conducive to a lifestyle full of things for a random dude to write about on his site that no one reads.

Sure, Japan has thankfully avoided the full brunt of the pandemic but I’ve tried to my part to stay inside, wear a mask, and interact with as few people as possible. (In my defense, this was pretty much my strategy pre-pandemic as well.) The furthest I’ve traveled in the past year is probably my aforementioned long-ass trip to the Chiba countryside for a TV thing and even that was only an hour away by freeway. My travels within Tokyo itself have been just as limited, which is to say I can pretty much count the number of times I have rode the train in the last year on my fingers alone.

Really one of the best parts of this entire situation (if pandemics can even have good parts) has been the long walks I get to take on the abandoned Tokyo streets at night. Sure, it’s night so you wouldn’t expect many people out and about anyways but in the before times, an uncrowded Tokyo street was still crowded by normal human being standards. Now though? Pure solitude. And now I can laugh at dumb podcasts while walking without having to worry about drunk old salarymen giving me the stinkeye.

“But what about your career in showbiz, Stephen?” you ask, sleepily feigning interest as you read this while taking a poop.

Ah, good question! Let me see…

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Things you learn during a hellish 18-hour Japanese TV shoot

It has come to my attention that some people think my writing “doesn’t suck” or is even, as someone put it, “good”. You’d think I’d take that as a hint that I should write more often and consistently. (If I had an editor, they would probably tell me that often and consistently both sorta mean the same thing in this context and that a proper writer would never drop a ‘sorta’ into their work.) Hell, it’s almost been a year (the start of COVID-19!) since my last post (in which I promised to showcase some of those much ballywhoed Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy members in my next post but then summarily never go around to it) and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I got enough riding juice in me to squirt out all over this keyboard on a consistent basis (is that how sex/writing metaphors work?).

But look out world! Stephen was on a hellishly long 18 hour shoot for a TV show segment that he’ll probably be cut out of and he’s got some things to say!

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So What the Hell IS Manzai Anyways?

Don’t tell anyone now but this is apparently “real” manzai.

When we last left off, we were talking about the rise of a new batch of Japanese comedy stars, dubbed by the media as the Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy, a term determined more by savvy marketers than by any actual generational shift in how comedy is crafted in Japan.

I had originally planned on introducing some of the “top” members of this “new” group in a new post but while writing it, I had a long and deep conversation with my podcast co-host and actual Japanese comedy researcher Nick about manzai and its various evolutionary shifts as a comedy form. More specifically, we spoke about the act of performing manzai in the era of remote lives and plastic shields aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Side note, it was a great and really deep conversation about the craft of being a manzai comedian that probably only five or six people in the entire world would probably enjoy hearing.)

A long long time ago, Yoshimoto attempted to introduce the world to manzai via a Netflix “documentary” that I still have crazy stress nightmares about being in. In it, we said that manzai was one mic, two people, and the “Japanese Dream” (Note: I really wasn’t lying about those stress nightmares.). But is that really true? In the four years since then and in the last several months, I’ve given this idea a lot of thought.

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The Comedy Landscape in 2020 Japan – The Seventh Owarai Generation and the Great Corona Pause

The “New” Generation of Comedians appearing on Ametalk

As pretty much any returning reader to this blog knows, I am an “owarai geinin” in Japan. Why don’t I just call myself a comedian? Because the more and more time I spend in the Japanese entertainment industry, the more I’ve come to understand that comedians and geinin are two completely different categories of roles/people entirely.

With the novel coronavirus pretty much putting everything on hold everywhere in the world, now is the perfect time to take of stock of how the Japanese entertainment world has changed or shifted over the last couple of years.

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Stephen Starts a Diary: May 12th

5/12 Saturday

“What do you do on your days off?”

It’s a question that people ask more often than not, blissfully unaware that as a brokeass young comedian, I have no days off. 

Today for example, was a “day off” where I had no official work but rather spent the day with my comedy partner working on stuff for our act at a local park.  The weather was great, the stuff we were coming up with was coming along well, I got beaned in the back of the head with some kid’s baseball.

