On a Saturday evening in late May, at an auditorium in NHK’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, preparations for the recording of a popular show called “Bakusho On Air Battle” were underway.
Backstage, the participants — all comedians with only a few years of professional experience — were polishing their neta (comic material). Some were going to do manzai, an old-school form of comic dialogue performed by a duo, while others would do short silly skits known as konto (from the French word conte).
But far from being a barrel of cackling monkeys, the atmosphere backstage was tense and quiet; all of the young comics were obviously nervous.
“Bakusho On Air Battle” is a competition, after all. While all 10 duos and individual performers will get to show off their neta to this audience, only half of them will actually been seen by TV viewers. It’s all down to their performances.
Launched in 1999, “Bakusho On Air Battle” quickly became a portal to stardom for many comedians.
The selection process is simple. After each presentation (which can last no longer than five minutes), 100 members of the audience, voting with golf balls, decide whether the performers have the right stuff. The total weight of the balls determines whether an act will get nationwide exposure.
When the show is actually aired, a few weeks later, their scores are shown first, followed by the actual performances of the winners in the order of their golfball scores. As cold consolation, the losers only get to say a word or two, expressing their regrets, at the program’s end.
Ticket to ride
“Being broadcast on this show has always been a goal since we formed the team five years ago,” said Yoshitomo Yamaura, 26, who has the boke (funny man) role in the manzai duo Fitness. Along with his tsukkomi (straight man) partner Kazutomo Yoshida, 26, they have been in the competition four times, but never made the cut. “It’s a step up just to take part, because even if you don’t make it, people will still talk about you,” Yoshida said. “But we really have to win this time.”
Among their rivals was another manzai team called Non Style, who had already won twice since their first appearance earlier this year. “Unlike other TV competitions where the judges are professionals, what’s important here is to make the audience in front of us laugh, so it’s easier for me to do,” said Yusuke Inoue, 25, the tsukkomi half of this Osaka duo. “And it’s a big deal to be aired nationwide. My grandmother in Tottori Prefecture can watch what I’m doing, too,” said Inoue with a grin. Soon, he and his boke partner Akira Ishii, 25, were back to practicing in the corridor, performing for an imaginary audience on the wall.
For the actual NHK performance, Fitness did a manzai on the topic of how to pick up girls, while Non Style did a routine, in peppy Kansai dialect, on what to do when you’re stuck in an elevator. Both teams ended up pulling in the laughs and support, and successfully became one of the five winners to be aired.
On the boom bandwagon
It would definitely appear that Japan is in the throes of yet another “owarai [comedy] boom,” and “Bakusho On Air Battle” is very much responsible for it. Since 2003, other channels began following NHK’s lead and launched similar shows that cast light on the original performances of the comedians.
Take NTV’s “Enta no Kamisama (God of Entertainment),” another popular comedy-performance show that has added momentum to the boom. Most of the regulars here tend to be konto duos and trios, or solo performers, known as “pin geinin,” who do stand-up comedy. Many of them actually got their start on “Bakusho.”
Their exposure doesn’t stop there. Flip the TV channel and you’ll see new comedians popping up alongside other celebrities on quiz games and talk shows, as well as starring in dramas and commercials. Meanwhile, magazines and books devoted to the comedians and their neta are on the market, not to mention their videos and DVDs.
While TV is a major force behind the boom, comedy expert Noboru Saijo, who lectures on Japanese entertainment history at Edogawa University, explained this is nothing new: Every postwar comedy boom in Japan has started on the small screen.
The first wave, called “terebi engei [TV comedy] boom,” which started in 1965, comprised manzai duos and trios, such The Drifters and Konto 55. Then came the “manzai boom” in the early 1980s, when Beat Takeshi, Akashiya Sanma and Shinsuke Shimada won popularity through a Saturday evening show called “Oretachi Hyokinzoku [Us Funny Guys]” which introduced dozens of phrases into popular culture.
The late ’80s saw “the third generation boom,” in which comedians like Takaaki Ishibashi and Noritake Kinashi of Tunnels, and Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada of Down Town shot to stardom and started hosting their own variety and music shows that became popular among the young.
The craft of comedy
What makes the current comic boom different? In terms of its variety and freedom from standard conventions, Saijo likens this crop of comics to that of the mid-’60s, but he also noted the recent surge in solo comedians. “It’s easier for solo performers to get their characters out,” he noted, “and the TV production side likes to use them for the variation.”
Overall, Saijo is positive about the current boom since it showcases comedians’ craft. In the 1990s, he points out, popular TV shows launched the careers of several young comedians simply by putting them in reality-TV situations, such as hitchhiking around the world or living off coupons and lotteries. They simply had to come up with funny reactions to their adversities.
The exception was Fuji TV’s “Bokyabura Tengoku,” which ran for five years from 1994. But as comedians only had less than a minute or so to perform, many couldn’t properly develop their characters and routines like they can on today’s programs.
As for content, Saijo says he sees more “aru aru [yeah yeah] neta,” which point out familiar situations that anyone can sympathize with. “Comic humor has to be something that everybody can understand,” Saijo said, although this tendency has been common to all owarai booms.
Of course, every boom must come to an end at some point. Saijo predicts it will go out the way it came in — gradually. The turning point, he says, is when audiences begin to get tired of the same old routines. Ultimately, comedians want to get on TV and stay on. But given the depth of the field, survival is bound to be tough.
“Ideally, I’d like to see some among them become a yokozuna, and have a presence like that of Takeshi or Kin-chan [of Konto 55] or The Drifters. But so far, we haven’t seen that happen [in this boom],” Saijo said. “If comedians want to stay on TV, they’ll have to figure out ways to make good use of their characters in different ways.”