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You think you’re funny, but really you’re not

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

In this age of shūshoku hyōgaki (就職氷河期, the employment ice age) the one industry that’s filling young people with hope and plans for the future is this: the world of owarai (お笑い, comedy).

Gaining a foothold in other facets of the entertainment business like haiyūgyō (俳優業, acting) or tarento (タレント, talent or media star) is an undertaking on par with sending a rocket into space and have it return with an asteroid sample. So in this narrow little archipelago, the best route to geinōkai (芸能界, Japanese world of show business) leads through the gates of owarai. Not to say that this is an easy project, but the chances of being initiated and not starving to death afterward, are pretty good.

Japan’s best-known and most successful owarai agency is Yoshimoto Kogyo (吉本興業), based in Osaka, which has a long-standing culture of revering slapstick and money — not necessarily in that order). Its roots trace back to a wife who got sick of her husband spending all his allowance on comedy theaters so she decided to start their own stable of comedians and keep the cash in the family.

For the past 1,000 years, the Japanese have respected laughter as an art form, mainly because few people had the time or inclination to tell each other jokes. Life was hard, everyone was hungry and laughter was left to the professionals. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa Shogunate banned laughing in public, especially among the samurai class. In fact, it was said that a true bushi (武士, warrior) lived and died without once raising his voice in laughter.

The rest of the populace were free from such restraints and gathered in comedy theaters called yose (寄席) to listen to rakugoka (落語家, story-telling comedians) and relax over a joke or two. But when the yose was over, everyone went home with long faces stamped with woe, otherwise, some samurai was bound to take notice and give them a rap over the knuckles.

Today, a lingering trace remains in the air from the days when the Japanese needed both cash and permission to engage in a good chuckle. We don’t have a heritage of laughs, which is probably why an alarmingly small number of Japanese will come to a nomikai (飲み会, drinking party) ready with a stash of anecdotes and jokes to entertain the crowd. Moreover, no one seems to mind. To be sure, funny people are appreciated — but they’re also viewed with a certain wariness. My friend Rina says: “Omoshiroi otoko wa iranai. Warai yorimo, shinkenna tsukiai ga hoshiikara” (「おもしろい男はいらない。笑いよりも真剣なつきあいが欲しいから」 “I don’t need a funny guy. I’m not looking for laughs, but a serious relationship”). On the male side, recently divorced Yosuke says: “Ore wa taikutsuna otoko dakara, omoshiroi onna towa umaku ikanai (「俺は退屈な男だから、おもしろい女とはうまくいかない」”I’m a boring guy, so a relationship with a funny woman is bound to fail”).

Bottom line: no matter how fun it may seem at the moment, laughter among futsūno hito (普通の人, ordinary people) ultimately leads to a certain amount of stress. Sure, men and women love to laugh, judging from the number of baraetī bangumi (バラエティ番組, variety shows) on prime-time TV. But they also want that laughter confined in the realm of their flat-screen televisions.

You may have noticed most Japanese variety shows operate on the same formula: cram as many geinin (芸人, performers) into a studio as possible, have them play some sort of game (quizzes and word games are the most popular) and zoom in on whoever has something funny to say as the game progresses. The watching experience is much like attending a noisy party in a hot living room where everyone is trying to be funny at once.

The producers stick with this formula year after year; the geinin are the most poorly paid ranks of the geinōkai and are quite affordable. Not many programs have the budget to bring in boy group Arashi, but young geinin eager for a few seconds in the spotlight are a dime a dozen. It’s the norm for young geinin to start their careers in a furonashi apāo (風呂なしアパート, a no-bath studio apartment), or split the rent with their girlfriends while working graveyard shifts at the neighborhood konbini (コンビニ, convenience store).

Some geinin, like the snarky Toshiaki Kasuga of the comedy duo Odori (オードリー, Audrey), have made up entire comedic routines based on their down-in-the-dumps lifestyle. Kasuga put in his years of shitazumi (下積み, apprenticeship) in the geinin world, and has climbed to a position where he can quit worrying about rent and utility fees. But he refuses to move from his tiny 6-tatami mat room and frequents the koin shawā (コインシャワー, coin shower: Stick ¥200 in the box, and get under the shower head for 5 minutes) installed at the back of his neighborhood laundromat. His fans love him for it. Now as of old, hinkon (貧困, poverty) is a valuable topic for the Japanese comedian, whether they can afford to eat or not.