What’s So Funny? Comedy in Japan versus America

Comedy in Japan versus America

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of appearing on abemaTV’s live late night show, Muramoto Daisuke’s The Night, to participate in a discussion about comedy in Japan versus comedy in the rest of the world (namely America).  While the whole fact that I showed up on Japanese TV is a story in its own right, the discussion that we had on the show really struck a chord with me.  What is it about Japanese comedy that makes it hard to enjoy for foreigners and, on that same note, what is it about American comedy that makes it hard for Japanese people to enjoy?

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Obviously, there is a language gap that has to be leapt between the two forms but the gulf between comedic cultures and understanding of how humor works goes beyond that.  This whole discussion of Japanese comedy versus comedy “elsewhere” stems from a tweet by scientist and writer Ken Mogi.  In it, he calls out “major” Japanese entertainers (not by name, mind you, but as an entire class) as being far off from the international standard of comedy and, thus, “finished”. Continue reading

A (Half-Assed) History of Manzai: Entatsu and Achako

So as you all probably know by now, way back in June, I was in a “documentary” called What’s Manzai?!!!, a project by Yoshimoto Creative Agency that was released worldwide on Netflix mainly so everyone could marvel at my bad on-the-spot Japanese-script-to-English-line translation and comment on how I don’t look my age (in the bad way).  Of course, somewhere between the flubbed lines, gross mischaracterizations, and abuse of my unwitting in-show partner (yes, I know I was pretty much a huge Ron Jeremy-sized dick throughout the thing), we made an attempt to provide an introduction to the Japanese comedy form known as manzai.

In case you haven’t seen the thing yet (believe me when I say I wouldn’t be too upset if you didn’t), manzai is the prevalent form of “standup comedy” in Japan, a pseudo-continuation of the early twentieth century comedy style of vaudeville in the west.  Generally performed by two people, manzai can often be roughly summarized as a “conversation” between a fool (the boke) and the straight man (the tsukkomi).  Almost every single television program on Japanese television is dominated by comedians who broke into the industry through manzai, so I guess you can say it’s sorta a big deal.

So where did manzai come from?  And how did it get so big?

Since What’s Manzai?!!! has sorta ruined my employability with almost every-single English language-focused company in Japan, I guess I’ll use some of my free time to half-assedly (is that word?) take you all through the history of this “unique” comedy form…

It all really started around a hundred years ago…

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Yokoyama Entatsu and Hanabashi Achako

While comedy has existed in Japan for hundreds, if not thousands of years (things weren’t always about head-lopping and self-disembowlment back in the day), the modern iteration of manzai as we can commonly see it today really got going in the late 1920s and 1930s, thanks mainly to, of all things, radio and other technological advancements bringing more and more entertainment to the masses.  Entatsu and Achako, two performers based in Osaka, historically a merchant city of fast-talkers and quicker wits, were two beneficiaries of this leap towards modernity.

Dressing in western-style clothing that veered wildly from the traditional stage garb of Japanese entertainers (garb still worn by rakugo performers to this day), Entatsu and Achako were practically Japanese comedy Elvis, bursting onto the scene with their “unusual clothes” and new crazy style of fast, pitter-patter conversation.  They were trendy, fresh, and new, and, in a post-Meiji Japan looking towards the future, just the entertainers for a new western-influenced Japan.

Among Japanese comedy historians (if there even is such a thing), Entatsu and Achako are known as the originators of the widespread style now called shabekuri manzai, conversation manzai.  Without these two groundbreakers, there would be no manzai as we know it.  Or so I’ve been told.  (As I’m contractually prohibited from posting videos of any company talents or acts, even my own, I’ll just share this link so you can see a bit of the two men in action yourself)

As we see in the clip, taken from a movie made in the 1930s when Entatsu and Achako were at the peak of their popularity, the duo take on a rudimentary form of the roles seen in modern manzai as the entire film around them grinds to a halt, bringing all of our inner film critics to tears.  Looking at it now, with all of our special effects and nifty doodads and such, it’s hard to draw much entertainment value from the thing, but for the common Japanese person of the time film provided an avenue to see the hottest acts of the day (and more!!!) without having to trek out to Osaka in person.

Now, I know you’re all probably thinking, “Aren’t these two dudes just ripping off the style of vaudeville duos like Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy?”  I’ve had these thoughts too.  But no matter who I asked, when I asked, or how hard I tried looking for answers, pretty no one working in the Japanese entertainment industry today will admit to any sort of vaudeville influence or even acknowledge that they knew about vaudeville before I told them about it.  If the two entertainers were in fact ripping off the vaudeville roles of the west, they weren’t exactly doing a great job (at least by our western standards),  here moving very little and talking a lot faster than the film and recording technology of the time could probably handle.

