“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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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 17th

5/17  Thursday

When I first decided to become a comedian and went to my first owarai class, there were over 400 or so people there with me, all taking their first steps down the path of Japanese comedy at the same time as I was.  Time passed, people quit, and that number soon dwindled down: 300, 200, down to the one-hundred-something people that it is now.

Even among those hundred-something people, you have dozens of people who haven’t been active for months and are really just comedians in name only.  Since I’m, as the Japanese people like to say, tongatteru, most of my “friends” among my douki are in this category. Continue reading

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 7th

5/7 Monday

Walking home in the rain is probably never a good idea.  And yet, there I was, struggling against the wind and rain as I tried to hammer out the hour-long walk to my apartment in Shinagawa from the wakate young comedian theater in Shibuya, trying desperately to not lose another umbrella to the wind whipping sheets of rain into my eyes. Continue reading

Big in Japan, a show

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So now that WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! PART 2 is finally out (though seemingly not in the US) and that part of my life is now completely done with, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the one place where you can hear me discuss Japanese showbiz on my own terms without a Yoshimoto staffer constantly whispering in my ear about not offending my sempai or making sure that I don’t say something about sponsor X, Y, or Z. 

In case you were unsure about it or just went with the narrative of WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! that I am apparently the only non-Japanese person who ever thought about getting in Japanese comedy, there are others out there, and, starting a few months ago, a couple of us decided to get together and talk about our experiences as geinin in Japan because, quite frankly, you need an outlet for these sorts of things.

Those conversations kinda turned into regular thing that we decided to start recording and put out as the Big in Japan podcast, an uncensored, unfiltered, completely unendorsed by our agencies look at the Japanese entertainment world.  I’d like to emphasis the uncensored part of this description because some of the stories shared on the show have been pretty darn raunchy (mostly because, as members of the Japanese entertainment industry, we haven’t had the chance to work blue in years). Continue reading

WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! PART 2

Well hello there.  Long time no see.

This is Stephen just checking in here to let you all know that I am in fact still alive and that WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! (and it’s new sequel WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! PART 2) is, as of 12 AM on April 27th, back on Netflix.

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When we shot WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! back in my manzai school days in those carefree innocent days of Spring 2016, the agency was so enamored with producing random English content that it immediately decided to go back for seconds before Part One had even begun post production.

While I’ve gone in-depth on my reservations regarding WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! before, I feel fairly confident in saying that PART TWO is a much better and more entertaining piece overall (low bar, I know) than its predecessor.  Part one, for all its faults and jumps and fits, was hastily produced with nothing but a Japanese script that I had to translate on the fly.  Part two, on the other hand, came with a team of bilingual people who worked together to translate the original Japanese script into something easier to digest for both me and hopefully the audience.

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Iruka Punch

We shot part two almost exactly two years ago right after I formed my current combi and it shows in the material we put out on the screen as a young manzai act.  (I’d also be remiss in not noting that since then Iruka Punch has largely shifted its focus from manzai to the Japanese form of sketch comedy known as conte, the audio of which you can hear here).  

In the two years since we finished filming, I’ve learned a lot and, believe me, there’s a lot about my performance in these two “documentaries” that makes me cringe.  But that’s all part of the learning process I guess.

I will just say that with WHAT’S MANZAI?!!! PART 2, I left it all out on the floor and I’m glad you all finally have the opportunity to see it.

I’ll try to post more blogs here when my schedule permits but no promises.