Former Zofie Member Ueda Reveals Motivation Behind Pursuing U.S. Expansion Saying “Survival Lies in Staying True to Yourself” | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Former Zofie Member Ueda Reveals Motivation Behind Pursuing U.S. Expansion Saying “Survival Lies in Staying True to Yourself”

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After the dissolution, a trip to the US, Kōhei Ueda (39), formerly of Zofie, experienced a whirlwind at the end of last year. Even into this year, his vigorous activities are evident, with talk live events like “Contemplating Nationwide Expansion through Sketch Comedy” and the “BYSTANDER” sketch comedy show, where he writes material for 10 comedy duos, being held. 

In Part 1, we primarily discussed the comedy scene in America. In the following Part 2, we’ll delve deeper into his current state, including the announcement of dissolution on “Shikujiri Sensei Ore Mitai ni Naru na!!” (AbemaTV), his childhood encounters with overseas comedy, anecdotes from his time with theater troupes and film school, the catalyst for considering expansion into America, and his activities within Japan.

What made him think about entering the U.S. market… (PHOTO: Mayumi Abe)

I hope the intention of “You don’t need to hold back” comes across.

Last November, you announced the dissolution of your comedy duo. Was it also due to a sense of obligation to Director Takaaki Kitano, who launched the sketch comedy show “Tokyo BABY BOYS 9” (TV Asahi), and whom you elaborated on in detail during Shikujiri Sensei?

Ueda: I had a bit of a disagreement with Kitano-san (laughs). I initially thought, “There’s no need to tell the public all the details; I’ll just announce it on social media and be done with it.” But Kitano-san said, “You need to explain the situation properly. Fans won’t be satisfied, and it won’t be fair to just dissolve and leave it at that.”

We went back and forth presenting our sides of the story, but ultimately, Kitano-san convinced me by saying, “I think Sakiko(Ueda’s partner) also has things he wants to say.” That made me realize, “Ah, I can’t just leave it like that.” So, I said, “Okay, I understand. In that case, I’ll speak my mind. I’ll leave the rest to you,” and we proceeded with the recording.

I still can’t confidently say, “I’m glad I spoke up!” (laughs). I’m sure there are many more reasons behind our dissolution, and it’s challenging to discuss it in that way. That’s probably why many people just sort of dissolve without saying much.

Regardless of how much you reveal the reasons, the decision to dissolve remains unchanged. However, your sincere effort to engage with the fans was evident.

Ueda: I guess that’s a relief. Different individuals naturally have different aspirations, you know? We’re adults, and as we experience various things, the timing for doing things together can change significantly. When the feeling of having to be together becomes too strong amidst such changes, it can strain both parties.

Even when quitting a job, if it’s not the right fit, it’s better to leave. But if seniors or colleagues say, “We’ve been through so much together,” you might hesitate and think, “Maybe I’ll stay for another year.” In those situations, it would be good if the message that you don’t need to hold back is conveyed.

It’s not strange for directions to diverge, and there’s no need to blame each other and say, “You’ve changed!” If that’s what you want to do, then let’s just do it separately.

Comedy has this peculiar ability to become funny when filtered through its lens.

Did you have a fondness for international comedy since childhood, considering you’ve set your sights on breaking into the American market this year?

Ueda:I had videos of Mr. Bean (a British comedy series broadcast on ITV from 1990 to 1995, which gained immense popularity in Japan) and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a British comedy series broadcast on BBC from 1969 to 1974) at home, and I used to watch them all the time. I think I was probably in the early years of elementary school when I watched them.

So, if I had acquaintances in the UK, I might have gone there. British humor has strong dark elements, which resonate with the kind of comedy I create, and I was even encouraged by some around me to consider going there. But, you know, there were no real connections (chuckles). Well, but there are British comedians who go to the US to work, so I thought I’d start with the main stage, America.

In addition to foreign comedy, of course, I watched shows like “Gottsu Ee Kanji” (a variety show starring the Japanese comedy duo Downtown, aired on Fuji TV) and the “Warau Inu” series (a comedy show on NTV), but I wasn’t always actively following comedy. I hardly watched comedy programs like “Bakusho On Air Battle” (aired on NHK) or “Enta no Kami-sama” (aired on NTV). So, it’s kind of a strange route, isn’t it?

I had videos of “Mr. Bean” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” at home, and I used to watch them all the time.

You started out in a theater company, didn’t you?

Ueda: That’s right. I was doing theater with the intention of entertaining people, but I would often hear things like creepy, scary, or dark, and I’d be like, “Huh!?” (bitter smile). Even when I was in film school, the movies I made, thinking they would be enjoyable for everyone, received harsh criticism like “terrible” or “why would you do that.” 

However, through the filter of comedy, strangely, these things become funny. Even though what I’m doing remains the same, the perception between someone doing theater and someone doing comedy changes. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how changing the audience alters one’s evaluation of oneself. 

