People love to laugh all over the world, and people in Japan are no different, whether they're locals, resident expats or visitors from overseas. For that reason there's a steadily growing English-language live comedy scene that's truly international; as well as people from English-speaking countries, audiences have seen comics from as far afield as Romania, Chile and Kenya take to the stage, as well as a good number of Japanese natives.
The comedy you'll find in Japan comes in two basic styles: stand-up and improv. Stand-up means there's one person on stage talking: think Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor, Jimmy Carr, Russell Peters, Chris Rock and the like. Improv is a team effort, with two or three or more people on stage together, taking suggestions from the audience then creating something on the fly; if you've seen the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? you'll have some idea of what to expect.
Stand-up in Tokyo
Stand-up in Tokyo was first organised by the long-established Tokyo Comedy Store (TCS), and since then Stand-up Tokyo (SUT) has come along as an umbrella group for the numerous other shows run by individual comics on the scene. There are regular shows with different focuses: some shows allow performers to experiment and try out new material, while at other shows you can see more experienced comics doing tried and trusted routines. There are also occasional headline shows by visiting comics from abroad, often UK stalwarts such as Ben Norris and Phil Nichol, but there were notably two shows by Hannibal Buress of 30 Rock fame, one of them also featuring Eric Andre.
Shows have come and gone throughout the years as venue owners and managers change, but as of the last time I updated this article, there are something like fifteen or twenty shows a month. TCS now concentrates on improv, but SUT has regular shows at Vega Wine Bar in Ebisu, Titans Craft Beer Bar in Otsuka, and a weekly showcase at Good Heavens English pub in Shimokitazawa. Also, if your language skills are up to it, SUT have occasional shows with local non-Japanese comics performing western-style stand-up in Japanese.
Improv in Tokyo
TCS do a lot of improv. They have two weekly workshops, one at beginner level and one intermediate, respectively teaching skills for short skits and longer scenes. There are occasional showcase nights, where students of the workshops get to show off in front of an audience what they've been learning; and once a month there's the Improvazilla show, which has TCS' most experienced improvisers strutting their stuff with full production values.
Founded in 2010, Pirates of Tokyo Bay are the capital's other improv outfit. They have a monthly show at What the Dickens pub in Ebisu, with games played in both English and Japanese, and they also hold regular auditions and practice sessions for people who want to get involved.
Osaka may be the capital of Japanese comedy, but it wasn't until 2011 that the city had an English stand-up group. ROR Comedy (geddit?) have regular shows in the city centre, occasionally perform in nearby cities such as Kyoto and Kobe, and have hosted headline shows by visiting comics from the USA and UK, including Adam Bloom and Ben Norris.
There's been improv going on for longer there. Named for the river into which some excitable baseball fans once threw a Colonel Sanders, Pirates of the Dotombori have been improvising in English and Japanese since 2005. Again, shows and venues have changed over the years, and will likely continue to do so; checking the website is the best way to stay up to date.
Launched in early 2014, Comedy Fukuoka hit the ground sprinting with a flurry of activity. Styling themselves "The friendliest stage in Asia", they have regular shows with local performers in both English and Japanese, have hosted an international festival featuring comics from around Asia, and have also hosted well-known comedians from the UK, among them Josie Long and Stuart Goldsmith.
There's been English comedy happening on and off in Nagoya since the 1990s, more off than on until recently; but it looks now as if the scene there is becoming more settled, with a core of performers doing regular stand-up shows once or twice a month under the NagoyaComedy banner.
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I came to Japan from Manchester, England in summer 2003, and have travelled a lot since then, around Japan and in Asia. When I`m not working I write satire at www.iothern.blogspot.com and perform stand-up comedy in and around Tokyo. Check my youtube channel `CunningPunster` for a taste.