Comedy’s a funny business in Japan

Life is no laughing matter at a school that's groomed — and taught discipline to — many of the nation's top gagsters since 1982

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

Downtown, Ninety-Nine, Cream Stew, Neptune, Bananaman, Penalty, Black Mayonnaise, Tutorial, License, King Kong, Peace, Punk Boo Boo, Slim Club, Oriental Radio . . .

What on Earth is all this about?

Well, if you are familiar with the daily deluge of delights offered up on Japanese television, you’ll know at once that the names in that list comprise some of the nation’s most popular comedy groups.

How popular?

Well, over the last seven days in Tokyo, for example, not a single hour went by during TV’s “golden time” (7 p.m. till 10 p.m.) when there were fewer than two programs featuring these comedians or others of their ilk.

Some commentators estimate that between 70 percent and 80 percent of all the so-called tarento (TV personalities) on the box in this country are comedians. Yet for anyone who has ever even glanced at a small screen here, those percentages probably come as no surprise at all.

Comedians are literally everywhere: cracking jokes from the backs of elephants in Thailand; challenging cheetahs to 100-meter dashes in Africa; parasailing in Okinawa; oohing and aahing as they chow down on cake or Chinese dumplings; whizzing through high-paced stand-up routines in pairs or alone; and, when they’re not doing those things, they’re hosting, hooting, heckling, howling, harrumphing or wisecracking their way through the shoots of any number of studio-based variety shows.

Yes, comedians are everywhere. This we know. But where do they all come from?

Many of these performers provide hints themselves. Almost like the guests on reality-TV shows in the West, many are happy to stand up in front of the cameras and discuss their exes, their salary, their houses, their children and their jimusho (office, or talent agency) — which is more often than not the comedic powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo.

Listen closely, though, and another name gets bandied about frequently: a place named NSC. This is, it turns out, a school with branches in Tokyo and Osaka where somehow or other these people receive the training that prepares them for their “occupations” — if all this clowning can really be described as such.

A school, you ask? A school that teaches you how to crack gags on an elephant? To yelp as you’re lifted into the skies over Okinawa? To swoon at the taste of a dumpling? A school that teaches you to be funny? Well, yes. Sort of.

Long puzzled by questions such as these, I recently resolved to seek out some answers. And so it is that, over several days this year, I mingled with the wannabe mirthmeisters and their masters in classes at the Tokyo branch of NSC, or, as it is officially known, New Star Creation.

A burst of applause ripples through the 40 or so young folk seated in neat rows on the floor of a classroom at NSC Tokyo, in the capital’s central Jimbocho district. An instructor, Taiki Momino, sits at the back of the room, and he has just called out the name of a fledgling comedy duo whose members have now jumped to attention.

“Class 8, No. 52: Kenya Toba,” shouts one. “Class 8, No. 15: Masaki Oi,” shouts the other.

The pair then hurry to the front of the room and take up positions either side of a mic-less mic stand.

“Hi there: We’re Kung Fu,” they call out in unison, before Oi launches quickly into a rapid-fire routine.

“When was the last time we got on a plane and flew overseas?” he asks his partner.

“No idea, but, knowing us, it would have been economy class,” Toba answers.

“Right, ’cause the other classes are so expensive.”

“That’s right. You know, they should make a few more classes you can choose from. They should make them something to look forward to.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“How about the something-to-look-forward-to class?”

“You just said that.”

“People will remember us if we repeat ourselves.”

“So if I were to fly the something-to-look-forward-to class, what is it that I’d be looking forward to?”

“To finding out your destination.”

“You mean I can’t choose my destination?”

“Of course not.”

The students chuckle quietly — reacting in part to a play on words that doesn’t translate into English: The Japanese word for “to look forward to” (tanoshimi) rhymes with the Japanese transliteration of “economy” (ekonomi).

Momino, the instructor, looks on.

“You mean it’s a mystery tour!” Oi continues. “How exciting. Gee, I wonder where we’re going?”

“Libya, Baghdad, Somalia,” Toba answers.

“They’re not places to look forward to. They’re in the middle of wars!”

“May as well go somewhere thrilling, I thought.”

“What other classes do you have?”

“There’s always brown-paper-parcel class!”

“Brown-paper-parcel class? What’s that?”

“That’s the class where you have a mysteriously ticking brown paper parcel under your seat.”

“A what?”

“Sir, excuse me while I set your brown paper parcel.”

“Why of course. Here you are. By the way, can you tell me why it’s ticking?”

“That would be the timer.”

“Oh, the timer. The timer! What do you mean?”

“Please be quiet for takeoff.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

“Ah! Somebody! There’s a mysterious ticking brown paper parcel under my seat!”

“Sir, remain seated for takeoff.”

“This class is too thrilling for me.”

“In that case, perhaps you’d care to upgrade to help-me class.”

“What kind of class is that?”

“That’s where the parcel explodes.”

“Help me!”

From there, the Kung Fu routine escalates from one absurdity to the next until they are discussing the merits of the “stand-by-me class,” in which one has to walk along a set of train tracks until reaching one’s destination (a reference to a scene from the 1986 U.S. film “Stand By Me”) and the “hand-written-letter class,” in which one just stays at home and writes a holiday letter instead.

The room fills with a low buzz of giggles which, as the performance comes to an end, translates into applause.

“Okay, thank you,” says Momino from the back of the room. “You’ve hit on a good idea there. My only suggestion would be to speed up your introduction. I’d try to get to your first punch line quicker, and then try to cram more punch lines in there — more classes, faster, so you build up the excitement more. Keep on working with that one. Thank you very much.”

