Galapagos Comedy

A night spent watching "Japanese comedy"

Recently I went to a show that featured Japanese comedians attempting to perform "Japanese comedy" in English. It was put on by Yoshimoto Kogyo which, if you're not familiar with the Japanese comedy scene, is a comedy talent agency that dominates the Japanese comedy market.

A comedy performance by Kazuyuki Sakuma.
Cute, whimisical, and harmless.

"Japanese comedy" is a term thrown around a lot to describe what many people perceive as being a distinct difference in the humour sensibilities of Japanese people in comparison with other languages and cultures. This particular show was billed as "Full-scale hard-core live Japanese comedy, in English," a deliberate attempt to present that Japanese sensibility to non-Japanese people. So, what exactly did they do that was "Japanese comedy," distinct from comedy performance you might find elsewhere? That's a good question, because from what I saw, there wasn't an act there that could not have been conceived of outside of Japan. There wasn't even any particular approach to comedy that isn't done routinely elsewhere. One guy, Kumada Masashi, did prop comedy, part of which involved shooting a firecracker out of his ass. Well, it was a sort of canister thing that fired ribbons of golden tinsel. After the show, both my friend Jeremy and I thought it was kind of amusing as far as prop comedy goes, but kind of a pale imitation of a British comedian named Chris Lynam we saw twenty years ago at a comedy festival in Vancouver, who had lit a real flaming firework in his ass while standing naked in front of the crowd. Not to make the point that the Japanese guy didn't go far enough, just that he wasn't breaking any new ground. I will say one thing for him, which was that he was the most engaging with the crowd, in that he just had that natural ease on stage that makes you feel like he's got comedy talent.

Probably the most successful guy on the night, a guy named Kazuyuki Sakuma, did a bit where he was dressed like a sort of pacific island native, or maybe a South American tribesman, with a leafy skirt and a head dress with leaves sticking straight up. The first moment he started out, there was a twinge of fear in the audience that this could be some seriously racially insensitive shit. But, it quickly became clear that he was just telling cute stories about how his head dress keeps falling off or getting ruined, using a gibberish language and line drawings on a large pad of paper. It was whimsical, entirely harmless, and had a few good moments. Interesting to note about this bit was that Sakuma San used it as part of the act he used that won him the top prize in 2011 in the R-1, which is Japan's premiere comedy competition for standups, run by Yoshimoto. So, arguably, we could say we got offered some of the best of the best of Japanese comedy, and since it was in gibberish anyway, there was no issue of language ability to obstruct our appreciation. And it was... okay. You can watch how he performed it in 2011 here if you want to see for yourself.

Beyond that... meh. There was of course, manzai. Manzai is two people on stage, a lot like old Abbott and Costello or George and Gracie comedy duos that you'd see in the early part of the 20th century in the US and various other countries. There are many different ways of doing manzai, and the guys doing manzai on this night were a duo named "Impossiible" [sic] who were basically devoted to doing short sketches, called conto in Japanese. For example, in one quick sketch they did, one of them was a magician, and the other the assistant. The assistant had a smallish box with slots in it that he put around his waist area, to emulate the classic magic trick of putting swords into a box without stabbing the person inside. The magician had a sword, and, after a few moments of slowly approaching as if to put the sword into one of the slots, he suddenly and without any particular reason, switched to mime stabbing the other guy in the head. They both screamed out at the critical moment, to emphasize the "shock" of something so "unexpected." Get it? You thought he was going to put it into one of the slots. But he didn't. He stabbed the guy in the head instead. There is no way I can convey to you in writing how it was completely without any further nuance than just a guy about to do one thing and then simply does another. Still, whether or not you quibble about the quality of the execution, the thing that strikes me is that none of it is particularly different from acts anywhere else in the world. Short sketches, comedy duos, and punchlines that involve twists on expectations are not a mind blowing window into some other culture's alien take on what it means to do comedy.

