Comedians’ Global Pursuit, Can Ueda Succeed in the US? | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Comedians’ Global Pursuit, Can Ueda Succeed in the US?

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After the announcement of the dissolution of the comedy duo Zofie, Kōhei Ueda (39), who set a goal of advancing to America, garnered attention by marrying former AKB48 member Sakiko Matsui the following month. What kind of future is he envisioning now?

Reflecting on the contents of the talk live event “Planning Meeting for Advancing to the United States with Comedy” held in January of this year, he talked in detail about what he has learned about American culture, his thoughts on American comedians who he feels resonate with Japanese humor, the uniqueness of Japanese comedy, and the reasons why he has not yet been able to relocate to the United States.

Setting his sights on advancing to America, Kōhei Ueda (PHOTO: Mayumi Abe) garnered attention at the end of last year, especially after announcing his marriage to former AKB48 member Sakiko Matsui the following month.

It is no different from Japan if you learn a certain amount of knowledge, just the comedy culture is different.

In January of this year, you held a talk live event titled “Planning Meeting for Advancing to the United States with Comedy” with Saku Yanagawa, Carlos Yabuki, and Yoshizumi. First of all, how did you get to know Saku and Yabuki?

Ueda: When I went to America right after our comedy duo disbanded, Saku-san posted something like “I’m currently in Los Angeles. Please contact me if anyone’s around” on Instagram. He replied, “If you happen to come to Chicago, please let me know.”

But since Chicago was far from Los Angeles, we could only exchange messages like “Let’s keep in touch for the future.” Later, when Saku-san contacted me saying, “I’m going to Japan, can we meet?” I suggested, “Why don’t we do a talk live if possible?” and we ended up meeting.

Yabuki-san: Since Saku-san suggested it and we met on the same day, my reaction was like, “Uh, who are you?” However, when we actually did the talk live, he was so skilled that it was like, “Are you planning to pull a huge scam at the end and disappear!?” (laughs) After that, thankfully, he’s been actively working on things like subsidy matters and concrete plans for the future.

I saw the talk live, and it was a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. Did Ueda-san’s approach change in any way after learning about the specific situation in America?

Ueda: I came up with my own hypothesis and seriously thought about it, but I realized that there’s nothing you can’t do. Even when I watched live comedy in America, I found myself laughing at proper nouns, thinking “There are more similarities than differences,” and realizing that with some knowledge, the comedy culture isn’t that different from Japan. The idea that “doing comedy in America would expose my material to a larger audience” is gradually becoming more convincing.

During the talk live, Saku-san mentioned that “Chicago is considered the mecca of comedy in America, and ‘Second City,’ the biggest comedy troupe and theater is there.” People gather there to learn comedy and perform live, just like in Japan, in terms of structure.

Doing sketch comedy in America, to me, is like the difference between M-1 Grand Prix and King of Conte in Japan, in a way. It’s just a difference in the audience you’re targeting, but the process of experimenting with material and refining it is the same as in Japan. So whether it’s America or Africa, the work itself is the same. However, in America, everyone gathers with big dreams, so I find it interesting in the sense of going to the main stage.

America gives me the impression that the standards I had in mind are properly organized.

In American “sketch” (equivalent to what we call “conte” in Japan), it’s common to mix male and female performers as well as people from various racial backgrounds. Do you currently feel any obstacles regarding this aspect of American culture?

Ueda: Actually, what I find interesting is that things I’m currently grappling with in Japan seem to be officially established norms over there. Personally, I believe that gender shouldn’t matter as long as something is funny, but there’s still a faint lingering sense of “Well, she’s a woman.” in Japan. There are still few places where women can thrive.

However, in American comedy, if you’re doing a group show, it’s ideal to have an equal mix of men and women, as well as performers from various racial backgrounds. That’s the standard, and to me, it seems obvious. With a diverse range of performers, the audience would find it more engaging. There’s no need to draw boundaries.

So, America gives me the impression that the standards I had in mind are properly organized. I might come off as a bit pretentious saying this, and Japanese people might think, “Who does he think he is?” (laughs) But it’s just a different style in America. Of course, there are language and cultural barriers, but from what I can see, it feels like operating within a system where I can strongly resonate with.

I think it’s interesting that something that is currently a problem in Japan is now official over there, as if it were a matter of course.

Do you currently find “Saturday Night Live” or any specific groups to be influential or helpful in terms of sketch comedy?

Ueda: Although it’s already ended, there was a sketch show called “Key & Peele” by a comedy duo, and I thought their comedy really resonated here as well. For example, there was a sketch set in a world where aliens have taken over Earth, and humans are running around trying to escape. In this scenario, the aliens can disguise themselves as humans. There’s a sketch where amidst the confusion of not being able to distinguish between humans and aliens, a white man begs for his life, saying, “If you save me, I’ll let you marry my daughter.” However, he gets shot because, as it turns out, the shooter, a black man, remarks, “No white man would ever say he wants his daughter to marry a black man.” 