For example, if a funeral director were to come to someone contemplating suicide and say, “If you’re going to die anyway, why not let our funeral home handle it?” as a joke, it might be amusing, but if seen as theater, it might not evoke laughter. I wonder if this difference in perception exists in America as well; I’d like to know that as data.

That’s when I found a way to make it happen.

Two years ago during an interview, you mentioned that you were learning online English conversation. Did you start it with the intention of expanding into the American market?

Ueda: It might be a big reason that I started with the thought of surviving somehow. I researched various ways to make a living doing what I love, but when I considered only the framework in Japan, it seemed like I was already done for.

No matter how hard I tried on TV, I couldn’t imagine myself surviving. I’ve been struggling with the idea of making a living solely from comedy sketches, but I was pushed to the point where I thought, “Ah, maybe this is impossible.” I was in agony for a few years.

When I thought I was completely stuck, I heard from an animator living in America, “There are plenty of people here who make a living just by making comedy.” I was surprised. So, I thought, “Huh? Just by making stuff, you can survive? I can create infinitely! I want to go!” (laughs).

Anyway, I love creating jokes, but I’ve always been told by various seniors, “It’s impossible with just jokes.” I vaguely thought, “That’s reality.” But then, the animator I mentioned earlier said to me, “If your jokes are funny and you can make a living, that’s the best. Why aren’t you doing it?” I couldn’t respond except with “Indeed.” That’s where I found a glimmer of hope, not knowing if it might work out.

I was told by an animator, “If you can make a living by making your stories interesting, that’s the best thing. Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you do it?

Even though there should be ways to survive in Japan as a writer or director, the fact that you, Ueda-san, want to go to America because you want to make a living solely from comedy sketches, I think that’s very characteristic of you.

Ueda: I’m just a bit of a show-off, aren’t I? Always looking for something that others aren’t doing. For example, I love going to watch the preliminaries of comedy competitions as an audience member and taking notes like “These people get through, these people don’t.”

There was a time when I thought increasing the number of jokes would lead to more laughs, but I realized it doesn’t always work that way. Surprisingly, if the first joke gets a huge laugh, even if the rest of the set isn’t as funny, it still passes.

Since it’s the writers who judge, I realized that if I could come up with something they hadn’t thought of before, even if the latter part of my set wasn’t as funny, it would still be considered ‘interesting.’ So, I started focusing on making the first impression strong. I thought, “Normal comedians might take about 10 seconds to get to the first punchline, but we’ll aim for 30 seconds even if it’s shorter.”

Because I’ve always done things differently from others, I’m not particularly strong in regular comedy, food reporting, or even in comedy contests. To survive, I have to blaze a trail that no one else has taken.

When I calmly thought about which path to take, knowing that I’ll keep doing comedy sketches forever, I realized I had to go through the overgrown grass (laughs). If I had more talent, maybe I could walk the conventional path, but I can only venture into the forest. Of course, I gather data in my own way and try to make calculated decisions even in the wilderness.

Since you’re already taking the unconventional route, why not explore some uncharted territory?

I’m glad to provide some reassurance. It’s interesting how Ueda-san is perceived as having a creative side while also being seen as someone who forges new paths, like, “Why not do a sketch comedy show?”

Ueda: For me, it’s about half and half. I do a fair amount of research before making a decision. I don’t jump into something with a 100% risk, but once it’s about 50% accumulated, I go for it with passion. Still, everyone tries to stop me (laughs). But I believe that there’s always a need for some level of risk. After all, “No risk, no return,” as they say.

Up until now, I’ve just done what I thought was funny, but from now on, I’m going to think a little more about what I would want to see if I were the audience.

 On the other hand, in January of this year, we held the comedy show “BYSTANDER”. What are your future plans for activities in Japan?

Ueda: Exactly, that’s it. There are several existing routes to aim for finals in comedy competitions or to become popular, but since I’m already taking an unconventional path, I’m thinking of exploring areas where others haven’t ventured. 

What I vaguely want to do is to think about what the audience wants to see. Something I’ve been considering before is a “Sleeping Live Show.” I’m not sure if I’ll actually do it, but it’s like everyone, performers and audience alike, sleeping together for about an hour (laughs). I want to challenge myself to do things that others haven’t done, like providing such a unique experience. 

Until now, I’ve just been doing what I think is funny, but in the future, I want to consider more about what I would want to see if I were in the audience. When I thought about writing jokes for ten acts, I realized it wouldn’t be funny if there were only one or two, so I did it, and even the show where I did 33 new jokes started from wondering, “How many can I do?” It may sound like I’m not making any money from all of this (laughs). 

I’m also married now, and I think I can’t just prioritize being funny anymore to make a living, so I’m trying to step into areas where people haven’t stepped while considering income. If after stepping into those areas, I realize, “There isn’t much meaning here,” and everyone stops stepping into it, then maybe that’s okay. I try to think positively that if Ueda stepped here becomes reference data for the next generation, then maybe that alone has meaning.

  • Interviews. Text by 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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