At one point all performers on the night combined to do a sort of mock game show, where the host, an Australian guy, Chad Mulane, who is a regular performer in Japan, asked the comedians to draw pictures based on silly suggestions, or come up with captions for photos, one of which was of Hillary Clinton in an unflattering pose. This part really dragged because, premise aside, it became clear that none of the Japanese comedians had enough English ability to improvise, not even to the level where they would make cute mistakes. I was sitting with two other comedians, one Canadian and one British, and we kept whispering to each other about all the missed opportunities. On stage, they largely just struggled to understand what was being asked of them, and hoped that their non-sequitur responses would see them through. Again, though, aside from execution, what defines this as "Japanese" comedy, differentiating it from anything seen in the west? In Britain, for example, they have tons of "panel shows", which are essentially game shows set up for comedians to riff on topics presented to them within quizzes, in more or less the same way as these guys did.

The show was about an hour long, and nothing happened that could be identified as any particular style of comedy that was not done outside of Japan. There was musical comedy, some improvisation, sketches, prop comedy... All standard comedy fare. And no particular nuance or approach within those formats that hinted at a different mode of thinking about how comedy can or should be done.

For me, I started to get some insight when two foreign guys, one a dark skinned guy from Cameroon and another light skinned guy from maybe America, both of them good looking fit young men in their early twenties speaking native English, got on stage to do a little manzai. They bombed so hard I would have been embarrassed for them if I hadn't hated them so much. Look, they might be nice guys off stage so I'm only commenting here on their on-stage persona that night, which was outright insulting to the audience. Why? Well, if you know Japan, then you know there is a place in the professional comedy scene in Japan for foreign talento, where they can make careers out of appealing to the Japanese audiences that will giggle at anything a foreigner says because they're speaking Japanese. These guys were the archetype of that. They had absolutely no material, nothing to say, and did some bullshit about how weird Japanese toilets are, as if that material has not bean beaten to death a million times before them by just about every foreigner who has ever touched ground in Japan, and I imagine most Japanese people as well. And here's the thing, I don't even resent foreigners for going into the Japanese market and reaping the benefits of a Japanese audience so easily amused that it doesn't matter what you say just as long as you don't speak Japanese so well that they don't think you're cute anymore. But, to turn around and try and get away with that shit in one's own native language? Fuck off. And if I'm still sounding too harsh, also know that these guys seemed to have internalized the delusional nature of their fictional talent from the unjustified feedback they might be getting in Japanese, because they kept turning to the audience and saying "Wow, I thought we'd get better reactions!" As if we, the audience, were disappointing them! Seriously, fuck off. I had to fight my impulses down to the level of my soul to not heckle them into oblivion, because I was there at the invitation of the show's host, and I didn't want to be a dick.

Okay, ranting aside, the insight they provided was that here is where we can finally say something about a difference between Japanese comedy and any other comedy. The difference isn't in the performers, it's in the audience. If these guys do the same act in Japanese, and get laughs, then, isn't that legitimate? Yeah, I may dismiss it as being simplistic and based on novelty, but who am I to tell audiences what they should find funny? It's not like I've never laughed at something that was just silly and pointless. Nothing wrong with that. Also, there are plenty of famous, established acts in English that I don't enjoy, but it would be crazy hubris of me to try and make any claims that the people who enjoy them are wrong. Take, for example, Bill Cosby. I used to find him funny, but, he recently released a comedy special called Far From Finished and it just totally left me cold. To me it was so much complaining about his wife, in a kind of 1950's "old ball and chain" kind of way, that felt anachronistic. But, hey, he's performing for audiences way bigger than I could ever hope to see, and he's a comedy legend, so I'm not going to stand here and say he's not funny. He's just not for me. That's the deal on comedy. No one gets to say what's funny in some objective measure separate from an audience. If there's an audience that laughs at your stuff, then you are funny to that audience, and finding an audience that matches your comedy is all any comedian can hope to do.

But here's where we run into some uncomfortable possibilities. I mean... I've never seen these two guys perform in Japanese, but I've seen lots of comedy acts in Japan like them, foreign and Japanese, and I can easily believe that they could do the same act they did that night, but in Japanese for a Japanese audience, and get laughs. While on a sort of theoretical level it seems fair to just say, "different strokes for different folks," there's also something unavoidably judgemental about saying that what makes it work in Japanese is just that the audience will find anything they do funny because they're foreign. Does that mean that Japanese audiences are simply more easily amused than people elsewhere? What about the other Japanese guys who performed that night. The vast majority of their material also failed, but they don't have the benefit of being novel foreigners, so what's going on if they get laughs in Japanese but not in English? Is something just lost in translation? Is there some nuance not carrying over between cultural sensibilities?

