Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Staffa (USA)
Improv comedy group founder
Photo Credit: Michael Holmes Photo
Today we introduce you to the “Leader of the Pirates”. Mike Staffa, the founder of the improv comedy group called the “Pirates of Tokyo Bay” (POTB).
As soon as he stepped in the venue for this interview, he said, “I’m sweating today!” even though it was a cold day outside. Because according to him, where he comes from was currently -40C that day! We’re not sure he was joking or not, but anyway he is totally a funny guy.
He made us laugh even when he was talking about serious things. He really loves making people laugh and making people happy. We were moved by his hospitality.
Members of his troupe perform in English/Japanese, without a script, improvising their entire performance. Not only the language skills but also much knowledge, wisdom and wit are necessary for the bilingual improv comedy.
He also told us how he made ties within the group so strong. They are totally opposite from our image of real “Pirates“, the comedy group is centered around trust and love. They go everywhere in the world with “laughter” which is shared by all humanity.
How the “Pirates” organized
I have been doing improvisational comedy for 13 years. I did it in Australia for a year, in England for a while, and then the Midwest of the USA in cities like Chicago and Twin Cities in Minnesota (Minneapolis & St. Paul).
I guess I’ve been interested in comedy since the end of high school. I don’t have the looks like some people, so I have to be funny, I guess, to make friends. LOL. I’m not rich, so I should be funny, I guess. I really enjoyed comedy, making people laugh, seeing them smile is worth a lot of money. To me, when I see people laugh and enjoy life, I feel happy. And to do that in another language, in another country – it’s fun.
As for my long term dream, I originally wanted to open my own theatre in America to bring more smiles to people. The government has a financial grant, a kind of money to support theatre. They want to promote arts, theatre and cities, so I applied for a federal government grant to open my theatre. But they quickly said “No”! I was really young at that time, so maybe they didn’t trust that I would make good use of it.
That made me decide to travel the world and do comedy in other countries. I thought, “If I come back after 1 year or 2 years with many performing experiences in other countries, the government would think “Oh, this is really good, we’ll support your grant.” That was 8 years ago. I haven’t come back, I still holding onto that plan.
After performing in England and Australia my idea was to go to China next. England and Australia is kind of like America, performing in English. So I wanted to challenge myself and try in Chinese. But I got a little afraid of doing it, and came to Japan instead. [Audience laughs]
For me, China is really “Asia”. Japan has Makudo (“McDonald’s” in Osaka Dialect) and baseball – this is like “Asia + safe”. I have baseball, I have McDonald’s in the US. There’s something Westernized. Japan is a little comfortable for me, so I decided to go to Japan.
Settled in the “Comedy town”
I researched where to go in Japan, and I chose Osaka because there are Japanese comedy mega companies such as Yoshimoto and Shochiku Geino and those are based in Osaka. And Osaka-ben (the dialect of Osaka) is a kind of the comedy language in Japan.
I started my first group called the “Pirates of the Dotombori” in Osaka. Dotombori is a river which goes through Osaka and well known to the local people.
In Osaka, there are a lot of event flyers at “Gaijin bars” where many expats enjoy drinking and I watched people. They went into the bar, looked at the flyers and wouldn’t take anything. So I wanted the name that would be really quick for the eye. We had original name ideas like Death by Squirrels. “That’s a funny name!” but it doesn’t mean anything in Japanese if I put into katakana, one of Japanese alphabets. Another funny name we had was A Clockwork Banana. I thought that’s kind of funny, but some people don’t understand the name is based on the famous horror movie “A Clockwork Orange“.
So we decided to use a little bit more Japanese name. The movie “Pirate of the Caribbean” is popular among Japanese and everyone knows it. So we decided to take “Pirates” and put into Osaka area, Dotombori. Japanese see “Pirates of the Dotombori” and they would say “Oh, this is familiar! I want to keep it”. And they see chinese characters like “道頓堀” (Dotombori) and they think “This is our area! I want to know what this is!” Then they would look at it – That was my strategy.
Show of Pirates of Dotombori (Nov 2009)
Audiences in Osaka vs Tokyo
I found that Osaka people are more ready to laugh versus in Tokyo. We really have to push Tokyo people to understand that it’s OK to laugh out loud.
