Soka Gakkai International
Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
How did you become involved in comedy?
Yonetaro: In elementary school, I dreamed of becoming a great baseball player. However, I ended up in theater school. A television screenwriter told me, “In the acting world, becoming a hit is just as likely as winning the lottery; however, if you become a rakugo comedian, the chance is 1 in 500—about the same odds of winning a horse racing bet—so, comedians have a better chance of succeeding than actors!” After much deliberation, I decided to do rakugo, and was later introduced to the rakugo master Yonesuke Katsura, eventually becoming his disciple.
Paul: I was asked to emcee a Buddhist event in 2004 in front of several hundred people. I found myself feeling very at home on stage; the humor and spontaneity just came naturally. This event revealed something that I’d always secretly known: I was obsessed with comedy and wanted to pursue it as a career, if only I could be truly honest with myself. Later that year, I was encouraging my friends to follow their dreams and they threw the question back at me—when would I pursue my dreams? By the following year, I was doing the “open-mic” (amateur) comedy circuit on a weekly basis, and now, several years and well over 1,000 gigs later, I make a living as a comedian.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your work, and what are the most challenging?
Paul: Most enjoyable: to be driven by inspiration. To think of something funny and then try it out on stage. To bring joy and laughter to others. To be truly in the moment as a performer. To banter with the audience and generate laughter without a clear plan in advance but just by taking a leap of faith. To get paid to do something you love.
Most challenging: Believing in yourself. Ironically, the very thing you strive for in the beginning—to get good enough that people will pay you to do it—is the thing that creates anxiety, the fear that one day you might have to go back to less joyful or inspiring forms of work. Moreover, as a writer and performer, you can spend far too much time worrying about what others think of you. At such times, I remind myself of second Soka Gakkai president Josei Toda’s words: “It doesn’t matter what others do. Everything depends on you, on your determination.”
Yonetaro: What makes me the happiest is to hear my audience laugh and to have them say, “That was fun.” I’ve been in rakugo for 26 years, but for the first four years, I worked as an apprentice. You eventually get promoted to the rank of futatsume, where you are allowed to personalize rakugo skits with your own sense of humor. Ten years later, you get promoted to shinuchi and are finally considered a genuine rakugo comedian. Over 1,000 people attended my first performance and I nearly cried with joy. I was now also allowed to have my own disciples, but of course, if no one requests to be your disciple, you won’t have any!
How does your Buddhist practice inspire your approach to work?
Yonetaro: In the world of rakugo, even today, there is a very strict mentor and disciple relationship. In the past, I did not get along well with my mentor. No matter what I did or said, I would be scolded and I always feared his words. At that time, I came across Nichiren’s quote, “Winter always turns to spring,” and I said to myself, “Ah, it’s that kind of period right now, but eventually the snow will definitely thaw.” I prayed with all my might, and the divide between me and my rakugo mentor eventually turned into a bond of friendship.
Paul: I am often encouraged by my mentor SGI President Ikeda. It was his sharing of Goethe’s words that awakened me to my passion: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” I am resolved to become a world-class comedian and comedy actor no matter what, drawing from Nichiren’s indomitable spirit that enables me to transcend any anxieties about the state of the comedy industry, or indeed my perceived “status” within it. Overcoming my own shortcomings to do this is my ongoing human revolution!
How does comedy create value?
Yonetaro: SGI President Ikeda often says we should strive to treasure even one person. Once, a woman who had lost her husband was invited to my show by a friend. At first, she was not able to laugh with everyone, but at some point, because of something I said, she suddenly started to smile. Later, the woman’s daughter wrote me, saying, “Thank you so much. My mother has begun to smile again.” This reminded me of another quote by Nichiren: “The voice does the Buddha’s work.”
Paul: Comedy creates value in so many ways. As a great man once said: “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” To give ourselves and others the chance to let go of daily concerns and just laugh is such a privilege.
Comedians can hold a mirror up to society and ask challenging questions, puncturing “taboo” subjects using only their wit and sound judgment, which almost invariably come from a place of truth. My own style of comedy is not especially cruel or dark; when bantering with audience members, I will sometimes be quite “assertive” in joshing with people, but no one ever appears to be offended because it is clear that I am coming from a good place. As we say in Nichiren Buddhism, “it is the heart that is important.”
How do you see your mission as a comedian—what is it that you are aiming to accomplish through your work?
Yonetaro: One time after a performance, an old lady said to me, “Up until now, I’ve been depressed, but listening to your performance I laughed and felt the joy of living.” I was really delighted and felt I had gained something money can’t buy. (Of course, I’m also very happy to accept any offers of money!)
related article Setting the Stage by Ulf Dietrich and José Gonzalo Pérez B Two Buddhists, one from Germany and another from Venezuela, discuss their Buddhist practice and its influence on their work in theater. Paul: I want to use comedy to fulfill my potential as a human being, driven by my Buddhist practice and the values of Nichiren Buddhism. In practical terms, this means inspiring as many people as possible, whether it be to pursue their own dreams or just to be happier and more joyful in their daily lives. I try to “live” comedy in this way.
What kind of advice would you give an aspiring comedian?
Paul: Go for it! It can take some years for your efforts to really take root, but comedy is still basically a meritocracy which rewards hard work. Gig as often as you can, write what you think is funny, not what you think people want to hear. Above all, be yourself and enjoy it, no matter what. It’s supposed to be a joyful thing, remember!
Yonetaro: I took various paths—bumpy, mountainous and even some detours—but had the chance to come into contact with many people. No matter what path we may choose, the most important thing is to take one step at a time toward our dreams, being true to ourselves. Winter always turns to spring.
[Courtesy July 2013 SGI Quarterly]
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