The problem we're hitting here is that the terms everyone is throwing around, the terms I've been using up to now in this article, are too broad to draw any sensible conclusions. "Japanese comedy" is a term we should just throw out completely. There is an argument to be made that there are some Japanese formats, with rakugo probably being the most clearly Japanese because of the dress and accoutrements. Rakugo, if you don't know, is a traditional Japanese form of comedy storytelling where a performer wears a kimono, kneels on a square cushion, and uses a fan as a stand-in prop for various things that come up in the funny stories they specialize in. It has it's own particular flavour, but take away the dress code and stand the performer up, and you just have a person telling funny stories like just about anywhere else. Nothing mind blowing or so unlike various non-Japanese ways of telling comedy stories. In fact, every time I've heard rakugo performed in English, or in Japanese that I could follow, including a seminar I once went to where the whole point was to showcase the amazing art of rakugo it's not only like old vaudeville style shaggy dog stories, it actually is old vaudeville style shaggy dog stories. Like, the exact same material guys back in the vaudeville days used to source from books. Ever hear the one about the monkey and the car crash? I had, back when I was a kid, and the first time I heard a rakugo joke in Japanese, it was that one. Every other rakugo story I've heard since is one I had heard before. Kind of ironic that the most arguably "Japanese" comedy format is the one that outright copies material from outside the country.

Yeah, so, anyway, my point being that changing up the format within which you tell jokes doesn't set anyone apart enough to really say you're doing anything wildly different with the craft of comedy. Sit down, stand up, have one guy, have two guys, do sketches, improvise, format it as a quiz show, do musical comedy, be obvious, be clever, be stupid, be zany, be intellectual, be whatever... Everything Japanese comedians are doing is stuff being done everywhere else. Japanese people are particularly known for extreme zany and surreal humour, but that shit happens everywhere, just to different degrees. Hell, Jim Carrey became huge after the scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective where he literally talks out of his ass by grabbing his butt cheeks and moving them as if they were saying the words he was speaking. That's exactly the kind of thing you'll see a fair amount of in Japan, and maybe it happens more here, but clearly it happens elsewhere.

But if we start talking about Japanese audiences... now we're getting into something, because if you perform something to one audience and they laugh, and the same thing to another audience and they don't laugh, we've got a difference. But, it's a difference that can exist within a culture and a language. Just like I didn't find Bill Cosby's latest special funny but other people do, what does that indicate to us about the reasons behind why Japanese audiences might laugh at a thing that western audiences don't laugh at? Or vice versa?

It indicates that the term "Japanese audience" is also too broad. It's as broad and meaningless as saying "English speaking audience." Not everyone who speaks English finds the same things funny. Far from it. And Japan might be one of the more ethnically and culturally homogenous countries around, but you have to get into some pretty racist territory before you could say they are all so alike that they are guaranteed to find the same things funny all the time. And here's where we hit the crux of the matter. To what degree can we know that when someone puts on a show and calls it "Japanese comedy" that it matches the sensibilities of Japanese people as a whole? It's an interesting question, but, the market in Japan doesn't give us the means to come to a reliable answer.

At this Japanese-comedy-in-English show I was at, in front of me were about 30 or 40 foreign people of various ethnicities, with a few of their English speaking Japanese friends mixed in. This was the crowd the show was hoping for, in order to test themselves against an authentic English speaking audience. Behind me, though, was the more typical Yoshimoto audience, people who were probably fans of various performers on stage and would watch them do anything, even if it weren't in a language they understood. There were about twenty of them, all young Japanese women, most seemingly in their mid twenties, with the bell curve maybe going from late teens to early thirties. No men. And this is what you will see a lot of at Yoshimoto theatres or in television studio audiences. A huge demographic shift towards women of a particular age. Yoshimoto is, no matter how you cut it, a corporation, and they play to what works. They aren't exclusive of other demographics, but go to almost any live comedy show and you'll see they follow a demographic that has the time and disposable income.

