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Sunday, May 25, 2008

MEDIA MIX

The art of 'not being funny' drums up big laughs on TV


It was a year ago that comedian Yoshio Kojima got his big break, and Japanese TV hasn't been the same since. Kojima is the young man who wears the colorful bikini briefs and nothing else while happily dancing and declaiming in meter: "Sonna no kankei nai (I couldn't care less)." His only punch line is delivered in an agitated growl as he pumps his left arm and leg in unison. The phrase became a hit and was nominated as one of the most influential neologisms of 2007 by the dictionary publisher Jiyu Kokumin-sha.

There is nothing inherently funny in what Kojima says. The gist of his routine is that he's comically inept, the punch line an acknowledgment of his ineptitude, and that in itself is supposed to be funny, not the jokes. Geinin means artist or entertainer, but these days it is mostly applied to comedians, implying that the person has a gei (special skill) that usually comes down to one clever idea. Kojima has said he never expected to last this long in show business based on such a thin comic premise, but TV now thrives on this sort of thing.

Kojima got his break on "Omoshiro-so e Irrasshai (Welcome to the Funny Lodge)," a segment of the long-running variety show "Guruguru Ninety-Nine." The segment offers fledgling comedians a chance to try out routines, and because the participants have only minutes, they have to make a big impression. Jokes are less important than funny costumes, funny faces and funny gestures. Kojima was one of the segment's first performers and an immediate hit. Within days he was circling the globe via YouTube, whose role in the development of this kind of conceptual humor is immeasurable.

The subsequent ubiquity of conceptual humorists has been a boon for TV producers, who realized some time ago that all viewers really care about is jokes. All-comedy shows are more cost-effective than variety shows, which require scripts and research. Established comedy acts can be expensive, but there are hundreds of lower level comedians who are practically free because they are desperate for exposure.

The program that takes the purest approach to this ethos is "Arabiki-dan" (TBS, Wednesday, 11:55 p.m.), launched last October. Veteran funnymen Takashi Fujii and Koji Higashino, dressed in silly costumes, sit in a virtual set made to look like a circus venue, viewing routines and offering comments. Higashino has said the purpose is to find "the next Yoshio Kojima," and almost all the participants adhere to what the producers call "this new style of comedy." Most of the acts on "Arabiki-dan" are rookies without management deals, but some professionals have used the show to try out new material, such as Sekai no Nabeatsu (International Nabeatsu). Nabeatsu, under his real name Atsumu Watanabe, is half of the manzai (comedy duo) act Jarism. He's known for his shark-skin suits, rakish mustache and ridiculous hair, and might be considered Japan's answer to Andy Kaufman if he weren't so keen about explaining his concepts. His main routine is a parody of a popular counting game in which he strikes a silly face whenever he gets to multiples of three.

"Arabiki-dan" is the antithesis to "Enta no Kamisama" (The God of Entertainment), the big daddy of all-comedy shows whose guests are considered the "elite" of the standup world. The hip cachet garnered by "Arabiki-dan" indicates a popular shift away from classic standup to this new kind of conceptual humor, which has been given even more exposure on two new prime-time series that utilize a contest format, "Bakusho Red Carpet" (Nihon TV, Wednesday, 10 p.m.) and "The Iromonea" (TBS, Saturday, 7 p.m.).

Comedy competitions are a long-standing tradition. The most famous is the M-1 Grand Prix, a manzai tournament sponsored by the powerful talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo. Yoshimoto is also behind the R-1 Grand Prix, which handles pingei (solo comedians). The agency's biggest star at the moment, 44-year-old Edo Harumi, for some reason never got far in R-1, though she participated several times. Her standup routine, based on her experiences as an etiquette instructor, is quite funny, but it's her stiff dancing and the use of the interjection "goo!" that has made her famous. Until February she was an unknown, but right now she's the hottest thing on TV.

Edo, Nabeatsu and Kojima are regulars on "Red Carpet," where brief routines by manzai and pingei comics are judged by a panel of celebrities. Given that almost every act either rates owarai (big laughs) or manten (full score), it's obvious the panelists are selected for their low laughter threshold.

A conceptual comedian's popularity should decrease over time, since the impact of his or her "gei" decreases as it becomes more familiar. Ironically, the opposite seems to be the case. When Kojima appeared on "Red Carpet" recently, he tried out some new moves that bombed, but still managed a manten score because he ended his routine with the "kankei nai" bit. One judge said she felt "immediately relieved" when she heard the familiar strains of the "kankei nai" theme.

"Iromonea" is more interesting. Comedians demonstrate their laugh-producing skills under pressure. Each act goes through five trials during which they have to make between three and five audience members laugh. If they pass all five trials, they win ¥1 million.

The show manages to reduce all comedians, manzai and pingei alike, to goons. Because they have a limited time to make the audience laugh, the acts resort to desperate means — funnier faces, weirder gestures, stranger sounds — in order to provoke a reaction. Much of the laughter they produce is obviously an expression of surprise or discomfort rather than a mirthful response, but that's OK. In the contrary world of conceptual comedy, not being funny is the new funny.



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