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How to be funny in Japan

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When I was growing up, there was a factually erroneous thing that most of us Americans believed we knew about the Japanese: Apparently, while there were some things about them that were wacky and zany, in essence, they were basically really serious… one of a handful of purported cultures famous for simply not having sense of humor. That was the stereotype, at least.

Years later, I made my first Japanese friends, and one of the first things a friend did was lend me choice video tapes of his, three illegal to view by individuals under the age of consent in his country as well as mine, and one full of Japanese comedy including the then popular Tunnels and Dacho Club.

He and his friends were from Osaka, where I quickly learned that a race of superbeings considered comedy itself a type of religion, one -- which to the non-Japanese speaker -- consists mainly of people hitting each other over the head with baseball caps after insulting them, as well as people falling to the ground anytime a really funny joke is told.

I also learned from his friends that while Osaka people love telling jokes, not all humor goes across well… and furthermore, that calling someone out on telling a joke that’s perceived as not funny with a baseball cap in hand, is, in itself funny. ("Baka janai???" Wack!)

After that, I went to Japan and as a diehard comedy album collector and Dr Demonto fan, came up with a formula for what works and what doesn’t. Put simply, it goes like this. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin: no. Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello – add a little Don Rickles now and then, yes.

But if it were only that simple.

Early last year, news broke that a Japanese version of "Saturday Night Live" would be debuting on Fuji TV. It would, quite possibly, revolutionize Japanese TV. "SNL," the show famous as a breeding ground and launching pad for the top developing American comedy talent and comic superstars of three generations, legendary for its social and pop culture parodies and satire as well as its iconic “fake news” segment. Only, it would require slight modifications to make it culturally suitable for Japanese audiences.

First, no fake news. Second, very little social parody, and three, lots of guys from Osaka telling jokes, hitting each other over the head with hats and falling to the ground. (Apologies to my Osaka friends. I’m exaggerating on this point.)

The first episode did actually have a fake news segment, but it quickly broke down into, what I recall was a water gun fight. Its strong point was (and still is) a cute “pocha” girl who does a wide variety of foreign pop artist impersonations, but basically it was clear that it would not be the type of show where performers would be regularly dressing up as the prime minister or members of his cabinet, or that you’d see a Mino Monta, Tamori or Shimada (Shimada, especially!) lampooned.

So much for "SNL Japan."

But it leads to a question about other forms of foreign entertainment and comedy. A fan of musicals, I’ve been to numerous Broadway productions in Tokyo, both in English and Japanese, and have found audiences appreciative, but far from energetically responsive like a real New York theater audience would have been. At times, I’ve found this frustrating because I find half the fun of a good performance to be the give and take between the actors and the audience. Furthermore, as a musician, I can tell you that Japanese audiences can, in many situations, be very low key – and if you’re an artist in such a situation and not used to it, it can drive you nuts.

Recently, I experienced an insightful exception to this rule.

"Spamalot" has been adapted for the Japanese stage and (at the time of this writing) is currently running in Tokyo. Rather than following the script with a word for word translation, the production team came up with a brilliant idea. The essence of the musical was not only the fact that it was an adaptation of the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but that it was a parody of other musicals with many cultural references.

So in the Japanese version, the references were freely changed to refer to things the audience could understand. For example, in the Broadway version, there was a tune called “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway If You Haven’t Any Jews” ... which, to a Western audience, would have been clearly recognized as a light parody of “Yentl,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and a number of other shows. Entering the theater, I wondered how such a song would translate to Japanese. Wisely, they didn’t. Rather, Jews were replaced with “Korean pop stars,” and instead, it became a parody of the current K-Pop wave – complete with a take both on the visual-kei boy and girl groups of the genre… and poor King Arthur dancing and looking befuddled. The routine worked. In fact, the entire show worked. There was not a single line the entire evening that failed to get laughs, which is pretty good for a 2 1/2-hour show, intermission and three genuinely warranted curtain calls included.

It’s from this that we learn a lesson. Some people may argue that people’s sense of humor varies from culture to culture, others that in essence, comedy is a universal language. In the end, it's all about walking a fine line balancing between not only what the audience knows, but also what they feel comfortable hearing.

