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Aiko Tanaka as a Japanese female comedian: Funny, inspiring and jackfruit-lovin'

Aiko Tanaka as a Japanese female comedian: Funny, inspiring and jackfruit-lovin'

Text: Megan Koh


Aiko Tanaka speaks to us on her return to the screen in Season 3 of Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! on 14 August

Aiko Tanaka took to the stage of Victoria Theatre along with five other stand-up comedians in the live show of Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! last July. Come 14 August, fans will be thrilled to see the familiar face on Comedy Central Asia channel as it premieres Season 3 of Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! in a 10-part series.

Born in Tokyo and based in America, Tanaka has danced, modelled and acted before finding her place in stand-up comedy. The 38-year-old artiste has travelled across America to perform in comedy clubs and has appeared on The Howard Stern Show, Late Night with Jay Leno, Stand up and deliver and Laughs.

She's successful to say the least, but still retains a sincerity when she speaks. The comedian becomes almost child-like when she gushes over her new-found local love, jackfruit, and confesses how she bought and wore a mustard top to pay tribute to it. "I wake up at 7am in the morning and I just keep on eating jackfruit. I love it so much," she said.

While she doesn't have any specific vices, Tanako likes reading, taking showers and watching food videos instead. She watches anything with cheese even though she doesn't eat it. When her live sets get uploaded on YouTube, she doesn't read the comments because she gets too scared. "People might say 'oh she has a big head' and then it will get 200 likes," she said.

The conversation punctuates with laughter and the topics naturally ease when Tanaka finds it too serious. "I say really deep stuff but my comedy is really light actually," she reassures. Being a stand-up comedian is quite a career, but she reveals that it is not only grounded with humour. It also comes with sensitivity, thoughtfulness and a love for what she does.

What made you decide to do stand-up comedy?
My friends said, "you're really weird, you should do stand-up comedy". I've never thought of it before because I wanted to do martial arts like Jackie Chan but I realised I was not good at it. I went to see an Asian comedy show in LA and it was a mind-blowing experience. I didn't know we could have a voice or that we could go up on stage and be funny. So, I quit acting and did stand-up since I was not that good of an actress to begin with. All the things I did were usually one-liners but even that was really nerve-wrecking for me because I made mistakes all the time. But in comedy, making mistakes is funny to people so I guess this is my calling. I loved it the first time but the second time I did it, it was terrible and so I quit. But then a friend who is a comic told me "to be a good comic, you have to have many bad sets". Since then, I've kept going.

You used to pursue modelling, acting, dancing and now comedy. Why are you attracted to the stage?
When my cousin got married, my sister and I were supposed to sing a song and we practiced for two weeks every day. But when we went up on stage, I blanked out because I got nervous. Everybody was just looking at me and I was wearing this stupid dress. I was 7-years-old - big enough. I looked at them, started crying and then people went "aw". And I really loved it. I loved the attention. My sister was singing and I was crying. People were looking at me all concerned and I just remembered really liking that feeling.

If you were to go back to acting, what kind of roles do you want to do?
I want to be someone's neighbour. Not the main character. Just somebody's neighbour that comes and borrows sugar. One or two lines per episode. That's good enough.

How did you start as a comic?
When I did stand-up comedy in the beginning as a side job, it was easy for me to go up, be cute, and dance around. It was so much fun for me. Then one time, my friend came up to me and asked, "how come you don't write jokes?". I only thought I wanted to show up and twirl but then I realised that I wanted to say something on stage that was meaningful. So that was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a comic and I think I'm going to work on this art for the rest of my life.

Why did you move to the US to pursue the career?
I grew up with a single mum so I wanted to take care of her but I realised in Japan it's very limiting and you have to be extremely smart or good at your job. I then heard that US was the country for dreams and I thought "I can do that too". I have an older sister who is powerful, aggressive and smart. Growing up, I just followed her. Up until high school, I never made my own friends, I never studied, I never did anything because she was good and my parents never pressured me. I never really tried because I was comfortable. Moving to US was where I could learn how to do everything myself. I moved and then realised that I didn't speak English and went "oh no". I don't think before I do things.

What were your challenges living abroad?
I struggled with the language barrier and the culture barriers. In Japan, we are raised to be very kind and polite. You have to watch over other people before yourself. But in the US, you have to speak up for what you want and that was a very scary thing for me. We don't say no in our cultures, we say "it's difficult". But you have to say "no" when living in the US and that was really difficult for me to learn.

Does being a Japanese female become a hurdle in your career?
I don't want to limit myself. When I can't accomplish what I want to do, I will think that it stemmed from my personal flaw, either that I was struggling, insecure or didn't believe in myself. I don't want to see it as "oh, it's because I'm a girl". I used to work in a restaurant and that was extremely difficult. If everything is difficult, why don't I try something that I want to do? When I go "I'm a female, I'm Japanese", it's going to be harder because I'm giving myself excuses. I want to see myself as a comic and feel free. Being a girl is actually good because there's so much to prove and this is probably the only place for us to speak our truths.

How do you prepare for a set?
I like being with really close friends and then having my own time to clear my head. I'm not the type of person to be talking and then go up on stage. It'll be too overwhelming for me. I need to have my own space first before I go up. Some people listen to music but I just clear my head and I'm good. Sometimes there is a voice in my head that goes, "you're not good enough" and there are days where I do overcome it and these are the best moments because I win. I do well when I'm thankful. I don't do well when I'm too cocky. Let's say I had an amazing set the day before and I go, "pft, I got this, this is so easy. I was born to do this," and then I go up and it's not good. I need to be thankful. I thank God, I thank crowds, I thank people who show up and remember to not have any negative feelings. To be clear, give gratitude and share love.

What do you do when there is a bad set?
I just go home and eat. I like salty things so I eat nuts and chips. I also like plain rice and other savoury stuff. I've learnt from other comics to reflect what I did wrong and to not make the same mistakes again. When I have a good set, I don't learn anything. But when I have a bad set, I start to think how I can make it better.  

What makes you laugh?
My family is funny. My mum is an extremely funny person. She'll say things as it is. Like I would cut my hair and she will say I look like a grandma. It makes me laugh because it's not in the Japanese culture to say something like that. But she is really, really funny and she says it with love. I think I'm only half as funny as she is. She actually did stand-up in US once. She was in the crowd and she just went up on stage and started talking. She didn't even practice and people were laughing so hard. Everybody came up to me afterwards to say, "your mother is amazing" and I'm like "this is my show, I don't know what happened." She's extremely funny and she doesn't even speak English so it's not fair.

What do you want to improve on?
To be always okay with myself whatever the situation is. To know that I'm good enough. My comedy is not the best writing or the best in anything but I want people to be happy - that's my fundamental thing. I want to connect. Not everybody is a confident person and not everybody is really great at everything they do. There are some people out there who are like me. But I give it my all and aim to connect with people. There are days where I might not do as well as I wanted to but I know I've tried my best and I can go to bed peacefully. I tell myself, "it's okay, I can do better next time".

Season 3 of Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! premieres on the Comedy Central Asia channel on 14 August, 10pm. 

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