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Sunday, June 30, 2002


Hear the one about the Japanese comedian?

Last Sunday, on the Fuji-TV show "Warau Inu no Hakken," two comic teams, Neptune and Uchan-Nanchan, attempted to "spread Japanese comedy" to the rest of the world. At a pre-World Cup exhibition match between the Russian national team and Shimizu S-Pulse held in Shizuoka, the five comedians who comprise the two groups dressed up in stupid costumes, mostly parodies of Japanese stereotypes such as a buck-toothed salarymen and baseball fans, and walked by the foreign TV crews in a bid to attract interviews.

An entire afternoon of this eventually resulted in something like eight seconds of footage (and no interview) within a short report about the game on Russia's public broadcasting network. The comedians feigned pride in their accomplishment, but in the end the joke came down to how inconsequential their little escapade was.

Inconsequential, in fact, is an apt description of Japanese TV humor in general. Neptune, who are probably one of the most talented comic acts in Japan and whose peculiar skills are ideal for TV, have few opportunities to show off those talents, despite the fact that, right now, the trio -- Taizo Harada, Jun Nagura and Ken Horiuchi -- star in at least four regular TV series. Of these only "Warau" could be called a straightforward comedy program. The three also host a generic shiroto (average people) variety show called "Chikara no Kagiri Go Go Go" (Wed., 7 p.m.), exploit the ever-exploitable charms of young Japanese women on TV Asahi's "Channepu" (Mon., 11:15 p.m.), and provide the requisite celebrity element for Japan's poorly rated version of "Survivor" (TBS, Tue., 6:55 p.m.).

Neptune are following other successful comedy acts on the path to stardom, a road that leads away from the basic comic forms (manzai [standup], rakugo[comic storytelling], impressions, konto[skits]) that brought them attention in the first place and toward that amorphous profession known as TV tarento(talent).

The prototypes of the comedian-talent are former rakugo star Sanma Akashiya and Renaissance man Beat Takeshi, who started out as a manzai comic in Tokyo's Asakusa entertainment district. But the real models for the current tarento crossovers are two comedy duos, The Tunnels and Downtown, who emerged in the late '80s.

Though both teams were funny in their own right, their subsequent popularity has had more to do with attitude than with jokes and imagination. If humiliation is the mother's milk of Japanese comedy, these four guys spiked it with the bitter liquor of condescension. Parents were upset when their kids found these comedians' lack of solicitude toward accepted social virtues cool.

Of course, comic irreverence, whether it be "Gulliver's Travels" or "South Park," is a necessary annoyance to what used to be called the Establishment and, as such, makes the world go round. But there was little in The Tunnels' or Downtown's routines that could be considered truly irreverent. Their targets remained those who had always been at the mercy of Japanese funnymen: women, older people, salaried workers and the poor; in other words, the certifiably weak.

But unlike earlier comedians, such as the equally PTA-despised Drifters, The Tunnels and Downtown never really identified with the people they were ridiculing. Their arrogance was part of their appeal. Consequently, it was the personalities of these comedians that became ascendant rather than their comic talents -- and now that style of teasing superiority is the standard. Their most poisonous progeny are London Boots, a pair of pseudo-punks whose main contribution to the annals of Japanese entertainment was a late-night show in which they invaded the apartments of young women and rummaged through their underwear and private lives.

Which isn't to say all comedian-talents are pervy no-accounts. The manzai team Bakusho Mondai (which means, literally, "laugh-explosion problem") are perhaps the busiest personalities on TV at the moment, and they manage to incorporate their comedy style into their hosting tasks very successfully. Likewise, Ninety-Nine have managed to straddle the fence, working equally well on talk-show assignments and pure comedy, though for the latter they rely less on standup routines and more on embarrassing public displays.

The one comedy team to have remained viable strictly as a comedy team is Uchan-Nanchan, probably because both Teruyoshi Uchimura and Kiyotaka Nanbara are essentially actors. Personality-wise, they offer nothing special and aren't really adept at funny conversations, the main skill that today's TV comedians require.

Neptune are also basically character-driven skit comedians, so it's natural for them to team with Unchan-Nanchan on "Warau Inu no Hakken," which is the funniest show on TV when it wants to be. More and more, the show resorts to lame time-wasters, like the above-mentioned World Cup exercise, and endless children's games. When Neptune and Uchan-Nanchan are allowed to do skits -- a bar full of transsexual hostesses with a curious choral take on karaoke, or a movie preview show whose main film critic is an effeminate Holstein cow -- they reveal the kind of absurdist imagination that fueled the old Monty Python series.

They also reveal a love of craft, something that most successful comedians have lost -- if, in fact, they ever possessed it (I have my doubts about London Boots). The message seems to be that once you hit the big time you don't have to work at being funny any more. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 90 percent of Japanese TV comedy is just showing up.

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