Laughing From the Other Side of the World: Doing Stand Up Comedy in Japan

Updated on March 20, 2018
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Steve B Howard is a novelist, semi-professional comedian, and teacher in Japan.


I’ve got a comedy show coming up next month. I’ve burned through most of my old material so I have to start from scratch to create a new ten-minute set. I belong to a comedy group in Nagoya, Japan called Nagoya Comedy. We do shows about once a month. Since the English speaking population that likes stand up comedy is fairly small all of us comedians have to come up with new material for each show otherwise the audience gets disappointed. When I sat down the other day to begin creating my new set I started thinking about the differences between writing stand up routines and writing flash fiction and short stories.

I’ve been doing stand up for a little over two years now. My background as a writer has mainly been in fiction (short stories and novels). When I first tried to write my sets I initially approached it like a very short story with a punchline as an ending. This wasn’t a bad strategy as far as writing something humorous goes, but a written funny story is a much different creature than a joke that is going to be told on stage. Even a funny story told on stage is not the same in timing and delivery as a joke or a set.

When I first started out I had problems with my material. When it got laughs, the next joke or tag often got swallowed up in the noise as I tried to move on to the next topic. I didn’t realize it, but my pacing for stand up was way off. I was trying to do my sets, in the same way, I would have read a funny story. And because I always memorize my sets my delivery was based on how I heard it in my head.

Fortunately, our comedy group has many comedians with decades more experience than I have who are happy to help less experienced comedians like myself with their material. This will probably shock most comedians, but for my first six months, I didn’t know that the basic structure of a joke is: 1. Premise 2. Set up 3. Punchline. I overheard two other comedians talking about it, made a mental note, and when I got home I did some research.

Turns out my stuff was funny, but way too long for what I was trying to do on stage. The three-part structure of a joke is designed to get the audience to the punchline in as few words as possible. It’s also designed to allow the comedian time to sit on the punchline hopefully while the laughter dies down. I didn’t understand this at the time, but once I read up on it I realized very quickly why my style wasn’t working. Now when I write jokes I cut out as much of the fat (unnecessary words) as I possibly can. And after the punchline, I always pause whether the audience laughs or not before I go into the next bit.

Writing short stories and flash fiction wasn’t a bad basis to begin writing stand up, but learning the differences between the two has helped me improve dramatically since I first started out.

I have done around 20 or so shows since 2015. I usually perform 6– 15-minute sets. So, I probably have around two and a half hours of stage time at this point. Not much compared with comics back in the States who in some cities probably hit 3–12 open mics a week, but I know my skills are improving regardless. I still consider performing stand up comedy mostly a hobby, though I sometimes refer to myself as a semi-professional comic since I do earn a little bit of money from it. I'm far from famous of course, but in Nagoya, I have had a few people recognize me simply because they happened to attend one of our shows and remembered a joke or two I told. There is also the slight fear that I might make a joke on stage that someone finds distasteful. Nagoya is a pretty small town when it comes to the number of English speaking foreigners in especially in the teaching industry. I occasionally post some of my sets on Youtube as well, but always with a bit of trepidation since you never know who might see it.

There have been people that have had their lives turned upside down here when the net warrior trolls decided they didn't like what they said or did and made it their mission to stir up trouble for the person. And even though I am politically Left-leaning when it comes to most things a lot of my material wouldn't be considered PC. I imagine most Social Justice Warrior extremist types wouldn't be too happy attending one of my shows. But, I feel the same way Joe Rogan does in that comedians should get a bit of a pass most of the time since even though we are saying stuff that could obviously be seen as offensive we are doing it to get laughs and not to be hateful or hurtful. There are a handful of really good and famous clean comedians out there, but for the most part, Blue material (non-PC and comedy that has a lot of profanity) is our bread and butter. Kudos to Jerry Seinfeld, Brian Regan, and Steven Wright, but I'm more in the Bill Hicks, Katt Williams, and Bill Burr class. Not in talent or ability yet, but my material is similar.

Thinking of jokes, writing my material, and practicing it all before a show takes a lot of time and effort, but it is worth it to me in the end. Bombing on stage stings a lot, but the performance high I get when my stuff works and gets a lot of laughs is worth all the pain in the end.

© 2018 Steve B Howard


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