The decline of America’s industrial infrastructure and Japanese economic imperialism aren’t your standard stand-up comedy material. But then Tamayo Otsuki, a kimonoed cutup who has been a topless dancer and a drummer in an all-female band, is not your standard borscht-belt comic. Otsuki, 30, is out to make the Japanese both scrutable and funny to Americans. “Wonder why the Japanese in America always seem to be smiling for no particular reason?” she asks. “They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they’re all thinking the same thing—how much is that building?” Or take the cost of living—please. “In Japan a cantaloupe costs $40,” she says. “In America it’s 49 cents. I eat one cantaloupe a day, and so far I’ve saved $20,000.”
Either because Americans will buy anything Japanese or because of Tamayo’s snappy delivery, her chopshtik is working: She is a regular at L.A.’s Comedy Store, has played New York’s Catch a Rising Star and has taped a segment for Joan Rivers’s new syndicated show. “I still feel deeply Japanese,” says Otsuki, “and the premise of the jokes still comes to me in Japanese. But the punch lines, they are always in English. In Japanese, it’s very difficult to use a punch line.”
The daughter of a factory owner and a nurse in Osaka, Tamayo dropped out of Kansei Gakuin University and in 1981 landed in L.A. with $100 and one Barbra Streisand tape. “I listened to the tape 200 times,” she says. “I wanted to be Barbra Streisand.” Along the way she supported herself by the aforementioned topless dancing and drumming. Meanwhile she studied voice, mime and comedy, and in 1984 she signed up for amateur night at the Comedy Store. The audience loved her. “I felt like I had met the man I was going to marry,” she says.
Her countrymen may soon get a chance to savor Otsuki’s international humor firsthand during her projected first visit to Japan in five years. “My father didn’t want me to come because he didn’t want other Japanese to know about me,” she admits. “He was concerned others might come over and try to do the same thing I’m doing.” Now, that would be expansionism.