Chicago Shimpo
Saku 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 comedy?

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 “reign” there.
• 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 players.
• 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. visit?

Yanagawa: Seven cities – New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Q: I heard that you got “beer-bottled” in Texas.

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.

Saku Yanagawa


Q: What made you perform in Africa?

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 Festival?

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 Festival].

• 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 like.

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.