If you're not in Japan, you may not fully appreciate how different the comedy scene is here, and might think I'm exaggerating the business impact to some degree, because it's so unlike other countries. In most other countries where comedy flourishes, the comedy scene and the business built out of it is a lot more anarchic, with most comedians represented by countless agencies, personal managers, and who knows what other situation. Most aspiring comedians don't have any particular representation at all until they show significant promise. The situation in Japan is fairly unusual, so far as I know, in how it is rigidly structured by large talent agencies, such as Yoshimoto and Shochikugeinou, and comedy divisions within large talent agencies. There aren't little independent comedy clubs dotted here and there where people try stuff out and out of all the chaos new ideas emerge, as you get in other countries. Comedy theatres are all owned by agencies and exist to exclusively showcase acts represented by those agencies. Aspiring comedians in Japan sign up with comedy agencies from the get go, and go to that agency's comedy schools, like one owned by a large agency called Watanabe just down the road from where I live. In those comedy schools they learn the house style, following in well worn paths laid by comedians before them. They graduate from theatres to television when the agency decides it's time. I don't think anyone in this overwhelmingly corporate environment has any particular principled objection to comedy styles outside of what they currently offer, but, like any marketplace dominated by a cartel of vested interests, they promote what's safe, what they know, and what they can control.

Most fans of comedy in other countries consider it standard that comedians take risks, divulging personal revelations, political standpoints, and social commentary. In Japan, risk taking is completely squashed. A guy may jump around on stage in crazy clothing, acting "shocking" in a sense that he is acting very "unusual." But, that kind of "shock" does nothing to upset any balance. No king is ever threatened by a jester who gets laughs by wearing silly hats. In Japan, there is almost zero political satire on television for example, because the way television companies get broadcast licensing rights from the government ensures they never say anything too extreme. There's no formal censorship, there's just self censorship to not rock any boats. You also won't see comedians daring to make fun of products or companies, because no agency is in the business of scaring away advertising yen. It's no coincidence that the kind of zany, surreal, and wacky comedy seen most in Japan, is also the most harmless and uncontroversial kind of comedy. You can't upset anyone if you never actually say anything.

The state of comedy in Japan, then, is overwhelmingly dominated by market interests that don't necessarily coincide with the goal of finding the most exciting or innovative comedy, which doesn't let us know for sure if the kind of safe, silly, uncontroversial, and basic comedy on offer is what Japanese audiences would love most if they had more options on offer. I'm biased in that I can't believe that Japanese people would be so unified as to all want the same thing if there was more variety on offer. Any time in any other country where there is less constraint on comedy, we see a flourishing of different styles and sensibilities. I can't help but think Japan would be no different. Because, you know, Japanese people are people, and my experience with people is that they tend to vary a little if given the chance. People also tend to vary less if given no chance to vary more. Put another way, if a person in Japan doesn't like what the Japanese comedy scene offers, they don't have many other easily accessible options.

What if that wasn't the situation though? If we didn't have the market constraining the kind of comedy on offer, and the Japanese comedy scene had a greater variety of different acts and styles and formats, and we saw Japanese audiences having similarly variable preferences, then what would it mean if a Japanese audience happened to laugh at something and a foreign audience didn't? It would mean nothing. Because it would mean that all you've done is the same thing as when a comedian working in their own native language and culture makes one audience laugh and another audience not.

So, if we take that perspective, that comedy appeals within sensibilities more refined that simply correlated to one language or one culture, then what have we learned from this supposed effort to present "Japanese comedy" to an English speaking audience? Only that what might work for one set of Japanese speakers might not work for one set of English speakers. However, since it's also true that what works for one set of Japanese speakers might not work for another set of Japanese speakers, or what works for some English speakers won't work for others, there's not really any cause to believe that what the Japanese performers were doing was in any way categorically different from what any comedian anywhere does.

Then that brings us to the question of why it was that they failed so badly? If they're not doing anything that my simple "western" brain can't conceive of, if they're in fact doing just regular old "comedy," then how is it that they missed the mark by so much? In my comedy group, I've seen many performers from many countries, including Japan, perform in English and kill. It would appear that simply crossing a language or culture boundary isn't an automatic recipe for failure. Yet the performances on this night didn't feel like seasoned pros attempting a new comedy outlet, it seemed like amateurs struggling with comedy and language equally.

