Yanagawa: A Rising Star of Comedy
From Baseball Hopeful to Standup Comedian
• Blazing a trail is
the way Saku Yanagawa pursues his dream.
• As a budding comedian on the global stage, he is concentrating on building
his portfolio. He would perform for anyone, anywhere in the world.
• Only after he’s put substantial performance experiences under his belt,
could he advance to the “major league” stage. For that goal, he doesn’t
stop and think – he’d “just do it.”
• At the age of 27, Yanagawa, a former high school baseball star from
Japan, seems to be on a certain path to “make it big.”
• He has won the coveted spot in the 2019 Break Out Comedy Festival (June
6-9) by The Second City/NBC in Chicago, where 27 young and seasoned comedic
acts will showcase their unique talents. During the four-day festival,
Yanagawa will perform on June 7, the prime time Friday night. It’s one
of his dreams come true.
• Yanagawa graduated from Osaka University in Japan at the top of his
class in theater and music. He started his career as a comedian while
he was still at school, and has been performing since then.
• Chicago is his current main stage. He regularly performs at Laugh Factory,
while appearing at Zanies, The Comedy Bar and The Second City.
• In 2017, Yanagawa toured in Africa, performing in several comedy shows
and festivals including the Kigali International Comedy Festival.
• In 2018, he performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, followed by
a tour around Europe.
• He has been highly active in the U.S., including an appearance in the
annual comedy show “RISK!” in New York, performance at the world-famous
Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and three award-winning performances at the
Seattle International Comedy Competition. He has also appeared at countless
local bars, clubs and theaters across the nation.
• In Japan, he conducted a nationwide tour in 2017 with his own sketch
act “Saku’s Comedy Night,” which amassed a sum total of 5,000 audiences.
A DVD of this tour is now available.
• In 2018, he was one of the finalists of the Magners International Comedy
Festival held in Tokyo.
• This summer, Yanagawa will perform at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan
as the first-ever standup comedian. On June 23, he will perform, in Japanese,
at the Summer Time café in Mt. Prospect.
• Standup comedy isn’t the same as the Japanese comedic act of ‘Owarai,’
Yanagawa says - it’s “an act where you express your views and still make
people laugh with just a mic.” His dream is to be the first Japanese regular
of Saturday Night Live.
Saku’s Story: From Baseball to Comedy
Q: Why did you give up baseball and choose
Yanagawa: I began playing baseball when
I was three. My dad, a baseball team manager, trained me hard. I entered
Toho High School in Tokyo, well-known for baseball and also academically,
and I was the captain of the baseball team there. People called it “the
reign of Yanagawa” while I was there.
• But when we played against some really good teams, I felt I wasn’t a
match to them.
• I had a rival pitcher in high school. He went on to Tokyo University
and began playing in the Tokyo Big-Six Baseball League. He built his own
• I went to Osaka University but wanted to continue competing with him.
I wanted to win the national championship, but it just wasn’t possible
to compete with the Big Six. I just couldn’t beat him, I thought, and
so I kind of withdrew.
Q: That sounds painful.
Yanagawa: I had played baseball since three
and just given it up. I was searching for something to fill the hole inside
me. That’s when I discovered comedy.
• My rival friend, by the way, got a job at NHK after graduating from
the university. He heard about my comedy tour in Africa, and it made him
quit NHK and return to Tokyo University to study law. We made a promise
to work together when he’s got an attorney license. It’s pretty rare to
meet a rival and friend like this in your life.
Q: How did you discover comedy?
Yanagawa: At my high school, it was our
tradition for the baseball team members to perform in the annual school
festival as a comedy act. But it wasn’t good at all – so I took it upon
myself to do a 30-minute standup talk, and it was a hit. But I never dreamed
I would one day make my living with it.
• I rather wanted to be a playwright or theater critic. But you can’t
become a critic without having actual experience in the field yourself,
just like professional baseball commentators are always former baseball
• That was my realization then, that I must have my own experience in
the field, that I had to be a player myself. I was still in college.
Make a Move First
Q: So then you went to New York.
Yanagawa: I happened to see Ryosuke Koike
on TV. It was 2014 and I was a junior in college.
• Mr. Koike is a standup comedian performing in New York. I sent him a
message on Facebook saying “I’m coming to see you tomorrow.” I just went
to the airport, got myself the cheapest ticket available and hopped on
the plane. In New York, I stayed with a friend and commuted to downtown
by bus every day. I knocked on the door of 16 clubs and bars for a chance
to perform, and two of them gave me a chance.