Even if Tokyo people see the flyer, they pay the money and come to the venue, they come to the show, we still have to show it’s OK to laugh out loud. Even non-Japanese are different. In Osaka, most of the foreigners are, I would say, English teachers. There are not a lot of businesses like SONY, there is not a lot of bankers, not lawyers in Osaka, not a lot, right? There are probably a couple. If you see foreigners in Osaka, 80% chance they are probably English teachers. So we can quickly relate to them and know how to make them laugh.
In Tokyo, we have whole variety of different people such as lawyers and bankers. A lawyer might laugh differently from what an English teacher wants to laugh at. There are different levels of humor. In Osaka, there are only Osaka Japanese and English teachers generally.
5 years after the Osaka launch, I decided to move up to Tokyo to make our second branch, keeping with Pirates family name – the Pirates of Tokyo Bay.
Non-Japanese vs Japanese
At our very first Pirates show in Osaka, we had over 80 people come watch us, not a small audience of 5 people like I feared for our first show. I think I gave a little bit pressure to the group to make sure we have good audience numbers. It’s not only we make a little money from that, but if you think about it – our improvised show is all based on the audience’s suggestions – if it’s America, they feel like “Yeah, there are only 5 people, so I have a chance to control the show! Every suggestion is my idea!” They may be happy with 5 people. But in Japan, if only 5 people come, it’s a lot of pressure on those 5 people to give us an idea. “What’s your favorite food?” and 5 people get nervous and hesitate to yell out something…
So if it’s 80 people, everyone’s having fun. We get more suggestions, there’s more laughing. We feel happy more and audience leaves happy. That’s why we need a lot of people in the seats.
When I ask the English audience, we just say, “Everyone, please give us a suggestion” and they say, “Yeah!”. But if it’s small audience, if we have only Japanese audience, we’ll change the hosting style slightly to compliment the person before we put them on the spot to give a suggestion. For example “Oh, you sir in a beautiful blue shirt, please give us a suggestion”. In America, I wouldn’t do that cause I feel a little bit weird. “Hey beautiful man…”. [Audience laughs]
I think Japanese audiences feel pressure. “If you give me a suggestion, and we use it”. Even if the scene is not so funny, it’s not the audience member’s problem. But they might feel responsible. “Oh, why did I say that? That was not great! I don’t want to say anything now! I’m done giving suggestions!!” So we need to make them feel relax, “Oh, you wearing the beautiful purple shirt, please tell us this…..” [Audience laughs]
But the common point for our members and audience is “TOKYO”. Even if it’s all English and Japanese don’t understand, they can feel like, “OK, this scene is at Tokyo Dome and I can understand a little bit of the situation or the place”. So we try to remember that we are in Tokyo. If it’s a restaurant, we make it Yoshinoya. We are all in Japan. That is our common point and our quickest way to relate with the audience.
Became a bilingual troupe
There used to be a huge Osaka-based foreign language school called NOVA. When it went bankrupt around late 2008, all language teachers, about 600, went home. They were a huge part of our fan base. And that was actually the point, 2009, that we changed our group to be bilingual. At first, we just performed in English. Because Japan was new to some of us and we had to get fans. The quickest way to do that is English.
So when NOVA went bankrupt, it really pushed us quickly. “We have to become bilingual!” In Japan, of course, there are lots of Japanese. So it could be a big chance if we were a bilingual group.
Now we have three different shows; occasional English-only shows in the Roppongi area, Japanese only shows in the Shinjuku-gyoen area every other month, and monthly bilingual show in Ebisu. I think they are different.
The English only show is a little more “dirty”. And Japanese one is a little bit cleaner, and bilingual one is right in the middle.
As for the Pirate performers, we have members from Japan, so we are able to quickly identify the comedy that Japanese people want, and at practice, our Japanese members can also educate us about what to do for Japanese comedy. We are not just a bunch of Americans performing to Japanese people.
