It’s time for some gloating: as a Brit, I am proud of my country’s contribution to comedy. Be it stand-up, TV, film or any form of media, Ol’ Blighty has done pretty well for itself. Even while living in Japan, I still try my best to keep an ear to ground when it comes to the comedy scene back home, keeping my DVD collection up-to-date with the latest stuff from Jimmy Carr, Lee Evans, Dara-O-Briain and the like.
But what about Japanese comedy? Oh boy. Where do I begin? At the beginning, I suppose. My first foray to Japan was something of a euphoric blur, and though I saw plenty of TV back then, I don’t really remember it. But fast-forward to 2010, in a hotel room in Narita, where I switched on the TV, and I had my first taste of Japanese comedy that I could remember. It was glorious. It was sharp, a biting, dark satire of politics, and…
…well, actually it wasn’t. It was a man in swimming trunks, singing while punching himself in front of a live audience.
This man’s name is Yoshio Kojima, and he is a typical Japanese comedian. Except, interestingly, they go by the monicker of ‘タレント’, which literally means ‘talent’. Which is quite telling, really: think of some of your favorite comedians. How long have they been around? A few years? Maybe even over a decade? Then add on an extra five years (at least) to that of him/her working the circuit as an unknown in their formative years, and you realize that a lot of comedians we know and love are pretty hardened, long-lasting folk.
But for a ‘talent’, their meteoric rise to fame is matched only by their equally fast fall from it. In the same way we might bemoan the manufactured band who are white-hot property one day then nobodies clinging to scraps of fame the next, Japanese comedians are similar, and – I have to say – their acts are equally vacuous. Let’s return to Kojima again. That wearing swimming trunks, singing and being generally over-active? That’s his whole bit. Literally. I’ve seen him make other appearances since then, and all he does is run on-stage, dance around and sing in his swimming trunks and deliberately make everyone feel really awkward. Oh, and catchphrases. Every Japanese comedian who wants their 15 minutes needs to have some kind of kooky catchphrase for which they become known. So then, y’know, all the kids at school repeat and, like wearing sports clothes, spreads the brand around. Of course, such hollow acts don’t last, especially when there are more ‘talent’ waiting in the wings with fresh new gimmicks and catchphrases. In the few years I’ve been here, I’ve seen entire acts come and go. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but in the UK, an act that short-lived would be considered a fad. In Japan, the quick turnover is seen as normal.
So what’s the problem here? Well, I refuse to believe that the Japanese have no sense of humor. I have met loads of brilliantly funny locals here, even to the point where I will laugh at something they find mundane. And amongst the mass these flash-in-the-pan acts, there are real gems to be found.
So where is the issue? There is, I think, two reasons. Firstly is the format. In the UK (and indeed in many other countries) the variety TV show format died out in the 80s. It was a mix of chat-show, music, comedy and a mish-mash of all other things: think of those charity telethons in half-hour doses for a rough idea. But when the format splintered apart, everything found it’s own space. You got your music shows, chat shows, quiz shows and your comedy shows all separate then, free to spread their wings as they each saw fit. Comedy leaped at the chance, and it grew into the entertainment empire it is today.
But variety is not only alive and well in Japan, it is still the preferred format. Turn on the TV, and at any one time, out of the dozen free-to-view channels, at least three of them will be showing a variety show of some sort. There’s hosts, a live audience, a huge cast of guests, music to play, amazing facts and scary stories to tell, quizzes to answer, food to taste…and yeah, comedy if there’s time.
So there you have it. The funnies need to play for quick-and-easy laughs: they just don’t get the time (or, let’s be honest, network permission) to go for something more subtle or targeted. This must please folks of all ages and genders. And if you spread your jokes to an audience that wide, you are invariably going to end up with a lot of physical gags and immature humor. Which is exactly what happens.
The second reason is the language. Think about it: so much of English comedy comes from wordplay, saying things in the right way, playing with the language. But anyone who is familiar with Japanese will tell you that, as beautiful and exciting a language it is, it’s not a language to be played with. Because of the narrow range of sounds, practically everything you say could be a pun, rendering the point of them useless in Japanese. So those turns of phrases that form the backbone of English comedy are practically non-existent in Japanese comedy. Which is another reason so much comedy has to be physical and taken at face-value: the language can’t really be relied upon to carry the humor.
I like to think of myself of a comedy connoisseur (that’s an oxymoron right there), but I’m definitely not a comedy snob. I enjoy ‘stupid’ and simple laughs as much as anyone. And there is some great comedy out there if you look. And, I must say, the Japanese style of humor does grow on you, and there have been a few times where the TV has had me roaring with full-on belly laughs. So don’t be initially put off by Japanese comedy when you first see it: there are fascinating cultural reasons behind it, and as with many things here in Japan, perseverance and digging yields rewards. Digging really deep…