Hey Everyone, February is coming to a close and so is the time when mainstream media likes to casually remind us all to celebrate Black History, but BCJ is here to remind you that whether it’s Black History Month or not, it’s always time and a must to celebrate Black excellence all year around. Black History is alive, well, and we are all out here creating/contributing to it every single day!
Our next profile member is steadily becoming a connoisseur of making others laugh, as a rising star in stand up comedy, here in Osaka. This month we are presenting Runako, an island boy, born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, with a sharp wit and even sharper tongue. He ventured to Japan several years ago, to try something different and with a love of performing, he eventually struck gold when he tried comedy. Making people laugh is something Runako has come to very much enjoy and on a brisk & blustery afternoon, I had the opportunity to discuss how this passion came to be over a delicious Chinese buffet lunch.
Black Creatives Japan: Firstly, how did you come to find yourself in Japan?
Runako: Well, I killed five people in a bank robbery and then… No, the real story is when I was in my second year in university, I wanted to do Chinese because I was interested in it. However, it turned out they didn’t have Chinese that year, but Japanese instead and I thought why not? So I decided to do Japanese and the course had multiple parts for a whole year, but after I had done it for one semester, my double major had been approved (which was separate) so I didn’t have time for it anymore and dropped the class.
While I was doing that though, I learned about the JET Programme and then when I was graduating, I applied to JET. Just like applying for any job at that point. I still wasn’t super interested in Japan, actually. I barely knew anything about Japan, but I was just like, “Hey, this job pays well.” and I hadn’t traveled much at that time so I thought you know, it could be an experience and it’d be something new. So I applied, went through the preliminary process and almost fucked it up because I failed an exam. When applying to JET, if you don’t have a degree yet (because you need a degree to have that type of visa), you need to complete your studies up to a certain point. And not just “complete,” but have your official University status as “completed.” So I failed an exam and went to summer school, but with the timing that still wouldn’t get me a “completed” status. Fortunately though, it turned out that the university was fucking up that year and nobody got a “completed” status, even if they had finished in the correct semester and that allowed me to kind of finagle it.
So I ended up doing the exam on a Friday, kept bothering my tutor for results all weekend and by Monday she had told me I passed. And then beforehand, I had already gone to the university and had a thing written up that if I passed and all things were considered okay, then I would graduate. They couldn’t give a hundred percent actually, but I decided to send that over to the embassy. The embassy (because that’s who actually hires for JET) were so tired, I think and had gone through so much to the point where I had already been selected so they didn’t want to have to go through that whole process over again. So they gave the okay and then that next Friday, I was on a plane to Japan.
Then I lived in Sendai for three years, just figuring out life and how to be an adult. Figuring out how to live in a city, how to use trains and a bunch of other shit I had to learn from the ground up. People ask why I chose Japan and the real reason was that I just knew it would be different. At that point in my life I felt my personality was too big for my country and I realize I still feel like that over and over. My country is wonderful and a lot of people enjoy that life, but there’s a lot of things that other people find joy and routine in that doesn’t do it for me. I felt I had done the things I was going to do in Trinidad and I’d already seen it all.
BCJ: I guess you were beginning to spread your wings as they say! So what drew you into comedy specifically?
R: I started doing stand up two years ago. Because I realized that not being on stage was depressing me. Spending as much time as I do by myself, I started considering my mental health and how my moods were being affected after a while. I realized that during the period while I was in Kansai, I hadn’t performed, hadn’t done anything, and I hadn’t been on stage anywhere. So I was just trying to figure out what I could do and comedy was something that had kind of just crossed my mind a year before so I considered doing it.
I had a history of performing in my life. I used to be in musicals and Shakespeare stuff in my country and even before that, I was always doing things like public speaking and reading in church. As long as I’ve known myself, I’ve been talking in front of people.