In my case, I have a Japanese girlfriend. If I go to a rakugo show with her, I don’t understand it perfectly but she’s having fun. And if I go to an English comedy show or English movie, I’m having fun and she might not fully understand it. But if you are studying English or Japanese, you can come and try to understand the jokes in English or Japanese at our bilingual show. So this aspect of providing comedy for everyone in the audience has really helped us grow. If someone says, “Oh, my English is not very good”, I say, “Just come! We have Japanese”. I think we’ve grown quicker than we even expected.
Stand-up comedy vs improv comedy, which is more difficult?
Stand-up is basically one person manzai (a traditional style of stand-up comedy in Japanese culture which usually involves two performers). If you think about it, they memorize jokes that were planned, they have the same show in cities like Chicago or NY. I don’t want to say it’s easier because I’m afraid to try stand-up, haha! I have like 12 minutes of stand-up in my head, but I’ve never performed it. If you can memorize as you planned it, it must be funny. Because you had time to plan it and remove bad jokes or ideas. “OK, you have practiced and studied, so it should be good”.
But for me, when I do improv comedy, I feel there’s less pressure. If I walk up on the stage and say “Hi dad!” to Masa or Rodger (Members of POTB), he is my dad. It’s 100%, it’s fact. Or I say “Hey sister, how are you?” to him, he is now my sister.
When I was younger, I did some “professional acting” like stage, script and everything. For example, if my line in a play is “Will you marry me?” and then the other actor has to say “Yes, I will marry you”. If I forget to say “Will you marry me?” then they can’t say their line and the show is ruined, the show stops. It’s pressure for me! But improv, there’s no lines, I can say anything and you will say “OK…
Rodger: I will marry you, Mike! [Audience laughs]
Mike: I never missed a line doing professional acting, but I was always right behind the curtains, stage is right next to me and audience right on the other side of the curtains, and I always have my script and just look at it one last time and then I run on the stage. For me, it’s not panic but I just comforting and to make sure, “OK, Will you marry me…?”. I was always afraid that I forget. So I decided that improv is safer for me!
Each improv show is different, it’s based on the audience. They tell us what they want. That’s what amazing improv is. I can just listen to your suggestions and then I’ll make the show for you. We don’t go into the show with plan like “Let’s do this and talk about this”.
Huge wall in front of pirates
Improv comedy is still a small thing in Japan. If you ask 100 people around Tokyo, probably none of them have heard of improv comedy. So I want to help the art form grow.
In America, the skill of improv, a lot of companies hire our kind of group to do workshops for the staff. Because you have all kinds of rules, you have to be polite at office. If you have been assigned some project, you can’t say “No, I don’t want to do that” to your boss. You have to say yes and you say, “I’ll do this by next Wednesday”. That’s the same idea with improv comedy – Trusting your coworkers, saying yes to the projects, adding ideas very quickly, in kind of adapting. In the show, things change very quickly and the same skill is needed. At work, something suddenly changes, you lose the client, you have to adapt to it quickly. So in America, this is really common. 3M, Best Buy, Apple… they hire the big improv groups and have them come and give workshops on quick thinking, problem solving, trust, communication skills, etc.
So my hope was to do more of this in Japan. It’s been very hard to do it so far. Usually when we call Japanese company, usually their first question is “Who have you done this for before?” If my answer is, “No one. Please hire me”, they don’t like it. In America, if I’m a new comedy group, I just do it at cheaper cost than the famous company. So they would feel “Oh, it’s a chance! We will try and hire you because you do at a much cheaper price”.
So the first thing we did was to go to the American Embassy and did workshop for their Japanese staff. Also we’ve done a workshop for students learning about American culture. I’ve also done shows for the army bases in Kanto area. I’ve started with English/American people who understand what improv is. “Then from gaining those contracts and experiences, we go to the Japanese companies” – that’s my plan.
Now we have done the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong, American Embassy and American Army Bases in Japan for example. We’ve been featured by NHK and Yomiuri Shimbun and appeared on those media in Japanese. So finally we can show who we are to Japanese companies. We’ll approach more Japanese companies.
Laughter crosses borders
Our medium-term goal is…
We performed in Singapore this past February, we went to Hong Kong in March for 3 shows and we’ll travel to New York in June and hopefully return to Manila, capital city of the Philippines, later this year 2014.
NY will be a huge challenge for us. There’s a festival called “Del Close Marathon“. It’s like the Superbowl of improv comedy. It’s very prestigious.
