Japanese Culture in New York - Chopsticks NY

HOMEFeatureFoodBeautyShopSchoolTravelJapanese Forum

The New Spice in American Stand-up Comedy


After turning pro in 2005, Rio has been primarily active in the NY Stand-up Comedy circuit,
but frequently travels all over the states to perform his act, and has gained a national following.

Back in 1988, not even Rio Koike would have believed that he would one day have a wasabi-like existence in the world of American Stand-up Comedy, a world that would seem a bit dull without him now.  Back then, he was too busy winning  2nd place in the 1988 California Ballroom Dance Competition. Now a successful Stand-up comedian who’s appeared on shows such as NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and Comedy Central, it seems that whatever he touches turns to gold, although reality is never that easy. But it is his stories of his trials and errors as a Japanese foreigner in America that are capturing the hearts of comedy lovers here. We were able to sit down with him to ask about the behind-the-curtain stories of his success and his views on his role in the industry.

What made you want to try Stand-up Comedy?
It all kind of happened by chance. One day I saw that there was this stand-up comedy seminar offered at a local performing arts studio which I took on a whim. At the time, I was a dancer. It wasn’t my intention originally to get a laugh at all, but it turns out I got a huge laugh, and that’s when it started.

What was the joke you performed?
It was about the toilet sheet, the paper you put on the toilet seat so your bottom doesn’t get dirty. It was based on my own blunder with this thing. Ten years ago when I came here, such a thing didn’t exist in Japan, so I didn’t know how to use it, so I talked about my disastrous experience. I know it’s not the most refined topic of conversation, but I did my best not to make it sound so disgusting. I believe the teacher used the word “cute” to describe my act.  My English wasn’t that good, but at the time, because I was the only one that got a laugh, I was thinking “Wow, I don’t have to speak English to do this!”, which of course was, I learned later, not true. But I didn’t fully realize my messed-up English, at the time, was a big factor for the laughs.  Afterwards when they were shouting “you killed!!”, I freaked because I didn’t know about that expression.  But getting all those laughs then made me want to do it again. I had the urge to do it until I really, really flopped.
When did that come?
Almost immediately after.

What does it take to become a Stand-up Comedian?
Well, I had to intern for about five years at a comedy club. I cleaned dishes, cleaned toilets, mopped the floors, all for a chance to perform at the very end of the show for about 3 minutes for something like two people in the audience. Apparently many American people quit because they think there is nothing to benefit from those conditions, but I never noticed, so I kept going for five years. I hear that some one has yet to break that record. And the only reason I stopped was because of the chance to appear on that NBC show “Last Comic Standing” in 2005. If it wasn’t for that, that record may still be in counting. [laugh]

At the time the show aired, you were the only comedian who wasn’t a native English speaker, and yet you were able to capture the audience in this very American genre. Why do you think that is?
You know, I think that if I didn’t start in New York, it never would have happened. I think that the audience in New York love things that are different. But sometimes I feel like the industry uses me like I’m a spice or something. I’ve appeared on African-American comedy shows, Latin-American comedy shows, and shows where everyone is Caucasian. My manager never puts me in an Asian comedy show. Maybe it doesn’t exist. But often times, I have to go first. Imagine the reaction when I appear on stage when the title of the show is African-American Comedy Night. It creates a very puzzled atmosphere in the air. I still don’t know why they do that. But that has really toughened me up in a way.

What would be the biggest difference with the Japanese comedy scene and the American Stand-up Comedy.
In terms of the humor, many people say that there is a huge difference between Japanese humor and American humor, but I honestly don’t really feel it. But from a comedian’s point of view, I think there is a difference and the most noticeable one is that Japan is a country that makes it impossible to flop. I mean people do to a certain extent, but because American comedy sort of goes to the extreme, there is a bigger challenge, and with a bigger challenge, when you mess it up, you flop that much harder. Compared to that, I think Japanese comedy is relatively safe, so you don’t flop as hard.

What’s changed in the last several years you’ve been doing comedy in America?
I think one of the biggest differences that I see is that people here started to recognize Japan as it’s own entity and China as it’s own entity and identify them to be different instead of putting it all in one category as Asia. I have a bit in my act where I say that an audience from the last show mentioned they had been to Japan, so I ask “where”, and they go “Beijing”. People didn’t get this joke before, I guess because Asia was Asia to most people. Now there is more awareness of that part of the world I guess, so people find that joke funny now. So, number one, the audience changed. Number two, expectations are much higher.  Now that I’m a pro, the audiences are not so forgiving. No matter where I am from, they expect a certain quality, and it took me a number of years to realize that being able to speak English correctly is crucial, and that poor English is nothing but a handicap in this industry. However, it does help in my case to have this accent. When my English started to get better, I tried making it worse. The thing is, it’s impossible. I’m already a non-native speaker so I can’t make it any worse. So I just have to be who I am. But learning the correct pronunciation and stuff was very hard and it still is.

So what other things are on your plate now?
Well, I’m doing this internet TV show now on Comedy Central. It’s about learning English. The thing about this show is that even though I’m supposed to be Japanese, they don’t let me speak Japanese on it. It requires a great deal of English skills so that almost killed me.
Was there an audition for it?
Yeah there was. The requirement was that you had to be able to speak English eloquently, and that you had to be sexy. [laugh] I had gone through other auditions before that called for nerdy characters or funky characters or people with really poor English, so this was something different, and I thought to myself, “man, it’d be so cool to pass this audition”, and I did, unexpectedly.

Anything else on the horizon?
Not really…  It’d be great to do a movie.

What kind of character do you think they’d hire you for?
A Japanese guy. But I know for sure they won’t let me speak Japanese. From my experience, in the most shows that are casting for a Japanese guy, the guy has to speak perfect English. It makes no sense.  I fall in this weird place in the industry. Maybe I should shave my head and I can be a funny monk.

Oh, so you’re going with funny? What about a serious character?
I can’t see what kind of appeal I would have in a serious role. But if the job comes, I’ll take it.

Comedy central’s,
“American English with Jimmy T

Rio Koike will star on American English with Jimmy T, an internet TV show on Comedy Central home page.  The show provides a rare opportunity for non-native English speakers to get familiarized with “well-used-but-not-included-in -textbooks” phrases.  It is scheduled to air sometime in spring.