With the global success of Piko-Taro’s “PPAP”, Japanese comedy has managed to exert its influence around the world once again. Even though the language barrier presents a big obstacle for jokes to catch on overseas, every now and then something like “PPAP” ends up going viral.
Shows like “Takeshi’s Castle”, “Tonneruzu no Minasan no Okage deshita” “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” have transcended language because of their wacky slapstick humor, even leading to their adaptation for international audiences (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, Silent Library, Hole in the Wall). However, Japanese comedy is not always that extreme and crazy. If anything, a lot of it resembles western comedy of the past.
The traditional manzai style of Japanese comedy consists of an act by a “combi” (コンビ), a 2 person group, similar to Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Cheech & Chong, or Key & Peele. The combi is made up of two roles, the “boke” (ボケ, the “funnyman”) and the “tsukkomi” (突っ込み, the “straightman”). Much of the humor is generated from the boke’s misunderstandings and the tsukkomi correcting and scolding them, usually with displays of anger or (usually mild) physical harm.
Akira Ishida (boke) and Yusuke Inoue (tsukkomi) of NON STYLE talking about being stranded on an uninhabited island.
Imitating famous people in Japanese comedy is characterized by over the top exaggerated performances, often accompanied by outfits to match. If a certain impression of a celebrity that has been trending catches on, a comedian can ride a wave of popularity until the public tires of it. Kintaro. got a big break from mimicking Atsuko Maeda and other members of AKB48 while Naomi Watanabe rose to popularity with her fierce Beyonce act.
Perhaps the closest thing to stand up comedy in the western sense of the term might be rakugo (even though the performer remains seated) as it is a one person show. With just a folding paper fan and/or handkerchief as props, the “rakugoka” (落語家) will weave a humorous narrative while playing all the parts. With the breakthrough success of the anime “Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu” in 2016, rakugo has gotten a strong boost in popularity.
Getting the Big Break
When a comedian breaks through into the mainstream, a memorable catchphrase plays an important role. Tokinaku Akarui was big in 2015 with a series of gags based on him posing as if to look like he was naked, followed by the catchphrase, “Anshin shite kudasai, haitemasu yo” (Don’t worry, I’m wearing). It seems like his agency wanted to push him to overseas audiences since in addition to the English version shown below, there is a Korean one and a Thai one as well.
Another popular method of getting laughs involves becoming very angry, a part played by a “kire-yaku” (キレ役). Related is the act of “gyaku-gire” (逆ギレ), when someone blames someone/something else for a wrong they committed. Below is a video of American comedian Atsugiri Jason using his catchphrase “Why Japanese people?!?!” while getting angry at the way that kanji compounds make no sense to him.
The down side of having such an easily duplicatable gag is that it can wear out its novelty quite quickly. Does anyone still think it’s funny when others quote Austin Powers or Borat any more? It’s pretty much that level of overexposure. However, other “classic” gags can live on for decades after with the audience laughing even when they know what’s going to happen. Dandy Sakano had a decent run with his “Gets!” gag and pops up every now and then, even appearing in a MV for an Idol College song in 2015.
While they are enjoying their success, Japanese comedians will be on just about every possible TV program available, appearing alongside more established acts and other breakthrough celebrities. Those who manage to promote themselves while they have their “15 minutes of fame” may end up being able to enjoy success long after the novelty of their initial act has long worn off. Of course, they will be asked to perform their gag at every opportunity wherever they go, accelerating the short window of opportunity they have until the public becomes burned out on them. Imagine if you heard “Let it Go” from Frozen every hour on the hour, every day for a month. Once a comedian breaks through, they will be everywhere for the next few months. Razor Ramon Hard Gay (shown below) hip-thrusted his way to fame during the early 2000’s before stepping away to focus being a father and husband (to former model Anna Suzuki).
Providing interesting banter can lead to being picked to host television, radio, or Internet streaming programs and hosting events. The “god level” comedians (not necessarily because they’re the funniest) in this category are: Tamori, Sanma Akashiya, and Takeshi Kitano (aka “Beat Takeshi”) who regularly host programs that are broadcast nationwide.
Those who are not able to parlay their overnight success into a more stable career will generally fade away from the spotlight and occasionally be invited to “where are they now?” type of shows. Being able to provide memorable reactions may also cause a comedian to become famous for other reasons as seen in the meme below.
The Connection Between Comedy and Music
In addition to hosting a lot of shows with musical artists, many comedians have some musical talent and will get a chance to release a song and/or use their popularity to produce a group. Atsushi Tamura of London Boots 1-go 2-go formed a visual-kei band jealkb with a group of other comedians in 2005 and they became successful enough to perform in some of Japan’s larger venues. Tamura also produced the idol group Through Skills. Musical duo 2700 has produced the groups Onnajuku All-Stars and HOT HEAT HEAT GIRLS. In 2016, RADIO FISH, the group made up of Oriental Radio and dancer FISHBOY had a big hit with their song “Perfect Human”.
These are just a few examples but, for those with some musical skills and aren’t afraid to be funny and/or make a fool out of themselves, becoming a comedian in Japan seems to be an alternative way to become involved in the music industry as well?
Because many of the big name (and aspiring) comedians in Japan are often signed to large talent agencies with connections to television and advertising, even the most “poison-tongued” of them have topics which they will not dare address for fear of losing work. Politics and religion are off limits for all celebrities in Japan although perennial candidate of the Smile Party Mac Akasaka is pretty funny sometimes.
Sex and race is also limited as a topic although the assumption of Japan being homogenous does often result in some offensive incidents. ANA tried to portray themselves as becoming more international by having comedian Bakarhythm wearing a blonde wig and a big nose to look more like a “stereotypical foreigner”. Even though the ad was pulled and an apology was issued, it’s unbelievable to believe that no one was culturally aware enough to think it wouldn’t be offensive.
Japanese comedy, like many aspects of Japanese society, seems to be averse to conflict, emphasized by its dependence on being accepted by mainstream audiences. Don’t expect any sharp satire or thought-provoking commentary in the vein of Will Rogers, George Carlin, or South Park. For the most part, Japanese comedy is easily consumable and lends itself to imitation, often drawing on the shared “Japaneseness” of its audience. Even though Yuriko Kotani recently won the BBC Radio New Comedy Award in the UK, her style of comedy is far removed from anything one would see upon visiting Yoshimoto Mugendai Hall (one of the venues for comedy) in Shibuya. The ending of the 2006 film “Udon” showed Yusuke Santamaria’s character finally making it as a comedian in New York but, such a breakthrough of that level is probably years away from happening unless Piko-taro manages to take advantage of his fame and become more than the answer to a trivia question about one-hit wonders.
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