As knowledge of our host culture grows, not only does our sense of appreciation of their humor grow, but also our ability to make a joke, even an edgy one, and not get met with a blank stare, or even worse, getting hit over the head with an Osakan’s baseball cap.

© Japan Today

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44 Comments
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The only jokes I've ever used with Japanese that have gotten a laugh are jokes that are suited for third graders. These same jokes got laughs from third grade English students in other countries, and polite smiles, and "that's cute" from adults in these same other non-English speaking countries.

But somehow in Japan with adults, they are a big hit.

(e.g. what clothes does a house wear, address, etc.)

To each his own, I guess.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I think Japanese people are funny. The sardonic, 'wry' humour that's popular in some English speaking countries can becoming irritating and tiresome. Loved Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes this year though.. and I usually find him a pompus, self-important git.

-4 ( +4 / -8 )

Japan doesn't have comedy, it has grown-ups acting like 7 year olds.

-2 ( +7 / -9 )

I think that japanese humour is mostly visual, which is why they can come up with very funny CMs.

-6 ( +3 / -9 )

This old hitting people thing; especially when male presenters are hitting girls..... just cannot get used to it at all. Whats funny about tapping other people on the head? I guess I will never get that one. When many Japanese go abroad they end up loving some of the comedy shows on offer in English speaking countries... so I wonder why the same formula doesnt work back in Japan. Also has anyone noticed that in Japan there seems to be zero comedy that picks on politicians/public figures? Wonder i that is anything to do with TV Channel ownership/OB Networks not wanting to disturb the "Wa". Having said that some of the Golden Eggs type series was enjoyable (some a little stupid but, i guess any series will suffer from that)

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Japanese humor teaches everyone in society here that bullying is ok. To hurt someone is funny. That is a problem.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Osakan's baseball cap.

お盛ん帽子??? hahahahaha d(^o^)b

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Something that a 2 year old would find funny is what the japanese see as humour, other than that their humor is very lame and almost to the point of yell scream pull a face act like a retard yell scream some more and fall over.

Really very immature and to the point of making people feel like vommiting, pathetic, low intelligent garbarge.

Once in awhile there will actually be something funny but then they repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and well im sure you get the picture.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

Oginome "I think Japanese people are funny."

Funny like the creepy uncle you don't leave alone with the kids? Or funny like bust a gut funny? Please I see a lot more of option one than option two here.

Other than the twisted antics of Downtown Boys, I really don't see anything but juvenile and slapstick here. And much of that is the same recycled goo that others have flogged our way. It is kind of sad and pathetic that intellectually stimulating humour is so very rare here while hitting people with things is so common.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

The comedy group Namikibashi released a DVD of sketches of spoof cultural education. It's called "The Japanese Tradition", or 日本の形 and it is pretty damn funny. Check them out on Youtube.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

That is true Maria. Those are very well made and quite funny. It is almost as if they had Woody Allen write the script for them.

The Sushi one is the best when they sprayed the Geta to get rid of the vinegar smell of Japanese feet before putting fresh cut sushi on it.

Who wrote those things? My family back stateside loved them.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This writer talks about culture to culture at the end of the article but all he ever does is compare Japan to America in almost every article he writes.

Japanese comedy is not popular overseas and does not treavel well as it is mossly very poor and juvenile to the extreme.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

In defense of ze writer, he compares Japan culture to the one he knows..... nothing wrong with that innit.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

On the self of shortest Japanese books:

The art of being funny in Japan without a wig or a plastic mallet

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Among his hobbies shogi, dog training and collecting R&B.

And sentence fragments.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Thanks for the link to The Japanese Tradition. I hadn't heard of them. Funny stuff.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Some of the funniest (at least to my taste) comedians, and comic duos, in Japan don't get much TV time, but they're out there, for sure. I think foreigners here tend to focus on what's on the tube (the one without the YOU), where a ubiquitous group of about 50 mostly Yoshimoto players show up everywhere, show after show, regurgitating pretty much the same old shtick. The more cerebral, even surreal comedians don't do well in that environment...

2 ( +3 / -1 )

As knowledge of our host culture grows, not only does our sense of appreciation of their humor grow

Irony. Many posts bashing Japanese humor, despite the conclusion of the story. (File under: Things that make you go hmmmm...)