BCJ: That’s really cool that you mentioned Shakespeare as well because I always envisioned that comedy had a sort of connection with that style of performing with soliloquies and existential monologues and such.
Well, there was a group I used to perform with, run by a woman who really liked Shakespeare and used to write a lot of monologues & themed shows with monologue performances. We’d do something like Aboard the Ship and it’d be a set where the actors are all parts of the set…Oh god, even as I am thinking about this now, it sounds very corny, but I loved Deborah Jean. She had a very dramatic name as well, Deborah Jean-Baptiste-Samuels. She kind of changed my life. She had a group called Oratory where she would train young kids how to do poetry, prose, and spoken word onstage. And then she’d have these big themed shows named like In The Market. The whole stage would be set like a marketplace and people would have different roles. We’d all be interacting as normal people and then freeze, as one person would do their piece.
So I was in that group and at a certain point you could reach a level where you didn’t have to pay anymore and she would just do productions and invite you to participate. When she started to do Shakespeare, I had gotten to that point, but I was always a bad student (the way she ran her program was like a school). There were points where she’d give assignments and I just wouldn’t do my homework. But when she did a Shakespeare production of Macbeth, she ended up choosing me to fill in a lead role because the original person couldn’t do it. Though at that point, I hadn’t gone up to the final level of the course. I’d been booted out actually and hadn’t been called back, but during this Shakespeare production, she’d brought me on and that was my first time performing in that way. I had been doing musicals with my school choir at the time, but that was my first time having a serious lead role and being on stage so often and having everything be very very intense. During the Macbeth fight in the final scene, I kicked this guy in the chest and his mother was very upset with me. I fell in love with it at that point. I mean, you can kick people in the chest and stuff!
So there was that experience, other school productions and then when I was in university, I ended up in this illegal production of The Lion King that Disney sent lawyers to shut down! And then when I moved to Sendai, I joined the choir and I was performing with them. So yeah even up until here, I had always found something where I could perform onstage.
BCJ: Aww, come on Disney, I would have loved to see that rendition of Lion King (laughter)! But then again, such is life… So moving on, sometimes I think comedy is one of the most difficult mediums of entertainment out there and it’s not for the weary heart. Do you have a similar feeling?
R: I feel like everything depends on your personality. Some people are built for different things. Doing comedy, figuring it out on your own and being onstage by yourself… You either fail or pass and you know that for sure. That’s very tough and it’s mentally trying, but at the same time I myself couldn’t imagine being in a band of four and managing four personalities all the time, you know? For me, that would be a nightmare.
But much more than that, I’ve been doing it for not even two full years yet; so not a long time. I feel I’m growing at a really fast rate, that I’m doing really well and going at a good rate. I’m trying to form really positive habits, but at the same I don’t know what it’s like on the really big stage. I haven’t performed to a really big crowd yet. I’ve been on stages with really big crowds before, but in other mediums. So this, I haven’t done, I haven’t experienced. I can’t say what the full thing is like, but for me right now, what I can say is that while it is difficult yes, it depends on your personality, whether you can handle it or not. Some people need group support and then for others, support just makes them more neurotic. That’s how I am, when people praise me, I always look to see if there’s another motive; it’s just how I’m built. So, it depends.
An additional part of it, is that I incorporated my love of writing. Like before I decided I wanted to do comedy, I thought that I was going to be a writer; that was my whole thing. It took me a very long time. It’s almost embarrassing how long it took me to start trying to build writing habits and write regularly as much as I said I wanted to be a writer. So now that I have been building writing habits, writing for comedy is a bit of relief. I get to write it and immediately try it on stage, whereas while writing solely, it’s difficult for me to finish my book. I have to figure out where the end process is in solely writing. You know, there’s not such a thing as beta testing until it’s finished completely. I like to talk and in comedy I can literally come up with a concept, do a sketch or an idea of it, work it out on stage a bit and then go back and keep refining it until I see results directly. So in that way, writing for comedy is really enjoyable for me and I find I have a love for it, but I think it’s also connected to my love for writing in general. It’s two things being brought together. My love for stage performing and writing are being put together and I think it strengthened both at the same time.