You can find humor in such jokes as long as you understand the culture. If we were to adapt this to a Japanese context, it wouldn’t be surprising if a virgin who’s never been in a relationship shoots someone saying, “No woman would show that much interest in a virgin,” right? The system is pretty understandable, so I thought, “The way they create comedy isn’t so different,” while watching it.

I haven’t really heard much about what kind of evaluation you’d get if you did it straightforwardly.

As Saku-san mentioned briefly during the talk live, I also felt that there’s a possibility that a style like raising the completeness of the material before the live performance, and inserting intermission videos in a Japanese manner could be accepted as originality.

Ueda: Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, there was a trend recently where solo live performances would recycle the setups of previous sketches towards the end. Like bringing back a character from earlier. If you did this in Japan now, you might become the target of teasing from more senior comedians like, “Oh, recycling setups again?” (laughs).

But if no country in the world is doing it, and you take it straight over there, it might be like, “Wow, that’s really funny!” Even though it might be teased according to our standards here, taking it straightforwardly to America might make it a subject of novelty.

Whether it’s a good thing or not, there were a lot of solo live shows a while back where the foreshadowing of the previous comedy was collected at the end.

Bakarhythm’s solo live shows seem to have been influenced by the packaging (using stylish visuals and music in the opening and ending) of “Oretachi Hyokin Zoku” (aired on Fuji TV). The origins of this style trace back to shows like “Shabondama Holiday” (aired on NTV) which began in the 1960s, and even earlier American variety shows.

Ueda: What we’re doing in solo live performances might seem like a Japanese thing now, but if you dig deep, it actually started from American variety shows. Whether it’s music or products, things that came over from there have been adapted into Japan’s unique style, and they’ve been praised like, “Wow, this is well put together.”

Currently, there’s a strong image of punchy and catchy individuals challenging themselves overseas, but I think if someone were to meticulously craft a performance, paying attention even to the sound and lighting, without any unnecessary ad-libbing, it could lead to praise like, “Japanese creations are so meticulously crafted!” over there

I haven’t really heard much about what kind of evaluation you’d get if you did it straightforwardly. There’s a strong tendency to align with the humor system over there. I’ve been doing online English lessons for about two years now, and it’s interesting to see people from completely different countries like Rwanda or Turkey watching Japanese anime a lot. And most of them are watching “Attack on Titan” or “Demon Slayer.”

Knowing that, I can’t help but wonder, “How did that come about?” But at the same time, I also think, “If they’re watching the movie version of ‘Demon Slayer’ and crying, we can definitely connect on that level.” So, if we were to strip away our biases and just present it as it is, there’s a good chance it would resonate effortlessly. That’s something I’m genuinely interested in.

I have absolutely no information about starting from scratch with a sketch.

This year, the plan is to hold talk live events periodically as progress is made towards the goal of performing live at “Second City” in Chicago.

Ueda: I think it’s most understandable for people to see the process. A talk live that just ends with a vague “I want to do comedy in America” doesn’t really mean much. It seems simply intriguing to openly share what happened and what I’m currently thinking throughout the journey towards the goal.

To perform live in America, you need to learn English and also understand their culture. How much you can incorporate that beforehand is crucial. Even if you swing and miss terribly during an actual live performance, knowing the process will lead to discoveries like, “I didn’t consider this aspect.” I hope those who are looking forward to it will find enjoyment in that aspect.

When I told him before I got married that I was totally broke, he said, “As long as you enjoy it, that’s all that matters,” and that really saved my life.

Unlike the mainstream in America, which is stand-up comedy, for those who want to focus on sketch comedy, how can they step up their game? It’s truly starting from scratch.

Ueda: Stand-up comedians often start by performing at open mics where they showcase their material, and if it’s funny, they might get invited to perform at bigger venues. As they continue to succeed, they may be invited to open for more established comedians, gradually climbing up the ladder.

But there’s absolutely no information available for starting from scratch with sketch comedy. So, for now, I plan to perform a few shows at Second City or similar venues this December, and then figure out the next steps from there. It’s like entering a competition you’ve never participated in before. Since I have no idea about the lineup or how the audience reacts, I don’t even know what the winning strategy would be.

Ideally, I’d like to spend more time there to understand what’s possible, but moving there immediately is still challenging. Plus, after going broke in America at the end of last year, I really need to save up money (laughs). I often think, “How did Sakiko Matsui agree to marry someone like me?”

When I told her I was completely broke before getting married, she just said, “As long as you’re happy,” and that really saved me. But let’s be clear, if I went to America completely broke, I’d definitely be doomed (laughs). I’ll wait a bit longer and see how things go. I don’t know when, but if I get the chance, I’d like to move to America.

In the second part, I will talk about the breakup in “Shikujiri Sensei: Don’t be like me! (AbemaTV), episodes from his childhood when he was exposed to foreign comedy and film school, how he came to think about entering the U.S., his activities in Japan, and more.

  • Interview and text Asahi Suzuki

    Freelance editor/writer. Former band member, former broadcaster. Loves all kinds of entertainment, especially comedians. Published "Shimura Ken Theory" (Asahi Shinbun Publishing) in April 2021. Currently updating his personal website, "Immortal Writing Blues.

  • PHOTO Mayumi Abe

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