From my perspective, there’s no doubt that vaudeville probably played some role in the development of manzai in Japan.  I mean, one of the most common tsukkomi techniques in modern Japanese comedy (bashing the boke on the head whenever he says something dumb or stupid) is ripped straight from an old Three Stooges routine.  But from Japanese eyes?  Manzai is all Japan.

I’ll let you make your own decisions.

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Japanese Comedy: An Introduction

So it’s almost been an entire year since I made the rather impulsive decision to uproot my (nominally) cushy life, quit my easy-to-do English teaching job, and moved to Tokyo to pursue a career in Japanese comedy.

As it turned out, joining the Japanese geinoukai (“entertainment world”) was both as simple as one, two, three and much much more complex than I anticipated.

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The main thing you need to understand about the Japanese entertainment system is that the agency rules all.  Whereas the wide-ranging perception of the western entertainment world is that of the managers and agents working for the talent, the reverse can be said of the Japanese system.

To get into the Japanese entertainment world, you need to get into a company.  And to get into a company, you need to go to school.  And so, go to school I did, a twenty four-old college graduate white dude in a world mostly unknown to the unwashed gaijin hordes (Take that, dude who just posted the five-thousandth weird-Japanese-ice-cream flavor reaction video on Youtube.)

I’ll possibly get into the different companies of the Japanese entertainment world somewhere down the line but for now, I’ll just tell you that I am on track to become a part of Japan’s largest comedy company by the end of the month after an arduous grind of a year at Tokyo NSC, Yoshimoto Kogyo’s school for aspiring comedians, wannabes, and people who have absolutely nothing better to do and drop out after three months (this constitutes a large chunk of the entering class every year).  It’s been a slog, some parts fun, a lot of parts varying degrees of infuriating and boring, but its almost done and I finally, FINALLY, find myself in a position where I’m allowed to talk about the stuff I’ve done, seen, and learned.

So here we are, tired, sick, with feet cold and wet from the rain.  What better time to start talking comedy.

Comedy in Japan

Japanese comedy has some similar traits to the American comedy that I grew up with and loved.  It also has inherently different traits of its own, the biggest being a general emphasis on small teams, opposed to the inherent “aloneness” of the Western stand-up comedian, which I guess makes sense, considering Japan’s inherent emphasis on team building and group harmony (Blatant stereotype alert!).  Sure there are solo acts but, for the most part, the comedians you see hosting TV shows, slumming it on stage, or bumming around train stations looking for loose change are doing it in pairs (known in Japan as owarai konbi).

In today’s modern Japanese comedy world, acts can roughly be broken up into three different categories.

Pin (ピン)

The broadest of the three categories, this category of Japanese stage comedy can simply be summed up as doing things on your own, be it traditional Japanese stand-up (or, more accurately, kneel-down) known as rakugo or doing things on stage in character or, and I kid you not this is sorta a thing, dancing around in a man-thong whilst doing poses that make you look naked.  Broad comedy, right?  I could get into the different kinds and styles of pin comedy but there’s a bit of overlap and by the time I’d finished explaining things, you’d all probably be bored out of your minds so let’s leave the nitty gritty off for another day.

Conte (コント)

Possibly the form of Japanese comedy most recognizable to people abroad, Japanese conte comedy has much in comedy with the sketch comedy of shows like SNL or half the shows being shown on Comedy Central when it’s not re-airing episodes of Scrubs that nobody watches (Sorry, Zach Braff).  In this form, the starring conbi or group in question gets their acting on to deliver a short scene of some comedic merit.  The audience, generally finding what they are seeing humorous to some degree, laughs, which is the action of exerting air through your windpipes in a manner that produces noise.

Really anyone who’s seen a episode of Saturday Night Live knows what a sketch is and if you don’t, well shame on you.

Manzai (漫才)

Two dudes (or three… or dudettes) and a mic.  Since I’ve come to be a part of the Japanese entertainment world, many a person has tried their damned hardest to convince me this is a style of comedy unique to Japan.  But as I see it, it’s unfortunately not.

Having much in common with vaudeville acts of old, manzai as it is commonly performed is a conversation between the boke (idiot) and the tsukkomi (straight man).  As a system of delivering jokes, it’s really fool proof and timeless and acts like Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy have shown us.

There is a certain slapstick element to the thing that can be a little hard for Westerners to swallow at first (along with the usual “cultural differences” problem that can make humor a little hard to go over for the foreign eye) but manzai can also be incredibly funny and is, more importantly, perhaps the most popular form of comedy in Japan, with countless theaters across Japan holding several manzai shows a day.

It is on this form of Japanese comedy that I will first focus.