BCJ: It’s also interesting that you naturally brought up writing because that’s what I was going to ask about next. Writing is in fact a big part of the comedic process. Do you ever experience bouts of writer’s block for your comedy? If so, how do you get through them?
R: For me, I much more experience bouts of inaction. If I sit down to write, I can sort of hammer something out. I’ve built this process of just writing nothing and then working backwards. Then I edit through that and cut through it. For example, I was trying to finish a novella that I decided to change into a short story and that process of building the novella, the editing process helped me understand the way my brain works when I write. Writing is definitely something that you’ve just got to do in order to do it. There’s no way to know one hundred percent. I mean I guess you could go to school for it and outside of that, you can research as much as you want, but in the end you just have to do it. I guess that should be intuitive, but I feel like it took me a really long time to figure that out.
Before, I used to think I’d get to a point where I could just write short articles or pieces and then move onto a place where I’d say “Hey, now I’m ready to write a book or something longer.” But that’s not the case, you’ve got to just do it and figure it out and fail and fail along the way. That’s where I am now and I’m kind of enjoying that process a little bit. At the same time I was working that out, comedy came along.
There’s also a component of discipline and pace to it as well and I’m figuring all of that out on my own. The first year of doing this, I wasn’t producing or writing that much because there wasn’t really any pressure on me to do so, but now I’m starting to put pressure on myself to do more. I try to write at least one to two new jokes or concepts a week now, but also the problem with that is there are few spaces to perform here in Osaka, so you end up with a backlog of material you’ve written. Things you haven’t had a chance to work out onstage and then there’s stuff that you are currently working out and haven’t completed, but even so I think it’s important for me to keep the habit of writing and continuing to build consistently.
So I would say that’s it’s not writer’s block per se; more laziness and procrastination. I was reading an article somewhere that said there’s no such thing as laziness, it’s just a mental thing, but I’m not looking for any millennial excuses (laughter). It’s also in the way I was raised. Getting my ass kicked motivates me. So I’d much rather say I’m an aspiring comedian or writer because that’s the way my brain works. I’d rather not rest on my laurels and I don’t want to feel like I’m already there; to put words to it that remind me I’m not there yet, really helps me to keep going.
BCJ: What advice would you give, then, to other aspiring comedians?
R: Hmm, I wonder if I’m really in a position to give advice to people? I mean, think you should just do it. If you can find a space, just do it. Record yourself, decide what you want to do and hopefully find someone who can give you a little bit of advice and guidance. With this it’s very personal and sometimes a little bit of guidance goes a very long way. If you can’t find that, just pay attention to people you like. Pay attention to the craft of it. Like what I thought I’d be doing when I got into comedy and what I’m doing now are two totally different things.
BCJ: You’ve naturally led the conversation again towards my next question! So then, what is your favorite style of comedy? Which comedians are you most fond of at this time?
R: Saying style of comedy is a bit strange, but regarding types, I would say storytelling is great. I like storytellers like Dave Chappelle, but at the base of that, there’s a foundation of really strong joke writing. Just boom, boom, set up, then punchline. I’ve been able to appreciate the writing and craft of that. Even with jokes that don’t make me laugh out loud, I’ve been able to much more appreciate people who can do that. Like Jim Gaffigan, he just recently released a comedy special where the entire time, it’s just nonstop boom, set up, punchline, set up, punchline. It’s full of good stories and it’s entertaining. The framing of it is really old school comedy craft and joke writing.
