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775: The M-List
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By Michael Naishtut

Yukking it up

The Japanese are incredibly funny people. You’d never know it by watching TV

Michael Naishtut is a Tokyo-based comedian, actor and musician

Well, this year marks the tenth anniversary of The Tokyo Comedy Store. “What’s that?” you may ask. The Tokyo Comedy Store is the city’s longest-running live bilingual standup and sketch and improv comedy show that no one’s ever heard of. OK, not no one, but in comparison with Tokyo’s population, or even the English-speaking foreign population, we ain’t exactly super famous.

The reason for this is not that we’re not funny—we’re hysterical, usually. No, the problem is that we’re not on TV, and as you know television is the No. 1 medium in Japan by far. Which is why the large production companies that control the famous tarento that appear on the various variety, quiz and “wide” shows (are there any other kinds?) are so powerful. So why, then, does the quality of Japanese TV seem so, well, poor or boring or stupid? Several reasons, but I don’t have all day, so I’ll just focus on comedy.

Comedy is hugely popular in Japan. Japanese people, especially Osakans, love to laugh. Kyogen, the 600-year-old Japanese version of Gilligan’s Island, in which a mischievous servant screws things up and gets yelled at or chased by his master, is still performed regularly. Then of course there’s rakugo, sit-down (kneel-down?) comedy where the storyteller spins whimsical yarns of udon-slurping, stealing birds, and wild rickshaw drivers, while playing all the different characters himself. Next we have the postwar phenomenon of manzai, with the straight man tsukkomi-ing the boke fool with toilet-slipper slaps and lots of wordplay—kind of like Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s on First?” Finally, there is konto, or sketch comedy, where someone will invariably be dressed as a woman with a fanciful wig, or an old man with a bar-code hairstyle complete with wrinkles and nose hair drawn in magic marker.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Japanese comedy. I perform as one of “The Sushi Brothers” with my partner Zenjiro. There are many brilliantly funny Japanese comedians and many really ingenious comedy groups. My complaint is that the Japanese TV system tends to crush creativity by overloading comedians with ten or more different shows a week, where they act merely as MCs ad-libbing comments on some theme, instead of what they’re really good at. Many young and talented comedy groups and comedians work and sacrifice for years, doing small live shows until they’re finally recognized and given a break on one of the few actual sketch or manzai comedy shows. Once they get famous, however, they’re bombarded with guest appearances, and their real talent is sadly wasted.

Now, of course, there is definitely a skill to being an MC or guest on a variety show. You have to know when to look really interested or when to look like you’re having a great time, laughing and clapping hysterically. Then you have to know exactly when to chime in with your ad-lib that fits the situation and your unique character. Timing. The fat comedian will invariably make a comment about food, the sexy idol about breast size. Actually, there was an entire show on famous breasts a while ago where a comedienne listed everyone else on the show in order of assumed best breast shape. Of course I watched the entire show, eagerly waiting for the facial reactions of the woman who came in last. But it still seems a little bit like a waste of talent to me.

This is also one of the reasons why no real quality sitcom exists in Japan. It simply takes too much effort and expense and talent to make it successful, and since it would really only appeal to the Japanese market, the budget is nil. It’s much easier for a Japanese TV producer to have a show with several famous comedians doing something silly for 30 minutes. Let’s have races to see whose rice cooker cord rolls up the fastest, or let’s take turns sprinkling shichimi pepper on ramen until the loser has to eat it! When snowboards were first getting popular, I saw a different comedian attempting to snowboard but hilariously falling down repeatedly on three different programs on three channels…at the same time! Late last year, I watched some of the highest-paid comedians in Japan competing at a children’s game, with the loser getting smacked in the face with a zabuton, having a strapless rubber bra thrown at his bare chest, or pummeled with the stinky T-shirts worn by some fat guys. Now that’s entertainment.

But yet, I watch and I laugh, muttering how incredibly stupid it all is—and that’s the point, I think. Japanese comedy doesn’t take itself too seriously. Beat Takeshi, one of the most popular TV comedians, revered overseas as a filmmaking genius, has no compunction about appearing on TV in a large shrimp costume carrying an inflatable hammer. Sometimes the joke is merely, “I can’t believe they’re actually doing this on television.” But keep flicking around and you’ll run into some really clever, unique shows with talented comedians actually saying something, making some comments on life, even if it’s just “enjoy it while it’s here and don’t take yourself too seriously.” In such a stress-filled society like this one, that’s as good a reason to laugh as any.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.