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The reason Japanese comedy in the media is almost non-existent is that Japan itself is such a laugh-out-loud place. The really comedy is on the streets. Or on the trains. Or anywhere but the TV.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

Once again Mr Landsberg has got it completely wrong. Humour is highly cultural. Put a Brit and a Yank in the same room and give them each the instruction "Say something funny", and, despite both speaking English (broadly speaking) they'll both consider the other's comment completely unhumorous.

What I love about everyday Japanese humour (as opposed to the parodies of humour that we see on "comedy shows") is that it is, like British humour, heavily reliant on clever linguistic tricks. Puns are incredibly popular, either Japanese or multilingual (kamin - a nap, and "come in" ... you can imagine the rest of the joke).

Where culture comes in is that the Japanese are comfortable with their government and authority figures, so there's no need to make jokes about the government. On the other hand the U.S. isn't comfortable with its government and fears it, and so they make jokes to alleviate the tension.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Once again Mr Landsberg has got it completely wrong. Humour is highly cultural.

Frungy, I think you need to reread the conclusion of the story... That's exactly what he says.

In the end, it's all about walking a fine line balancing between not only what the audience knows, but also what they feel comfortable hearing. As knowledge of our host culture grows, not only does our sense of appreciation of their humor grow, but also our ability to make a joke

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Has anyone ever seen "suberanai hanashi?" That series is classic. Always cracks me up. As for my favorite "owarai geinin," I like Matsumoto of Downtown. He'll take something that someone said 10 minutes ago (not necessarily funny) and incorporate it into the conversation to get a laugh. It's hard to explain but it's pure genius sometimes. As for favorite "combi" I'll have to go with Taka & Toshi. Their "neta" is always fast-paced and witty.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Also has anyone noticed that in Japan there seems to be zero comedy that picks on politicians/public figures?

They did that in Gintama.............. then that episode got promptly banned after pressure on the TV station from the politician, haha!

Japan needs more stand-up comedies!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Comedy does not exist in Japan. In America where we have a lot of comedians the level is very high, very high. Our comedians are famous around the world, for example, Adam Sandler but no Japanese comedians are famous around the world. Japanophiles can pretend to like it but the basic fact exists, there is no actual comedy in Japan unless you count hitting people with a hat (?)

-7 ( +5 / -12 )

Admittedly I have a simple sense of humor/humour but I could watch the Yoshimoto Kogyo slapsticks for hours.

The Japanese really love to laugh but most TV talk and laughter shows are a particular kind of comedy that is hard for non-Japanese to appreciate. My wife lies slumped in the kotatsu chuckling away, when she is not watching Korean dramas or ice skating. Me, I don't even want to be in the same room.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Comedy does not exist in Japan.

Not on a meaningful level, at least. When I want comedy, I want British comedy.

All that Japanese hitting people over the head and pulling funny faces leaves me cold.

Our comedians are famous around the world, for example, Adam Sandler

Never heard of him.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

Adam Sandler isn't funny..period

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Cleo- Would love some programs like they have back home; mock the week, lie to me, 8 out of 10 cats ...... would love to see how those work (or don't work at least?) in Japanese. Or something like Modern Family?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Seriously, calm down is right. Adam Sandler is not funny.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

@Frungy

Once again Mr Landsberg has got it completely wrong. Humour is highly cultural. Put a Brit and a Yank in the same room and give them each the instruction "Say something funny", and, despite both speaking English (broadly speaking) they'll both consider the other's comment completely unhumorous.

Are you kidding me? Americans love British humor and visa versa.

Where culture comes in is that the Japanese are comfortable with their government and authority figures, so there's no need to make jokes about the government. On the other hand the U.S. isn't comfortable with its government and fears it, and so they make jokes to alleviate the tension.

I think you have missed something.

And Cleo, please look up Alan Sandler. Funny man.

American and British comedy is excellent.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Ok lots of misconceptions here.

I think to be able to judge comedy you need have have a very high grasp of the language and culture - otherwise you will pick up on only the visual stuff.

Eg: Unless a Japanese person has a very high grasp of English and US culture they will never fully appreciate The Simpsons and just see it as a badly drawn cartoon with some American slapstick. Nor will be they be able to fully appreciate Seinfeld, Blackadder, Louie C.K....or some of the better English language comedy shows out there.

