Next stop, Japan ... Second City extends its reach to second continent

Masi Oka on the set of "Heroes" on NBC.

Masi Oka on the set of "Heroes" on NBC. (February 15, 2012)

In its first formal move outside North America, The Second City is joining with Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd., one of Japan's largest TV producers, talent managers and entertainment companies, in a new joint venture that aims to introduce the improv-based teaching methods of the Chicago-based comedy theater and training center to Japan, followed by a permanent Second City acting troupe and comedy theater in Tokyo that would bring together American and Japanese performers.

"I've always been fascinated by the opportunity to do this work in a different language," said Andrew Alexander, Second City's co-owner and chief executive officer.

Masi Oka, a Japanese-American actor known on both sides of the Pacific for his work on the TV shows"Heroes"and"Hawaii Five-0"said that he thinks the time is ripe for a changing Japan to embrace Second City, a privately held company with headquarters in Chicago and long-standing enterprises in Toronto and Los Angeles. (Second City also is partner in the Tribune's "Chicago Live!" stage and radio show, which is produced in its new UP Comedy Club.)

"The comedy culture in Japan has been so different from America," Oka said. (Oka, who studied at Second City's training center in Los Angeles, is a non-exclusive consultant for Yoshimoto.) "In Japan, satire has long been looked down upon. Attacking politicians and politics has been considered taboo — you're supposed to follow them and respect them. They are used to watching people make fools of themselves, but those have always been professional fools."

In other words, most Japanese comedy, both live and on television, has been closer to what Americans would term low-budget farce — physical comedians, often performing in traditional, vaudeville-style duos replete with a straight man — doing silly pranks that allows the audience to feel superior to what they are seeing on their TVs.

"Going home and watching people get hit by plastic balls gets stale," Oka said. "Sometimes, you need to shake things up and make people more open to change. The whole idea is shock the Japanese audience and just see what the reaction is."

Still, the winds of comedic change are already in the Japanese air. With elections turning more on celebrity and recognition, politicians have become more willing to let their hair down in comic situations. There is now a monthly Japanese version of the NBC show"Saturday Night Live," broadcast on Fuji Television and known as "Saturday Night Live JPN." The U.S. version of that sketch-comedy show has long drawn much of its talent from Second City's Chicago stages; it would make sense to build a similar feeder operation in Tokyo.

According to Aki Yorihiro, the CEO of Yoshimoto Kogyo's U.S. operations, the time is ripe for such a move. "We have very strong comedy schools in Tokyo and Osaka," Yorihiro said, "but the style of comedy is our own style. There is no improv-based training in Japan."

The new partnership is being worked out in phases, beginning with the school this summer. Yorihiro said that the whole notion of Second City will be introduced to the Japanese public by a TV documentary, to be filmed in Chicago this spring. By the fall, he said, the goal is to have the professional company in place, followed by a permanent resident show in Tokyo.

That won't be difficult to arrange for the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo, which already runs a dozen live theaters across Japan, and trains or manages more than 90 percent of the nation's comedy stars (It also manages the Japanese baseball player Kosuke Fukudome, who recently joined the Chicago White Sox).

"Comedy school in Japan felt more like military school or something," Oka said. "You're not allowed to fail and you don't get taught how to be funny. A little shock can inspire and help connect these cultures through comedy. This should be both a catalyst and a great jolt in Japan. And hopefully Second City will see stuff in Japan and bring it home."

 

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib
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