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Comparing and contrasting to plumb the heights of Japanese humor

by Roger Pulvers

Of all the absurd things that foreigners have said about the Japanese, the assertion that they are lacking in a sense of humor takes the cake.

As anyone with their wits even slightly about them knows, the Japanese do surely have a subtle, sophisticated and rollicking sense of humor. The only trouble is, they so rarely display it that it’s about as hard to find as a copy of the Torah in a Ukrainian convent.

In fact, the Japanese are laughing as much as the rest of us — they’re just doing it to themselves.

In this two-part series, I will strive to get to the bottom of this hidden humor and expose it for what it is. This will necessitate comparisons with the senses of humor of others, such as the British and the Jews. Sadly, space constraints determine that I have left out the Romanians, so I urge all you droll denizens of Draculaland to please get your joke books out and send in a few winners to the Editor. Oh, and also get your cookbooks out and let us know if it is true, as Groucho Marx apparently claimed, that the recipe for a Romanian omelet begins with the words, “First steal two eggs.”

Uh-oh, more letters. But really, what’s funnier than making jokes at the expense of other nationalities, races, religions and sexual preferences? I warn you, delicate readers, that this article may include ideas to offend you.

Which brings me to the first feature of humor: deprecation. This can naturally take the form of self-deprecation, for we all know our own kind best, and this means that we are privy to our own foibles, faults and fears.

It was that sadsack and allegedly stingy American-Jewish comedian Jack Benny (you would have changed your name, too, if you had been born Benjamin Kubelsky) who said, “Jews are like everyone else only more so.” (He didn’t invent the phrase. That honor went to Jesus of Nazareth: It was the first clear indication that he had decided to become a Christian.)

I guess a Japanese Jack Benny might say, “Japanese are like everyone else, only less so.”

The Jews in Europe realized early on that they needed to be understood in order to survive. So they began pouring their hearts out to anyone who would listen — and they’ve continued doing it all the way to Hollywood.

The Japanese, on the other hand, realized early on that they could accomplish much more if they were not understood by others, so they started keeping all their emotions to themselves. The only trouble is that now that they want to express them, they’re hidden so deeply inside them that they can’t find them anymore. The small minority who have located them are now making a fortune on television exposing them for the benefit of everyone else.

Ethnic humor is a major source of mirth in the West. Oh, how we all like to tell jokes about the guy on the other side of the border! If that guy’s a lawyer, we can double the fun. (After all, as we know, the only difference between a lawyer and a spermatozoa is that the latter has a one in two million chance of becoming a human being.) And if the other guy is not a guy but a girl — and is blond into the bargain — watch out.

I don’t get it: Why do women want to be blond when they know it will just make them the butt of demeaning jokes? Blond female readers, please enlighten us, if you can borrow a friend’s computer and they can explain to you the difference between a blog and a bleach.

The Japanese most assuredly do not tell jokes about other ethnic groups, lawyers or blonds. First of all, many of them really do look down on other ethnic groups; and the first rule of this kind of joke-telling is that you are doing it out of a deep respect for dodgy business ethics, spicy foods and people who practice interspecies sex.

Second of all, there are too few lawyers in Japan and too many women who dye their hair to make plausible fun of either group.

And third, some Japanese who do make deprecating jokes about foreigners are dead serious. This sort of takes the shine off the slight, if you know what I mean.

British humor is a case in point. Of course, it has been known for years that if it weren’t for the institution of the boarding school and all the accessories therein, such as the leather strap, the British wouldn’t have a joke to their name. (It has been shown by psycho- anthropologists that the famous stiff upper lip comes from prodigious use of the strap in British boarding schools.)

One current of British humor provides outrageous puns and sharp wit. Who can top Denis Norden, if only Frank Muir, his partner of genius on the BBC radio show “Take it from Here,” when it comes to wordplay based on erudition? They went on to star in “My Word!” and “My Music,” bringing to listeners the most clever and clipped humor in the business.

In fact, much of Japanese humor is also based on clever punning, though there is a difference. The British wits were often products of a brilliant classical Oxbridge education, whereas Japanese comedians who came up through the ranks were funny because of their take on the ordinary and mundane details of life. The British are eggheads; Japanese humorists have egg on their faces.

Another current of British humor comprises the bawdy, the saucy and the rude. English comedienne Mollie Sugden, who passed away on July 1, inserted a reference to her “little pussy” in every episode of the popular TV show, “Are You Being Served?”

This would be unthinkable in Japan, where decorum still plays a part in humor. In Britain, even respectable old grannies loved the risque jokes told in the music halls of the nation.

A third current in British humor is the one that attacks taboos and sacred cows — even the royal family. This current takes us from “The Goon Show,” begun on the BBC in 1951 by Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan (Prince Charles was a big fan) through to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and the creators of “Monty Python,” who even took on Jesus — renaming him Brian. Priest jokes, jokes about gays, the disabled, the incarcerated . . . nothing is off limits.

Again, their sense of propriety and fear of offending someone prevent the Japanese from laughing at the expense of others such as these. Japanese humor is inhibited by a surfeit of civility. But this certainly doesn’t prevent them from having a sense of humor that is now subdued, now raucous.

This is what I will be discussing, in its various manifestations, next week in Counterpoint.