The Mr. Know-It-All of Japan : Transplanted Chicagoan Dave Spector may have become a media megastar, but can he ever go home again?
Dave Spector has a problem. Six years ago, he came to Japan from Los Angeles as a segment producer for ABC’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
But instead of returning home after a few weeks as planned, the Chicago native stayed on and transformed himself, Cinderella-like, into a media superstar in Japan.
Tune in at any hour of the day or night, to any television channel, and there he is: cracking jokes--in fluent Japanese--on a variety show, competing on a popular quiz program, commenting with authority on international trade friction on the morning news, fearlessly confronting a politician on a debate show. He’s even written (and this is a first for a gaijin , or non-Japanese) a comedy show for Japanese television.
“I’m what is known as a multitalent in Japan,” says the 34-year-old former contributing editor to the National Lampoon. “I literally do everything--a tremendous variety of media. On a given day, it’s often three shows and most of them live. I just dart from one network to another.”
Slightly built and boyish-looking with dyed blond hair, he seems an unlikely celebrity. With his wife, Kyoko, pector has turned a suite in the Tokyo Hilton into his home, office, media center and personal gym.
And, as he says: “I’m famous all over Japan. Everyone knows me. Children. Old people. Taxi driv
ers. It’s almost too exciting for a human being.”
So the problem isn’t his celebrity status. Could it be his competition? There are only three other Americans getting wide exposure on Japanese TV, and he discounts them with a wave of his hand.
“Look, the other two guys (Kent Gilbert and Kent Delacat) are Mormons. Talk about a warped look at life. I mean, these guys don’t keep up with what’s going on. And Chuck (Wilson) has been here since the Korean War. Come on. I’m the only one they can understand. People from Utah don’t count. Not anymore. I set the television people straight on that. I told them: ‘It’s like inviting someone from Mars.’ ”
So what’s the problem?
Well, Dave Spector would like to go home.
“I have an entertainment, show-business background. I should have gone back and continued my career,” Spector says. “All of the people I worked with, all of my friends in L.A., are all very successful now. They’re all writing sitcoms and movies. Everyone’s doing fine.
“A lot of the Americans who come here really didn’t do anything back home at all. Nothing. They worked at a Fava shoe store if they were lucky. But I was trailblazing away at the very moment I was sent over here. I had no intention of rooting myself here. I was totally set on making it in Los Angeles, in the television industry.
“That’s why it’s a dilemma for me. Here, I’m successful only because I happen to speak Japanese the way that I do (he began studying as a child), and because I have the aggressiveness of an American.”
Spector readily acknowledges he doesn’t have the expertise to represent the United States views on sensitive issues such as trade, whaling and crime. A graduate of Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he says he briefly attended Sophia University in central Tokyo, taking Far East studies. He also says he studied broadcasting in Chicago at “one of those places you find in the Yellow Pages.”
His improbable career hinges on the somewhat perverse fascination the Japanese have with foreigners (read “Americans”) who can speak their language and the Japanese TV system, which keeps a very small number of talento (talents) working seven days a week.
“If you’re back home, you’re on an equal plane with everybody else and that’s where the real competition is. It’s the big pond,” Spector says. “So, if you want to have the ultimate satisfaction and pride in being successful, it has to be in your own country. I was successful in the States, so I have it in the back of my mind, ‘Wait, I can be successful back home too.’ ‘
So, why not just pack up and go? You see, there’s this little thing about. . . .
“I’m making too much money here. I’m making so much money, it’s not funny,” Spector admits readily. “I don’t even know how much because it increases every year. It’s an obscene amount.” (Earlier this year, he’d claimed “close to $500,000" for his work in Japan.)
Although unionless Japanese TV pays much less than American TV, the sheer quantity of Spector’s appearances more
than makes up for the low fees. And that’s just the beginning, said energetic superstar, who is capitalizing on his fame with a zeal that would make Vanna White’s head spin.
“Television is really a way to promote yourself for the bigger pie. And that’s lectures and personal appearances. I give three, four, five lectures a week at $5,000 each. That’s a lot of money for an hour’s work. And given my extremely limited education, I really have no business giving lectures. But who’s going to complain?”
Certainly not Spector, who writes regularly for Japanese publications, and has penned a dozen books, including a bilingual collection of blatantly sexist and racist jokes from America, complete with explanations for the Japanese reader. He’s also just become the BBC’s Japan correspondent for “Saturday Night Clive.” And he continues to monitor the airwaves in search of offbeat slices of Japanese life to sell to American TV, including ABC’s “Home,” a daytime show featuring household products and tips. Then there’s his art-importing business.
“I just sold a half million dollars worth of Andy Warhol,” Spector says. “I don’t sleep. Maybe three or four hours.”
Money isn’t the only thing keeping Spector in Japan. There’s also the matter of an appropriate job back home.
“Because I’ve been on so much TV and I’m so used to it, I should be a talk show host or game show
host,” he says. “But I’d probably find that ultimately boring because it would be the only thing I’d do all week and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t think the excitement level would be the same.
“The thing is I’ve learned so many things about what Japanese television does better: They have more fun; it’s more lively; their ideas are great. So when I go back and do TV in the States, it’s very frustrating. I want to grab the producer by the lapels and say, ‘Why don’t you do it this way?’
“On the other hand, you don’t get quality television that’s made to move people. You won’t get a “Wonder Years.” Or the sophistication of a “Murphy Brown”? The Japanese don’t appreciate subtle humor. They’re not subtle and they’re not inscrutable at all. That’s a myth. You can see their cards from a mile away. They’re so easy to understand it’s ridiculous. And it’s so easy to intimidate them.”
Of all of Spector’s jobs, the one he seems to take most seriously is that of Japan’s resident expert on everything. The five video monitors in his hotel suite record everything on Japanese TV and CNN, around the clock. He claims to review all the material (at fast-forward) every night, plus read nine newspapers daily. And, he regularly receives a wide range of American television shows on videotape.
“It is scary to be the first person that all of the magazines and TV shows call when something big happens in the news--the boat people, crack, AIDS,” Spector says. “The phone won’t stop ringing. They know I follow the news closer than anybody. And I offer a cynical view of their own country. And of America.
“No one ever asked my opinion before, certainly not in the States. I love it. It’s great. I hate to put myself on a pedestal, but I actually can change Japanese opinion. It’s a great responsibility.
“The Japanese still see themselves as victims of the war. I point these out. I tell them Japan was only able to become what it is today because it’s under the American defense umbrella.
“A lot of complaints about Japan today are valid. And the Japanese don’t understand that. I’ve actually enlightened them on what it means to live in a democratic nation, which is what they’re supposed to be living in. They don’t even know the power of the vote. They don’t know what they can demand or expect from politicians.
“I try to represent the Japanese common people,” Spector says with no trace of irony. “I’m repaying them for letting me have this experience and making a great living, and experiencing what total fame is about. There’s nothing comparable in America, except for movie stars or Johnny Carson.”
He’ll be even more famous in America if he gets on CBS’ “Saturday Night With Connie Chung,” which was in Tokyo this month filming an episode about his celebrity status in Japan. Producer Dan Chaykin said the episode is scheduled to air in late January or early February.
When Dick Cavett was in Japan a few years ago and met Spector, he wryly commented that Spector’s situation in Japan was like “going to another planet to write Shakespeare, and getting away with it.”
Spector happily agrees. Still, he points out, “I’m the closest thing that they get to American-style entertainment. And it’s in their own language. I feel that I’m justifying my existence here.”