The NHK sitcom Home Sweet Tokyo tells the story of Bryan Jenkins (played by stand-up comedian BJ Fox), a British bloke who has to uproot and make a new start abroad when his Japanese wife, Itsuki (Yoshino Kimura), moves back to her hometown following her mother’s death.
In Tokyo, it’s the missus who's bringing home the bacon while Bryan is the house-husband. When Bryan isn't attending to household chores and looking after their daughter Alice (Isla Rose) and his grumpy father-in-law Tsuneo (Tetsu Watanabe), he’s trying to acclimatise to his new host country, with side-splitting results. Think of Bryan as a cross between Mr Bean and Karl Pilkington.
Launched in 2017, Home Sweet Tokyo is the first English-language sitcom produced by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. It’s also the first time a non-Japanese to star in a sitcom on the channel. Not too bad for BJ Fox, 37, a relative showbiz newbie who got into comedy while working as a video game company exec in Singapore a few years ago.
Here, Fox, who's also the show's writer, tells 8 DAYS via Skype how he got his own sitcom, which just ended its second season last month.
1. BJ Fox looks kinda familiar.
That’s because you might have seen him performing stand-up at Comedy Masala or Blu Jaz Cafe a few years ago. Back then he was a regular on the local comedy circuit while juggling his day job as an exec at Rockstar Games (home of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption).
Fox started doing stand-up comedy in Singapore after he got bitten by the jesting bug a few years earlier during a business trip in Tokyo. “It was an open mic in Shibuya,” Fox recalls. “I [still] remember what I talked about! I told the story of when I was on a business trip to Japan from Singapore during the 2011 earthquake.”
Does he find doing stand-up therapeutic? “I actually don't,” says Fox. “If anything, it's stressful. It is a good way to meet friends, and I think it is therapeutic for the people in the audience, the expats who are maybe facing some culture clashes at work or in daily life, can come to find these articulated on stage and are able to have a laugh with people in similar situations.”
When he was transferred to Japan in 2015, he continued doing stand-up, in pubs and clubs around Tokyo. He’s also one of the founders of Stand-Up Tokyo, a comedy troupe made up of local and expat comics that stages shows and hosts overseas acts.
2. He was in the right place at the right time.
It was at one of his shows that he met NHK producer Keiko Tsuneki, who pitched him an English language show that would educate foreigners on Japan and her people and culture without turning it to a documentary.
“Keiko believes in the power of humour to teach people in a memorable way,” says Fox, who’s also the writer. “If you look at John Oliver, watching a John Oliver clip about guns in America actually stays with you longer than watching a documentary or a news clip.”
One way of getting the message across is to have Bryan break down the fourth wall, addressing the viewer directly a la The Office — an inspiration of Fox’s — about the idiosyncrasies in Japanese culture, like public bath etiquette.
“He does it with a slightly bemused, ironic, I-dunno-what’s-going-on-here look,” says Fox of his character. “He’s not ever enthusiastic about stuff which I think removes the advertorial aspects of the show.”
3. He isn’t as clueless about Japanese culture as his alter-ego.
At the beginning of the show, Bryan is a fresh-off-the-plane expat who’s only been in Japan for a few weeks. Bryan’s observations were partly inspired by Fox’s early days as a student and later as a teacher there as well as experiences of his mum when visiting Japan.
“When you’ve been here too long, the magic of being in a foreign country for the first time disappears, so having my mum around helped [to give a more refreshing perspective],” says Fox who lives in Tokyo with his girlfriend.
“At the same time, me having been here for so long allows me to have fun with the misunderstandings with a little bit of knowledge. So it’s not just a case of me pointing at stuff and say, That’s weird. I can come in from another level and give a deeper insight into the jokes. I’ve been here for over three years now and I speak fluent Japanese, but I still get those weird little moments when I make a mistake.”
4. He wasn’t ready for the criticisms from the expat crowd.
Online comments weren’t exactly kind when the Home Sweet Tokyo ads first appeared, with detractors expressing concerns that the producers were stereotyping foreigners in Japan. But those criticisms died down after the show aired, notes Fox. “I sometimes think foreigners in Japan are sensitive to how they are portrayed on TV, but I don’t think we fall into that trap.”
It's a trap they avoided by having a foreigner character written by a foreigner. “Kudos to NHK [for doing that], I think that was a positive step forward,” says Fox. Despite the controversy, Season 1 was well received and NHK ordered a follow-up, which just ended its run last month.
When it comes to the brickbats hurled at the show, Fox has a glass-half-full way of looking at them. “When you do comedy on stage, the worst thing that could happen to you isn’t being booed or getting heckled but [when no one’s laughing at your jokes],” he says.
“So when I read those comments, my stand-up comedy brain went, ‘At least, they saw it; they weren’t silent.’ Ask any comedian: there’s nothing worse than telling a joke while everyone is looking at their phones.”
5. He practices his stand-up routines in a karaoke box.
“I think one of the harsh realities of being a stand-up comic/writer/actor of TV is that most of the time is spent at home having writer’s block,” says Fox who quit his job with a credit card company to work on Season 2 of Home Sweet Tokyo.
“Working full time and doing a show is easy because you got the comfort and security blanket of a full-time wage,” says Fox who also writes for a video game website. “Now that I’ve decided to go full-time, I have to work even harder.” Real hard.
In Singapore, Fox got to fine-tune his material at open mic sessions — at least 2-3 times a week — before moving on to a regular set. It’s different in Japan. “The problem we have here, especially with doing comedy in Japanese — is there is no low-tier show to practice at,” says Fox. “Every show is a proper show that the audience pays for and expects a high-level performance.”
So where does Fox prepare his stand-up? “[Just the other day] I found myself paying for a karaoke box where I was able to pick up a mic and spent two hours practicing my set alone inside, which is a sad reality of being a stand-up comic in Japan.”
Catch up on all episodes of Home Sweet Tokyo at www.nhk.or.jp/homesweettokyo. NHK World is on Singtel TV Ch 157 and StarHub Ch 812. For info on Fox’s stand-up shows, visit www.standuptokyo.com. They run shows 2-3 times per week, including a weekly open mic on Mondays. Fox runs the Craft Beer & Comedy show on Saturdays in Roppongi.
Photos: NHK, BJ Fox