So What the Hell IS Manzai Anyways?

Don’t tell anyone now but this is apparently “real” manzai.

When we last left off, we were talking about the rise of a new batch of Japanese comedy stars, dubbed by the media as the Seventh Generation of Japanese Comedy, a term determined more by savvy marketers than by any actual generational shift in how comedy is crafted in Japan.

I had originally planned on introducing some of the “top” members of this “new” group in a new post but while writing it, I had a long and deep conversation with my podcast co-host and actual Japanese comedy researcher Nick about manzai and its various evolutionary shifts as a comedy form. More specifically, we spoke about the act of performing manzai in the era of remote lives and plastic shields aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Side note, it was a great and really deep conversation about the craft of being a manzai comedian that probably only five or six people in the entire world would probably enjoy hearing.)

A long long time ago, Yoshimoto attempted to introduce the world to manzai via a Netflix “documentary” that I still have crazy stress nightmares about being in. In it, we said that manzai was one mic, two people, and the “Japanese Dream” (Note: I really wasn’t lying about those stress nightmares.). But is that really true? In the four years since then and in the last several months, I’ve given this idea a lot of thought.

Two People…

Leaving the horrible “Japanese Dream” tagline out of the discussion (seriously, sooo many nightmares), two comedians performing in front of a standing mic seems like a simple enough definition of this “distinctly Japanese” form of comedy. All the biggest names of Japanese showbiz over the years seemingly got their start as parts of manzai duos (or rakugo performers or pop stars, but that’s a whole different blog post). Downtown, Ninety-Nine, Bakusho Mondai, Chidori are all examples of headline dominators who got their big starts as manzai guys. Yes, it is indisputable that manzai combis are the first images that come to mind when thinking about Japanese comedy.

(Getting sidetracked for a second because I think it needs to be addressed, when I translated the script for What’s Manzai?!!!, one of the notes I got back from the non-English speaking Yoshimoto producers was that they thought that “two people” should in fact be “two men.” That was but one of the many bitter mind-numbing conflicts I faced during the production of those two hours of “documentaries about Stephen’s life and thoughts as a first year manzai comedian”.)

But what about trios? As the big seventh generation push continues in full force, trios like Sanji no Heroine have come into the spotlight as manzai performers (though in the case of the big personalitied female trio from Yoshimoto, the manzai is also accompanied by conte sketches and short gags). With the proliferation of more and more trios performing manzai (over the last several decades, most owarai trios seemed to wind up performing conte skits live rather than slick pitter-patter manzai acts), the “two people” definition definitely seems unnecessary, which then leaves the “center mic”.

One Mic…

Back in the day, before microphones became small enough to just stick to the lapel of your shirt or in the general vicinity of your body, the sanpachi (“38”) mic was a necessity for a manzai performance before a large crowd or for television or radio. It’s certainly become an iconic part of manzai but does it need to be included for something to truly be manzai?

As COVID-19 has shut down theaters across the world (and then reopened them and then subsequently re-shut them down in a never ending cycle of people getting sick and dying and other people completely forgetting about the sickness and dying until more people get sick and die), lots of comedy stage shows and performances have shifted online (hence Yoshimoto encouraging most of its comedians to start a Youtube channel without any idea of what that would entail) and more and more comedians have been forced to perform their familiar manzai acts sans-mic (though that’s been a thing at auditions for years) and, in some cases, without even sharing the same physical location. For the most part, this remote manzai seems to work.

Ideally, of course, there’d be a duo of performers, at least one of them preferably in a suit, and there’d be a packed audience, and they would be doing it all with the iconic mic between them, but it’s not a requirement for manzai. After all, one doesn’t need to Chris Hemsworth to be considered a man.

And a Dream

Manzai is a rhythm, a flow, a tone of conversation. It doesn’t require a microphone or a duo or even for the people doing it to be in the same room. Is it some sort of legendary Japanese craft only performable by native Japanese people? No, but it certainly does help.

It’s often been said, to me at least, that knowing a culture’s comedy is the last step in becoming fluent in its language. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true though, since some things (fart jokes, dick jokes, casual sexual discrimination for no reason in particular) seem to be universal. For a long while, I chalked up my inability to sense manzai’ s special-ness to my lack of a full mastery of the Japanese language and having been born and raised in America, the land of buddy comedies, standup performers, and SNL. But as I’ve gotten older and progressed through my career and started getting paying translator gigs that made it harder and harder to blame my lack of understanding of manzai on being a dumb gaijin.

Keep in mind this is all just one dumb guy’s stupid stupid opinion but manzai is, when it all comes down to it, a funny conversation between two or more people made for the benefit of an audience, be it one person, a dog, a full audience, or an empty theater.

Downtown? That’s manzai.

The seventh generation of Japanese comedy? Manzai.

David Spade and Chris Farley in Tommy Boy? That’s manzai too.

That’s right, oddly nationalistic Japanese entertainment people, manzai isn’t some sort of Japanese superpower, it’s comedy writ large. That doesn’t make it any less special though.

One thought on “So What the Hell IS Manzai Anyways?

  1. Pingback: Behind the Yoshimoto Curtain: A Chat w. Comedian Stephen Tetsu | Japan Station 49 | Japankyo - Interesting news on Japan, podcasts and more

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