What’s so funny?: Western comedy gets last laugh in Tokyo
“A day without laughter is a day wasted,” according to Charlie Chaplin. It’s something Dave Gutteridge takes very seriously. That’s why the comedian is wasting no time bringing Western-style humor to Tokyo.
Gutteridge has had a passion for comedy since getting his first laughs with improv at age 12. “It’s like being addicted,” he says. So it only made sense that he joined the Tokyo Comedy Store collective shortly after stepping of the plane from his native Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1997. He’s been at it ever since.
Now he organizes the collective’s shows, bringing English-language stand-up and improve to Tokyo cafes, bars and live houses. Members are a mix of expats from countries like Canada, England and the U.S. as well as Japanese. They also play the occasional embassy, which is fitting since their shows are virtual crossroads where cultures and comedy intersect. It’s especially true when someone from the audience wants in on the act.
“I had a joke (in Japanese) that started: ‘I have one trick for picking up a girl that a Japanese man can’t do,’” Gutteridge recalled of one of his stand-up experiences on stage. But before he could get to the punch line, “There was a Japanese woman who said in Japanese, ‘you have more than one trick.’ And I was like: ‘Have we ever met before?’”
These shows are usually packed with audiences that are as diverse as the comedy troupe. On any given night, Gutteridge said, it can be a different kind of mix. Sometimes a bus from one of the U.S. military bases brings a group of Americans, other times an entire Australian rugby team may show. And off course, there’s always an English-speaking Japanese contingency.
In addition to looking for a good laugh, audience members and performers tend to share an appreciation for a Western take on the funny. Jokes and routines cover topics ranging from sarcasm and politics to life and relationships. But more often than not, the humor revolves around being a Westerner in Japan.
“You make jokes about where you are,” Gutteridge says. “A lot of humor at (Tokyo Comedy Store), it’s targeted at this particular experience of being in Japan. It’s from the perspective of being a foreigner in Japan.”
But as any comedian worth his salt knows, not everyone will get – or can’t take – a joke. That’s especially true if they or their country is the brunt of said joke. Gutteridge recalls being berated by one audience member during a routine because, “You are a foreigner, so you don’t understand Japanese culture!”
“When you are doing comedy you want to tease people but sometimes, I suspect, they can understand just enough to know we are talking about Japan and just enough to know we are making a joke, but not quite enough to get the irony,” he says. “But we were doing comedy for English speakers and they didn’t get it. The bottom line is that it’s local humor.”
However, Gutteridge does not confine himself to just local expat humor. After learning Japanese, he started doing stand-up in that language as well. One of the surprising results, he says, is that contrary to what many Westerners think, Japanese sarcasm does exist. The Japanese just express it differently than Westerners.
“I think people worry a little bit too much about these culture differences between Japanese humor and English humor,” Gutteridge says. He added that using emoticons in email and texting is one way in which sarcasm can be expressed in writing. “The whole reason emoticons exist is that it’s hard to show sarcasm in the text. … So it’s not that it’s not there.”
In fact, some Tokyo Comedy Store comedians have grown so weary of the Japanese-don’t-have-sarcasm fallacy that at least one, Ken Suzuki, has worked his chagrin into his routine – getting a dig in about American ignorance of Japanese culture in the process.
“In Japanese writing (kanji), we call America (literally) ‘a rice country,’ and in Chinese writing, they call America ‘a beautiful country,’” said Suzuki during a recent comedy show. “But in America, they say we don’t have sarcasm.”
If it seems like Gutteridge spends a lot of time thinking about comedy, it’s because he does. He teaches it in workshops, coaches novice comedians for a podcast and even recently written a book, “Your Mind is a Funny Thing,” that will be released online sometime this year. In a nutshell, his endeavors aim to help the stand-up and armchair comedian alike understand what’s so funny, and why.
Making people laugh from onstage may be hard work, but for Gutteridge it’s clearly a labor of love.
“Being funny among friends and being funny on the stage is different,” Gutteridge explains. “A lot jokes don’t start off as a being very funny. It’s only by performing in front of audiences three or four times you start to realize, ‘Oh! That is the punch line.’ So, it takes work. But when you get the whole room to laugh, there is nothing like it.”
Tokyo Comedy Store shows
- The last Friday of each month, 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at Crocodile club in Tokyo’s Jingumae, Shibuya, 2,000 yen and at least one drink purchase
- Every third Thursday at Hobgoblin bar in Shibuya, 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Each show starts with "open mike" comedians followed by regular performers. Admission is free, but at least one drink purchase is recommended.
- June 6 and July 4, 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Heaven’s Door in Shibuya. Admission is free, but at least one drink purchase is recommended.
For more information, visit: tokyocomedy.com