• They have what they call “open mic” nights, where anyone can try their
acts. Sometimes a 40-year veteran shows up to try something new, and there
are also first-time performers like me, of course.
• If you’re lucky, you could catch an eye of someone established (a comedian
with his or her own show, for example), who might say: “Hey, you’re not
bad; why don’t you come over?”
• Fortunately, someone said to me: “I know someone at The Second City;
want to come to Chicago?” So I flew to Chicago right away, excited for
a possibility of performing at the [legendary] Second City.
• I tried open mic every day in Chicago, and my network in the comedy
world here grew. People are nice here, and Chicago comedy has a depth.
Q: Where did you go during your first U.S.
Yanagawa: Seven cities – New York, Chicago,
Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Q: I heard that you got “beer-bottled” in
Yanagawa: How can I forget that – it was
a seedy saloon in Dallas, I did a George W. Bush joke at the end, and
a beer bottle came flying at me. It was a scary moment, but later I thought
that I might have had a Blues Brothers-esque experience, and that made
me feel a little bit proud.
Standup Comedian Saku
Yanagawa performs at Laugh Factory in Chicago.
Q: What made you perform
Yanagawa: In order to obtain
the American visa of O-1 [artist visa], I needed to build up a good, substantial
performance history. Since there’s no base for standup comedy in Japan,
I thought I had to go outside Japan to do it. It was in November 2017.
• Through my comedian network, a Kenyan comedian performing in Japan recommended
me for the Kigali International Comedy Festival in Rwanda. It’s a demonstration
of respect toward fellow comedians.
• After performing as a headliner at the Festival, I was invited to the
largest comedy show in Uganda and Kenya’s largest TV show, “Churchill
Show.” All of these came from mutual respect of comedians.
Q: Tell me about the upcoming
Break Out Comedy Festival.
Yanagawa: I auditioned for
the Second City’s training program this past February. I passed the audition,
but I couldn’t join the program due to circumstances out of my control.
I explained to the director how I flew to Chicago for this audition and
how much I wanted to be in the program.
• Maybe the director remembered that when selecting the performers [of
the Break Out Festival]. I’m certain they appreciated my performance,
but maybe they also considered me from the diversity aspect.
Q: What about the Fuji Rock
Yanagawa: I play baseball
in the bush league whenever I’m in Japan. Ours is a musicians' team, and
some of the members are Fuji Festival operators, who had come to see me
perform in Edinburgh. That’s how the invitation came [for the Fuji Rock
• You can never get help if you simply ask for it. If you do something
seriously enough outside of your main line of work, there’s always someone
watching and appreciating you as a person for it. It’s pretty important
to have relationships outside your main line of work.
As a Professional Comedian
Q: How do you handle it
when you flop?
• Yanagawa: My audience
pays me their money, time and soul to be made laughing, so flopping means
I let them down. That makes me humble, but I don’t get defeated.
• When I have to perform in front of only two people, I try to do my very
best, try to make them feel like they had the best time of their lives.
Q: It’s your morning routine
to read the newspaper?
Yanagawa: I’m required to
be far better prepared than native [American] comedians. I need to have
an unlimited stock of materials that I can draw from for ad libs.
• That’s the source of what I call “rescue” jokes – a quick line that
I can use when my stuff failed. Comedians pay a close attention when that
happens to a fellow comedian on stage. So we really have to be prepared
for the failed moment with endless variations of materials.
Q: What about negative reactions
from the audience?
Yanagawa: Some people don’t
like my jokes and say so. Sometimes a backstage argument follows my performance.
Feedbacks from the audience like that are important for my education and
growth as a good comedian, so I take them seriously.
• Also, it’s a critical part of a comedian’s skill to handle heckling
from a drunken audience, how to treat it as a comedic material. That skill
has to be mastered in everyday life.
• When they don’t like my performance, the audience is in perfect silence,
but when it’s good, they completely go wild. That’s the American way I
Q: I see you use the same
type of notebooks.
Yanagawa: These are the
notebooks sold at my high school bookstore. I keep all my ideas in them.
I feel what I’ve written in these notebooks are the origin of my performance.
• When I used other notebook to write down ideas, they flopped! So I go
to Toho High School bookstore and get these notebooks. They said to me,
“We won’t charge you; come back when you become famous.”
Q: That’s a good story.
Thank you very much.