I’m only just starting to see the craft in that and especially at this time where there’s this phenomenon of new age comedians who perform to people who are very liberal. During their performances, there’s more applause than laughter because they’re giving messages and saying enlightened things. But I’d rather feel uncomfortable laughing about a joke that’s probably inappropriate. Like damn, this person said some really inappropriate shit and it was so funny, I couldn’t not laugh! I’d much rather have that than just clapping for a message, because then I should have just gone to a speech. I didn’t come to just be slightly amused and agree with what you’re saying; there’s spaces for that, but the point of comedy is to make you laugh. I heard someone say once that the point of comedy is to teach you something, but no. I believe there’s already spaces for that. I’m not saying you can’t do that or you can’t do both. And there’s nothing wrong with people enjoying that, but just for me and my understanding of comedy right now, it’s hard for me to perceive that as stand up. It is a type of comedy, but in my eyes, just a bit different.
In terms of a style I like, when I had just started, I wanted to weave in jokes and anecdotes so I looked to Chappelle as an example. If you listen to his older stuff, it’s a lot of “White people do this, black people do that.” “When white people’s lights go out they panic, when black people’s lights go out, they plan it.” It’s really a simple set up and punchline. Chappelle worked that style to such a great point. If we were to put people in categories, there’s Chapelle, a storyteller, Eric Andre, who does a lot of absurd things and Kevin Hart, who is a lot of energy. I think as a person, when I’m being funny with my friends, I’d say I’m closer to Kevin Hart. I usually build this language of understanding between me and people I talk to; we have codes and I’d like to get to a place where I can do that with my audience as well. I feel that there are three things I need to crack: the idea of storytelling, codes between me and the audience and solid joke writing. My personality, my message and my writing need to come across. Most of my jokes are storytelling right now and I’d like to work more on my writing.
Generally, I’m really drawn to storytelling & good jokes, but the type of comedy that I really enjoy, but don’t think I can produce, is what I term “manic comedy”. It’s people who have something loose in them, but they’ve honed it in such a way that they can do it stage and when you see it in their eyes, you just know there’s something wrong. Maria Bamford is one of those people who I really like and James Acaster, too.
I also pay attention to in stagecraft and pacing for certain people. There’s a level of trust you need to have in yourself. When you become famous, people will laugh at anything you say, so that’s fine but I think before that point, you need to have a certain level of pure confidence alone. You can always look at a crowd and tell if they think your jokes are funny or not. You can see on their faces that they’re not going with you, but still you’ve got to trust in the quality of your own jokes so much that you keep your own pace. That’s something I’m really working on now. When I’m acting, it’s already written out and I can follow the pacing easily, but comedy is much more alive and dynamic. It’s an experience to see a person have a level of confidence, where they can command a whole audience from a stage, still be comfortable and take their time. Say that Dave Chapelle wasn’t funny and he was able to go on stage with that confidence, that would still be very impressive and that’s the thing of it. You can look at it on so many levels, see him and just say “Fuck, he’s impressive.”
And fun fact: I’ve never seen live comedy before trying it. I’d only watch stuff online. That’s why I feel I can’t say I’m an expert or anything. I didn’t watch a full comedy show until I watched one of the specials on Netflix and that hasn’t been out for very long. Comedy shows aren’t something I grew up on in the Caribbean. They’re usually very lewd, so it wouldn’t have been something that was on in my house. And there is a small comedy scene back home, but I don’t think I could do comedy there. The things that I find funny and people back home find funny are not the same. It would be difficult for me to perform to that crowd. It’s difficult even now. I’m usually performing to tourists, which are usually a bunch of white and Asian people. Right now, I have a lot of jokes that are like “In Japan this/that…” but that’s not my end goal. I’m focusing now on just making jokes for the kind of open minded crowd I eventually want to have, but there’s limits to what I can do in my current space.
BCJ: And yet again, you’re transitioning into the next segment: plugs and plans for the future. So what’s next for you on your path regarding either?