Also wish people would stop being so arrogant and expect other people to enjoy what they find funny. While I love satire, Japanese don't, so I'm not expecting to find any shows like the Colbert Report or The Daily Show here. Let the Japanese watch what they find funny and stop feeling so superior because you like Adam Sandler.

Anyhow....Most comedy on TV in ANY country is 95% crap. Even on foreign TV really funny TV is hard to come by. I can only think of a handfull of really good TV from the past 10 years.

And that's true in Japan as in all countries...most is pretty awful.

.....but some Japanese comedy is the best I've ever seen. The Gotsu ee Kanji skit series from Downtown about 20 years ago is pound for pound the funniest comedy program I have every seen from any country. No its not the same as British or US comedy. But its inventive, surreal, clever, bloody funny ....and Japanese.

But if you don't like it then don't watch it. Its that simple.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Japanese TV is crap. The comedy on Japanese TV is therefore also crap. This doesn't mean that comedy doesn't exist in Japan.

If you broaden the field to humour, there have been some excellent movies - the Tora-san series (Otoko wa tsurai yo!), Itami Juzo's movies, "Ososhiki (The Funeral), Tampopo (1985), Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman), Marusa no Onna II (A Taxing Woman's Return), A-ge-man (Tales of a Golden Geisha), Minbo no Onna (Minbo—or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion), Daibyonin (The Last Dance), Shizuka na Seikatsu (A Quiet Life), Sūpā no Onna (Supermarket Woman), Marutai no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program).

1 ( +2 / -1 )

If you like corny rehashed slapstick and guys getting undressed and touching each other's private parts, then you'll love a lot of the humor here. Still, I've met many funny people here who would be funny just about anywhere.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

And Cleo, please look up Alan Sandler. Funny man.

Adam Sandler is one of the least funny Americans. You can pick better people than that.

American and British comedy is excellent.

British humour is much funnier than American.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

@inthesoup is exactly right. There is plenty of good comedy on Japanese TV. And equally appallingly terrible comedy on American TV. Understanding cultural nuances is key. And I might add that Saturday Night Live hasn't been funny since the 80s.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

I can't wholly agree with Mabo.

British comedy is an acquired taste for most Americans, and very few have the patience to get to know and love it. Most of the guys I know that appreciate British humor were stationed in England and 'Stockholm Syndrome'd into loving it.

Also, I can't appreciate Adam Sandler. A clever play on words will get a laugh from me, but by and large, the stuff that Sandler does is just painful to experience. He really needs to stop singing, as well.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Please read what the author said, carefully (see quote below). Providing a proper context is critical for good comedy, irrespective of culture in general, but becomes even more important in case of cross-culture comedy.

Let's not get side-tracked and rage about American and British comedy, and get all confused about what is good and what is popular comedy. I love Japanese comedy as it is and am happy it is not SNL- or Monty Python-esque. If that was what I'd want, I'd be watching it instead. The "people hitting each other over the head with baseball caps after insulting them" does not make bad comedy per se, it's just an element.

It’s from this that we learn a lesson. Some people may argue that people’s sense of humor varies from culture to culture, others that in essence, comedy is a universal language. In the end, it’s all about walking a fine line balancing between not only what the audience knows, but also what they feel comfortable hearing.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

British humour is much funnier than American

I don't get British "humour" at all.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

British humour is much funnier than American.

That made me laugh.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I don't get British "humour" at all.

Your loss, mrkobayashi. :-)

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Adam Sandler? Not the first person I'd think of...to each his own I suppose.

In the soup, remember Ojingazetto?

With all the complaints about hitting people etc I see there are no Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy fans here. It's so easy to say Japanese humor is stupid when one forgets the roots of humor in our own countries...Charlie Chaplin, vaudeville, the roots aren't all that different.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Dr Demonto

I think you mean Dr. Demento.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Monty Python was itself, a study in the basics of what makes things "Funny?".

My Swedish relatives LOVE Monty Python, and don't pretend they could create it. They appreciate it from a place of admiration. There is no shame in just getting the joke. Getting the joke is 9/10's of the process. The british are just really good at the last 9/10's.

I expect it is the same for the Japanese. Appreciation for the best.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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