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