We want to perform there. It’s held at the end of June. We went to Manila last year 2013 and we plan to return again later this year or next year too.
Manila was very fun. Every show had 300-400 people in the audience. They were really noisy, really genki (energetic) and so loud. We had to divide the audience into half just to be able to hear and understand their suggestions. They were overwhelming at first, just amazing. But it really helped us level up our performance because they really wanted to laugh. After the shows I was also asked to give them my autograph! I’d never done before.
Even if we are performing in Tokyo, Osaka or Manila, our show needs to be about “life”, not about an imaginary, crazy, weird things. We want the audience to watch us on stage and be thinking “I have the same friend who is like this character!” or “He is like my father, really strict!” Then they can connect to the show and enjoy it much more.
POTB show in Manila, the Philippines! (June 2013)
I think a lot of people think improv is difficult. But I don’t think it is.
To be honest, I think you just need people you trust. I trust Masa, I trust Rodger. I trust everyone in the group like a family. We have Thanksgiving dinner together. Because I have to build the connection and build trust. If I say “Hey mom!”, I think Rodger will say “Hey son!”. He would never say “I’m not your mom!” or “I’m the police!”. If he says that, my line is broken. I look really bad and the audience stops believing my character.
So for me, if we trust everyone, it’s easy. Anything I say is perfect, anything Rodger says is perfect. There are kind of basic rules in improv comedy and the main rule is “If you ask any group or any improv comedian, the answer is always YES”. We always agree what we are offered. And then you add some kind of detail. If I just say in a show “Hey Rodger, do you want to go fishing?”, and he says only “OK….”, that’s boring, right? So maybe Rodger can say “Yes, I have a new fishing pole. I bought it, you should try it!” He adds more details. We always tell everyone to say “Yes, and…” to add something. Anything is OK.
I tell the Pirates, “If you have no idea about what to say on the stage, imagine you are cleaning something, just do something”. Then another person will be coming in and say “Good morning, mom! What are you making for breakfast?” Then now you are mom. 10 seconds before you don’t know what to do.
Just do something, clean something for example and we will join. That’s “trust”. That’s why we need to be friends and hang out off stage, to build trust to have it on stage.
Where people who left their home country support each other abroad
We’re like a bento box of comedy. We have so many different choices of people or characters.
When we have an audition, we are not only looking for your skill. We need to make sure that you fit with the group on and off stage. For example, we can all enjoy sitting on a bus with you in Manila for 3 hours and not go crazy. I’m not the only person who says “YES, you are in the group”. It’s a group decision. If there is some kind of weird feeling or vibe, that’s an issue even if their skills are very good. Because we need to be a family. I’ve learned to have tough auditions from my American spirit and my own auditions I went through when joining other groups. “Can you hang out with this person?” “Do you want to have dinner with this person?” plus the skill… right?
When I started my own group in Osaka, I didn’t have a family in Japan. I thought, “If I break my leg, who helps me?” “If I loose money, if some money problem happens, who helps me?” So for me, the Pirates are a family.
If suddenly a member lost their job, they can’t survive; the pirates can help you financially that month. Also there was another person who couldn’t speak Japanese and he had a back problem. He needed an ambulance and he called me. “Mike, I’m on the floor. I can’t move. Please call the ambulance!” so I did for him. That kind of trust off stage makes the trust on stage. So I think the audition ensures the group continues to be a family.
What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo to me is “opportunity”.
In Tokyo, there are not so many Tokyo-jin (People who were born in Tokyo) because people come from other areas of Japan for the opportunity to get a better job. So Pirates moved here to expand for the opportunity to perform in bigger venues and events.
I understand that I love Osaka. But I think if I lived in Tokyo first and then moved to Osaka later, maybe I would love Tokyo more, right? My original friends are in Osaka, all of my first memories are from my time in Osaka. I understand that is probably why I like Osaka more. But I still love Tokyo.
I think Tokyo is pretty global for Japan. We couldn’t do many all-English shows in Gifu, Nagoya or Sapporo but we have chances here.
So for me, Tokyo means opportunity and right now it’s “home”.
Mike’s interview on YouTube (by ACTV Japan)
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