When talking about this kind of thing, one can't help but feel restricted from making any judgements about quality. While the English audience didn't laugh at the Japanese performers, since we know, or at least presume, that some Japanese audiences might laugh at their acts, we hold back from saying that the performers simply aren't that good, because the unavoidable conclusion that comes with it is that you're saying the Japanese audiences are therefore stupider in some way, making them more willing to accept inferior quality humour. However, this is an artificial constraint, because the term "Japanese audiences" is being used to cover people for whom it might not apply.

There is a term that came out of the mobile phone market, during a time when Japanese mobile phone makers were developing features and services that were incompatible with international standards, making the phones only useful inside Japan and causing Japan to fall behind internationally. That term is Galápagos syndrome, named for the famous islands where animals evolved traits in an isolation from trends elsewhere. Similarly, what is being referred to as "Japanese comedy" would be more accurately described as "Galápagos comedy." It's not that comedians in Japan are so isolated by language and culture in a day and age when we can break through those easier than in the past, it's that, far more significantly, Japanese comedians and audiences are distorted by market forces. And it's worth noting that there were a lot of Japanese people who loved their old flip phones and all the features they had, just as there are Japanese audiences who love the comedy currently on offer in Japan. I'll leave it to you to ponder the parallel implications for comedy in comparison to how when iPhones and Androids became available, those old flip phones were rapidly marginalized.

The desire to delineate some specific humour sensibility as "Japanese comedy" isn't something that's just the domain of large corporations, though. I've known independent Japanese comedians who do things like perform rakugo or manzai, or even just the general style of being "wacky, Japanese style," in English, because it's simple marketing to try and claim that what you are doing is special and unique and is therefor worth watching. However, while I have seen it make audiences laugh, I've also seen it fail. When it's successful, no terminology beyond "funny" is needed. When it fails, the performer is quick to justify in their minds that it was the audience who doesn't get "Japanese comedy." The term "Japanese comedy" is, in reality, merely a crutch to excuse unsuccessful performances.

So yeah, ultimately I am saying that the quality of the Japanese performers, at this show and in general, is inferior to what is available elsewhere in the world, in markets where creative expression is less inhibited and comedians compete in terms of funniness, not format. Not uniformly bad, because there are good Japanese comedians and comedy, which I feel compelled to say because somebody always feels the need to tell me..." but I think so-and-so in Japan is funny!" because they want to prove how knowledgeable they are about Japan and how culturally integrated they are. Whatever. I'm only saying while there are points of light, the overall average is lower, much lower, than it would or could be if there was more art and less business in the comedy scene. I'm putting it out there, without fear of being branded some kind of racist or having some kind of cultural elitism, because it isn't about people or culture. It's about markets. Professional comedy in Japan operates in a bubble of market conditions that allows for the churning out substandard product. However, I know, for a fact, that Japanese comedians can generate some engaging high quality comedy and perform perfectly well to English speaking audiences, because I perform with them all the time. They succeed because they are outside of the Galápagos preserve of the highly corporate media environment in Japan.

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My understanding of this show by Yoshimoto is that there is an interest within Yoshimoto to offer their product, comedy, to a more international audience, in anticipation of more international customers in and around the Olympics of 2020, scheduled to be held in Tokyo. But making comedy that's interesting to an English speaking market isn't about translating what's done within a bubble of protected interests. That's going to be every bit as unsuccessful as putting an English translation on an old 2000's era flip phone with a clunky interface and trying to compete with iPhones and Androids.

In my comedy group, we have guys from Kenya, Argentina, Sweden, Morocco, and all over the world. They all have varying levels of English. They all bring their different sensibilities, and when they do best is when they don't try to emulate comedy sensibilities and manners that they've seen before, but when they are just themselves, bringing the world view inherent in them because of the culture they grew up in and the people they are, and relate to the audience from that standpoint. Which, again, is true even for those of us, like me, who are natives of the culture and language that frames the comedy performance we aspire within. Regardless of whether one is trying to bridge between cultures or work within a culture, to try and formalize comedy into something standardized and identifiable is a route to being a hack.

There is a way for Japanese performers to do comedy that can be identified as coming from Japan and also working for an international audience. They'll succeed when they stop trying to be vessels for a fictional construct of "Japanese comedy," and instead simply be the Japanese people that they are naturally, and do comedy by relating to their audiences like comedians do. That it will be "Japanese comedy," if that even matters as a goal, will ensue as a result of them being sincere and genuine about who they are, not following an artificial mandate that comes from outside of them.