(By Christine Nguyen)
Writer Eva Hoffman once said, “There is nothing like a gleam of humor to reassure you that a fellow human being is ticking inside a strange face.”
Living in New York I see the different cultures of the world cross and overlap every day; my local Chinese takeout place also carries burritos. Such occurrences are so common that they unfortunately become mundane, expected. That’s what makes the unexpected so extraordinary. When a man in a giant chicken suit can remind me that it is the basic needs of the human spirit that ties us all together, I know I’ve stumbled onto something.
I knew from the moment I met up with Joe Tex and Jay Painter, two team members from the improv production company “Face Off Unlimited,” I was in for a fun interview.
There they were in their matching colored shirts, finishing each other’s sentences in their excitement. Their likeability and knack for humor were apparent the second we began our interview. They told me about how their shared passion first brought them all together along with other Face Off Unlimited members, Alex Hill and Eric Robinson. Their vision allowed them to transform an unused black box beneath a theatre into “Friday Night Face Off,” Long Island’s oldest professional improv comedy show.
Anthony, the owner of Jebon Sushi & Noodle House saw Face Off Unlimited’s potential and brought them to St. Marks so they could use the empty space in his restaurant. The team saw the opportunity to use the St. Marks location in creating a brand new show, BATSU! In Japan the term means penalty game. It’s like if you were on Family Feud and every time you got an answer wrong you’d get hit in the face with raw chicken or something. If you still don’t understand, think of all the crazy Japanese game show clips you may have seen. The Simpsons have also parodied Batsu games, and its format has been mimicked on shows like MTV’s “Silent library.” The show itself was inspired by St. Marks, which is known for being a hot spot of Asian cuisine. Face Off Unlimited knew that they wanted to have some sort of Asian influence in their show.
I have witnessed the successful fusion of cultures. I have also experienced failures. Who expected tacos from China Wok not to be delicious? The show “BATSU!” in St. Marks is a raging success.
Face Off combines the quick wit and mental creativity found on shows like “Whose Line is It Anyway” with zany, out of the box humor found in Japan. It is a brilliant partnership and one I got to experience recently for myself. BATSU! is found on the bottom floor of the trendy restaurant Jebon. It is actually more like a dinner and a show because customers can order from the restaurant’s menu. The format of the show follows a simple storyline: Noriko Sato, a Japanese girl, is told not to hit a gong or else Batsu No Akuma, “the demon of punishment” will come forth and wreak terror on the town. That is unless a mighty warrior can re-seal the demon back into the gong. Of course Noriko hits it, and the four comedians of the night act as the four foreign warriors competing to use their wit to earn the honor of recapturing the demon.
These competitions make up the games of the show. You have impressions, charades, and drinking games, all with their own clever twists. The games themselves are set every week by Joe, Eric, Alex and Jay, who have to come up with new material on the spot. During their different rounds there are winners and losers. Winners get more points which get them closer to the honor of being the one to seal the demon, and the losers…get Batsued. These punishments can include eating sushi off an incredibly hairy man or dipping your hand into a bowl of mousetraps. A popular punishment is getting hit in the chest with a paintball gun by Noriko.
Joe, Jay, Eric and Alex are incredible entertainers, but the other members of the cast help to really bring the show to a new level. Noriko, a cute and bubbly Japanese girl, who smiles as she slaps you in the face, comes and goes on stage in colorful costumes ranging from innocent school girl to straight S&M mistress. Brian Walters, the ever cool and charming host of the show is a child celebrity from Japan. Walters started off as an intern and student at Face Off Unlimited where his talent was noticed and he now hosts Batsu and deals out points. Finally there’s Whit Baldwin who steals the show in his various costumes ranging from giant chicken to raunchy male wrestler, all in order to make the punishments even more hilarious then they already are. Baldwin at one point dresses up as a hairy hula dancer and the losing team is forced to eat sushi off of his stomach. (Don’t worry…Jebon is very sanitary.)
You can see Batsu every Monday. Tickets are sold online or at the door. You also might soon be able to play Batsu yourself. There is currently an iphone game app in the works. To find out more about the show, visit their website at www.faceoffunlimited.com.
Batsu for me has become one of those New York secrets that you should definitely take the time to experience. The show’s success comes from not only a good idea, but the chemistry of the cast on stage. Pairing the fab four’s rapid-fire humor with the quirky hosting skills of the Japanese cast members Noriko and Brian, make Batsu what it really is. Not only a mix of two different cultures, but the successful creation of something entirely new.
New York is an amazing palette of the different cultures found all over the world, but sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re not so different after all. I’m not saying that Batsu and laughter can bring about world peace, but it will make for a great Monday night out.