R: For right now my immediate plan is to mix up the spaces, in which I can perform in as much as I can. One thing I’d like to do is perform at this really cool venue in Sannomiya, Kobe called The Castle. I’ve been procrastinating in setting that up, but I want to organize a comedy night there once a month. Additionally, I’d like to at least once a month try to get out to Tokyo and perform there, since their comedy scene has been on a rise lately. I want to at least get more of a diversity in the crowds I perform to and not just performing in Osaka all the time. I think it’ll be refreshing. I’m still training, and training in Hard Mode, which is good, you know. I like trials by fire. Anyway so the comedy night at The Castle will come later, but currently I do shows at ROR Comedy Club in Shinsaibashi on Fridays and Saturdays and I have a YouTube & Podcast series called Not Drinking Alone that airs bi-monthly.
BCJ: Awesome and do you have any final thoughts you want to share?
Runako: While preparing for this interview, I was trying to figure out why I do comedy and it’s because I want to be on stage. And then I thought “Well, why do you want to be onstage?” and that’s still something that I’m trying to 100% figure out. Like I said before, I enjoy having that feeling of sharing a code between me and my audience. I feel like in that space it’s one of the few where I’m most understood. Normally, I never feel like people understand me and when they do, I have a voice in my head constantly telling me they don’t.
I’m also realizing (quite late in my life I think) that I’d always been a comedian if that makes any sense. I remember I told my very first joke when I was young and it sounds so cliche to say that, but it’s funny that I never really struck on that until now. That I haven’t dropped on comedy faster. Everything happens and comes in its own time I guess. And again, in terms of having codes and such with an audience, there’s so many times I’ve already molded language like that in my friendships. I can just make small references and we have running gags. My sister and I have the most I think, because she’s been on the receiving end of most of my jokes. If I walk into the living room and say I’m now going to perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and I start to describe where the rise and falls are going to be, she knows that means I’m going to the bathroom (laughter)!
I also used to tell these really dramatic stupid stories with all these added embellishments to my friends and it would get to the point where several people would be listening or even people outside the conversation would want to listen in as well. And I think that’s what I like. Part of it is receiving the praise of course and wanting to feel special. It’s one thing to feel special and know that what I’m saying is important, but beyond that I never feel comfortable with the praise. I never trust the praise because that’s not the way I was raised. I didn’t get a lot of verbal approval and I see how people use verbal praise to manipulate and I see how people give it to make themselves feel better in certain situations. I know this to the point where it’s a problem in my interactions with people, but I think I ultimately want the understanding between me and my audience; I want to feel that.
I always knew the reason I was on stage was for me. I knew it was a selfish thing, and I’ve been worried about how selfish that is. Others will say “Hearing people laugh brings me joy,” but for me it’s that you’re laughing at something I said which brings me joy! You’re seeing how funny I am. I keep going back to the idea of having a code and understanding between me and the audience and if I can lock into that, I think that will be the difference between me being good and great. That’s where I’d like my comedy to go. I’d like it to be very big and I’d like to have an audience that I share an understanding with and to be able to share some of my world view within that trust. Whether they agree or not isn’t really important, but for me to be able to share it and also give them a good time is nice. Sharing is enough. Sometimes I just like to talk and I have so much going on in my head that I just wanna say it out loud and have someone listening to me, you know? But there needs to be a good reason that they’re listening to me and I think that would be because I’m making them laugh and making them happy in that way. Hopefully I can get to that space where I’m not just doing comedy selfishly…well not hopefully, I will get to that space. I will.
Yes, definitely stay positive! Even though you say you’re being selfish right now and not doing as much as you want in your comedy, I believe you’ve put down a very good foundation for yourself to keep moving forward with a goal and plenty of stops along the way!
Kansai locals & anyone else stopping through Osaka, please stop by to visit us and Runako at ROR Comedy Club in Shinsaibashi or look forward to seeing more of him in Tokyo scene. You can also find him on YouTube, discussing different aspects of life in Japan over seasonal conbini drinks & snacks, in his new series: Not Drinking Alone!