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Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

Japanese TV funnymen target U.S.

Staff writer

In the popular U.S. TV series "Heroes," Japan-born actor Masi Oka played the role of Hiro Nakamura, who could travel through space and time. The series has now finished, of course, but Oka is still breaking down barriers that were once thought insurmountable — this time, however, he's doing it as a producer.

News photo
Cultural export: Staff and talent involved in "Amerika wo Warawasero" ("Make America Laugh!") at a Tokyo studio last week. Left to right: Yoshimoto Entertainment USA Inc.'s Aki Yorihiro, Matthew Glick of Reveille Productions, comedian and MC Koji Imada, actor-turned-producer Masi Oka, TBS announcer Yuko Aoki and TBS producer Takanobu Goda. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

Oka was in Tokyo last week for the shooting of a new program that he hopes will help launch Japanese-style variety TV programs in the U.S. market. "Amerika wo Warawasero" ("Make America Laugh!") is a collaborative project between local broadcaster TBS, talent agency and media company Yoshimoto Kogyo (for whom Oka has become an advisor) and U.S. production house Reveille. The idea is that Japanese comedians take turns presenting proposals for TV programs that they think will "make it" in the U.S.

As host and Yoshimoto comedian Koji Imada explained to members of the press who had gathered to watch the shoot, "There have been many programs in the past that have been about trying to come up with jokes that Americans would find funny." But "Amerika o Warawasero," he continued, is different. "This time, it's real — the program really will be taken to the U.S."

To date, the marketing of Japanese television programs overseas has consisted largely of "format sales." A local broadcaster will add subtitles to a local program, take it overseas and try to convince international production companies to purchase its "format." If they do — and there have been many success stories, such as "Sasuke" and "Takeshi's Castle" — then the foreign production company will use the Japanese program as a template for a new show made with a U.S. cast.

With "Amerika wo Warawasero," Oka and Yoshimoto Kogyo have developed a new approach. At the recent shooting, two programs were made. The first was entirely in Japanese and was hosted by Imada. He introduced the five contestant comedians and then sat back as they made their presentations to him and the other "judges," who included U.S. producers and staff from Reveille.

Funnyman Kendo Kobayashi's proposal was for comedians to play various sports with binoculars strapped to their eyes. Other proposals, such as one by Hiroiki Ariyoshi, were more grotesque — involving young comedians "reverse-bidding" for a paid gig eating such delicacies as cockroach sushi.

For the second version of the program, Oka stepped in as MC and recorded English introductions for each of the presentations. The English version of the program will be taken to the U.S. and Oka, Yoshimoto Kogyo, TBS and Reveille will try to sell it to U.S. broadcasters.

"The idea was that we made a dedicated English-language pilot version of the program at the same time as we made the original Japanese version," Yoshimoto Entertainment USA, Inc. CEO Aki Yorihiro told The Japan Times this week.

Yorihiro also explained that the partnership with Reveille means that if the program is sold to a U.S. broadcaster, and it decides to make their own version of the show, then Yoshimoto and Reveille will collaborate on that production.

"There is a chance that Japanese comedians will appear in the final U.S. version, but basically the idea would be to make the show in the U.S. using American talent," Yorihiro said.

Oka laughed when Imada reminded him that it was Oka's responsibility to sell the show to U.S. networks. But he didn't seem fazed. "I grew up watching variety shows in Japan," he said. "I consider them a treasure."

"Amerika wo Warawasero" airs on TBS at 2 p.m. on March 6.

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