Japan’s ‘drone comedian’ wants to rehabilitate the device’s reputation

He may be the first of his kind.

Feb 29, 2020, 4:13 pm*

Internet Culture

Drones have been grabbing headlines in Japan over the past year, but rarely for positive reasons. Although the devices have been used to study a volcanic eruption and fly into the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the nation’s first big exposure to the unmanned automated vehicles came this past April, when a drone boasting trace amounts of radiation landed on the roof of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office. 

That incident prompted lawmakers to call for new regulations on the machines, some citing the threat they posed ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Since then, several smaller but newsworthy accidents have occurred, including a drone crashing into a historic temple and another being found on the tracks of the bullet train near Hiroshima. Regardless of how serious these situations were, each one prompted a familiar round of vilification and calls for further regulation.

It all left Keiichiro Tani, a drone enthusiast, feeling despondent. “It was a really hard time for me, because drones became a ‘problem’ in society,” he told the Daily Dot. “It was hard to use drones in public because of people’s image of them.” Now Tani is actively trying to change that perception as Japan’s—and possibly the world’s—first drone entertainer and comedian.

Under the name “Tani + 1,” Tani takes part in live events and also acts as a street performer. Yet he primarily operates on YouTube, where he uploads videos of himself using various drone models to pull off a wide range of tricks. He’s not a comedian in the classic sense—don’t expect a Seinfeld-esque standup routine poking at our drone-filled future—but dabbles, rather, in charmingly goofy gags. Backed by a twee soundtrack, his repertoire includes playing popular children’s games  or making soap bubbles using remote-controlled drones.

Tani’s signature move is a new spin on an old party trick. He’ll put a snack—usually a marshmallow—on one of his hovering drones, and then flip said foodstuff into his mouth from a few feet away. Maybe not HBO material, but he’s trying to do more than just make people laugh.

“Some people have tweeted at me saying, ‘your marshmallow catch trick is the most peaceful way to use drones,’” Tani said. “I decided to tell the world about the good side of drones since then.”

Growing up in Tokyo, Tani was always a curious child, hanging out with older kids in an effort to learn as much from them as possible. Many of the hobbies he mentioned are staples of most childhoods: catching bugs, taking care of animals, playing video games. Yet he also became interested in making his own robots and machines from an early age: “I liked Back To The Future so much, especially the idea of the hoverboard. I think that’s why I eventually started playing around with drones, I found the idea of things hovering in the air cool.”

Initially, though, Tani set off to be a traditional comedian. “I thought it would be nice to make people smile and laugh by doing stupid things,” he said. He started out as a solo standup artist. “Making people laugh is the hardest thing to do. I struggled for a long time.”

About three years ago, Tani bought his first drone, a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. “I felt the future right away, seeing it hover in the air,” he said. He decided to change his stagnant comedy routine and began incorporating drones and other remote-controlled devices into his act. It was around this time that various unmanned vehicles started dominating his YouTube channel. Tani also posted RC car videos, along with reviews of drones.

“I practice flying them every day, although it’s hard to find a place to do that,” he said. “Once a week, I rent out a meeting room to fly it around in. I also try to practice in my room before I go to bed, so I don’t forget how to control it.”

Tani’s decision to pilot the devices himself is a point of pride, and it adds an element of unpredictability to his performances. One of his go-to bits involves him using a drone to add something to a large caricature of a celebrity—Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, for example. In his solo recordings, the gag goes off well. But in a live recording he also shared to his page, things don’t go as well, the mole landing off target.

To some degree, though, these mistakes only aid in Tani’s mission to make drones appear less menacing. The popular assumption is that drones—or any futuristic device—failing in their function will lead to destruction and harm. If machines are meant to be perfect, any hiccups equal catastrophe. Yet Tani shows that this isn’t the case, and that making a mistake with a drone isn’t a big deal. It can even be funny.

He thinks that his primary model, the AR.Drone 2.0, helps with that. “The edges are surrounded by styrofoam, so they’re really safe even if you accidentally hit someone,” Tani said. “It’s the best for performing near large groups of people, and I think it’s not that intimidating.”

While he’s far from a household name, Tani’s stock has been slowly rising over the past year. He went to Los Angeles last winter, where his drone performances seemed to go over well (“In Japan, the audience reacts to my performance being admiring or impressed, but it’s hard to make them laugh. In L.A., people really enjoyed it, and I got them laughing”), and this September he helped promote the film Drone Of War alongside several Japanese celebrities. Ironically, that film focuses on the U.S.’ use of drones in war, and paints a dire picture of the technology. Tani, though, talked about how fun and non-threatening drones can be.

“I understand why drones caused many accidents and problems, but it’s because of how interesting and attractive the devices are to people,” Tani said. “What I think is important are that people use them with a sense of moral goodness.”

Recently, the future of drones in Japan brightened a bit. After a summer where various politicians condemned the devices, the government recently decided to allow home deliveries by drones sometime in the next three years. Maybe at that point the overall public perception of drones across the island will have softened. But until then, Tani plans to keep flipping marshmallows into his mouth.

Photo via Greg Clarke/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 13, 2015, 11:00 am