I don’t know if it qualifies as work but I certainly don’t feel like I had a day off.

PS, even though it’s probably the city-est city in the world, Tokyo still has its charming places of greenery.

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Stephen Starts a Diary: May 11th

5/11 Friday

Some lives are better than others.  That’s just a matter of fact in this world of punchlines and acts.  The show we performed at today in Ikebukuro may have been the worst I can remember.

It’s not like we bombed or anything (we didn’t) but the overall atmosphere of the night when combined with the zombie-like audience and harried MC made what should have been a relatively relaxed night to try out new material into a night ripped straight out of a horror story.

I should backtrack and explain a bit.  As far as a young Yoshimoto comedian is concerned, there are two kinds of lives:  jimusho official lives and those that are not.  Today’s live, despite the incredibly demanding people who put it on, was one of the later.  

The theater where we performed, located a few minutes from Ikebukuro Station in north central Tokyo, isn’t exactly brand new and, it being cramped and dark, with room for maybe 40 people at the most, no one can really blame the over 60 people who came for not exactly being in a laughing mood.  That said, the last time I performed in front of an audience as listless and unresponsive as the one we encountered tonight was probably back in comedy school when the instructor told everyone not to laugh before class even began.  Continue reading

Stephen Starts a Diary: May 10th

5/10 Thursday

I’ve been seeing a lot of head office of late.   With my new part time job and increased first-thing-in-the-morning English lessons, I’ve spent far more time sitting around the offices of the biggest comedy entertainment company in Japan than I have actually being a comedian for the company itself.

I don’t really mind.  I get more money doing menial office tasks and teaching English than I do with the all-too-often pay-to-play set up afforded to young comedians in the labyrinthian Yoshimoto Creative Agency bureaucracy.  Today after my Yoshimoto work ended, I went to my ramen job.  I’d like to say that I enjoy doing it but it turns out I enjoy eating ramen more than I do slinging noodles and taking orders from drunk assholes til the crack of dawn.  Considering how much I’ve been working at Yoshimoto recently, I don’t really need to be working that job anymore.  But (a) the ramen is good and (b) I live in constant fear that my cushy sit on my ass at a desk all day doing absolutely nothing gig is going to go up in flames sooner rather than later. Continue reading

Stephen Starts a Diary: May 8th

5/8 Tuesday

Today was a desk day.  I’ve been working part-time at Yoshimoto head office for about a month now, sitting at a desk in the Live Production Department under the guise of helping improve the entire department’s English on my free days.  Really, this job mostly consists of me sitting around on the internet all day, occassionally shouting basic English greetings to people as they pass by on the way to some place or another.

The work’s much easier on the body than my normal parttime job at a ramen shop so I’m not necessarily complaining but, after spending a couple of years away from the officework lifestyle, I’m finding it rough getting back into the flow of things.  Plus, getting paid (however little) to do literally nothing is better than not getting paid to do the same.

I went to work at ten and clocked out at six.  Literally nothing happened during those eight hours.  Yay me.

Stephen Starts a Diary: 5/6

5/6 Sunday

Today was the last day of Golden Week, the hellish week where every single Japanese person gets a week off of work.  Normally owarai comedians, being based in an industry predicated on the leisure dollars of the employed masses, are incredibly busy on vacation weeks like this one but I, after a string of gig cancellations and whatnot, was not.

Unfortunately, I also happened to catch a cold this week so I spent most of today layign around my small Japanese apartment feeling very sorry for myself.  I did get out for a walk (mainly just so my Apple Watch would stop yelling at me to exercise) but with it being the last day of Golden Week, my usual park of choice was supercrowded with families of people who either didn’t get out on their week of vacation or people who came back from their vacation a bit early.  It was not, unfortunately, all that relaxing.

Also, a kid ran over my foot with a tricycle.

Tomorrow brings the return of the working week and I have an English lesson first thing in the morning to get things started off right.  It’s my first lesson with a relatively higher up guy within the Yoshimoto corporate structure so we’ll just have to see how it goes.