The yearlong comedy course at NSC Tokyo comprises five types of classes: manzai (two-person routines like that performed by Kung Fu) and sketches; acting; voice and music; dance; and special classes featuring anything from history to guest lectures.

Momino, whose main work is as a scriptwriter for TV, has taught manzai and sketch classes for several years, and it was one of those that I attended earlier this month.

“To be honest, there isn’t really that much I can teach these people,” Momino explained after the 80-minute class. “The first thing is the basics, like getting them to project their voices properly. And the other is giving tips on how to convey their material.”

He explained that the best thing about NSC is that it forces the students to create their own material and then gives them a place in which to present it to an audience of their peers.

“I know what it’s like to be on the other side,” Momino told me. “Because 17 years ago, I was a student at NSC Osaka. You’re in a room full of people who are used to thinking they are the funniest folk in the world — and yet, out of the 700 or so who enter this school every year, only a handful will make it. That’s how few it is who will succeed.”

Yoshimoto Kogyo, which celebrates its centenary as a company next year, was established in Osaka as a theater operator, though it quickly branched out into talent management and signed its first comedy acts in 1914.

For a long time in Japan, there was only one way to become a professional comedian and that was to become a live-in apprentice with an established master in the same way you might become a printmaker or a kabuki actor.

But, as Yoshimoto Kogyo’s current president, Hiroshi Osaki, explained in a recent interview, by the 1980s it was clear that the old system was out of date as people started to question whether it was really beneficial for young comedians to be “spending their time living with a master, cleaning his house, cooking his food and taking his dog for a walk.”

As a result, NSC was established in Osaka in 1982 with the aim of “providing a venue where students could spend time with talented teachers and their peers, where they could maintain a connection with society, grow, practice together, and also compete,” Osaki said. “That was pretty much all there was to it.”

The formula was simple, but it produced results immediately.

Among the several dozen students in the class of 1982, there were two teenagers from the Kansai region who went on to become the most popular comedians of their generation: Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada, who together are known as the manzai duo Downtown.

By 1987, Downtown were hosting their first TV program, and then through the mid 1990s they launched a string of popular shows, including “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” (“Downtown’s ‘This is no task for kids!!’ “), which is still airing now, and “Downtown no Gottsu Ee Kanji” (“Downtown’s Feelin’ Good”).

Matsumoto and Hamada’s success proved a major boon to the fledgling NSC. After “Gottsu Ee Kanji” gained a regular spot on national TV in 1991, applications for NSC Osaka increased so dramatically that the school started offering two half-yearly comedy courses instead of a single full-year one. Yoshimoto Kogyo also took advantage of the Downtown boom to open the Tokyo branch of NSC, in 1995.

Even today, NSC teachers note that about 70 percent of students name Matsumoto and Hamada as being among their key inspirations.

Nevertheless, when the first school was still in its infancy, there was considerable confusion about exactly what it would offer.

“I thought they’d teach me how to be funny,” recalled 47-year-old comedian Seiki Nagahara, who considered joining in 1984, but didn’t. “Of course, they wouldn’t. I’d have to write my own material. And so I was like, ‘You mean I have to pay you so you can listen to my material? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?’ “

The parents of prospective students were also a little confused. As one NSC instructor, Masanori Honda, recounted, “Parents used to call us up asking if we guaranteed the kids work after they graduated. We’d answer, ‘Well yes, of course, but only if they’re funny.’ And then the parents would say, ‘But aren’t we paying you to make them funny?’ “

The answer was no. Even before being asked, most NSC teachers explain that “it’s not possible to teach someone to be funny,” or that “the best we can do is offer guidance and advice.”

Pres. Osaki was more forthright: “Not to belittle our instructors or anything, but if you were talented enough to be able to teach someone how to be funny, you wouldn’t be spending your time at a school. You’d be out there enjoying the limelight and making people laugh on TV.”

While NSC’s teachers might not be able to teach their students to be funny, they can point them in the right direction — as Momino was doing in the class I attended.

One of his colleagues, Shigeyuki Mizuno, reported that he starts each year by asking his students to work on establishing their own performance character.

“In this business, you need your own personality in order to survive — something unique. So to begin, we start with identifying that.” he explained.

For most students, the quest to create a character begins with self-examination.

“You start by not hiding what you find most embarrassing about yourself,” Mizuno said.

“There is one kid in my class now who has trouble enunciating properly. It’s a delicate situation, because if you hear him for the first time you might think he has a speech impediment. He doesn’t, though, and so we focus on it. If you wanted to be an actor, then that would be a significant hurdle — but in comedy you can use it to your advantage.”

This opinion is echoed by many, and evidence of its efficacy can be seen on TV, too. If you’re overweight, have bad teeth or are going bald, then in the world of comedy, you don’t hide it. “You flaunt it,” Mizuno said.

The next step, Mizuno explained, is to get the students to develop stories or anecdotes that fit with their character and that they will be able to use on TV or live on stage.

In some classes, the students simulate a Japanese variety-show format, with eight of the trainee tarento lined up at the front of the class like they do in the TV studio, taking turns telling each other stories.

One of the most popular classes at NSC is rather misleadingly titled “dance.” Its objective, as described by its instructor, 52-year-old comedian-cum-choreographer Lucky Ikeda, is simple: “To get the students to lose their inhibitions.”

Readers might be familiar with some of Ikeda’s work. In the late 1980s he choreographed a TV ad for cup-noodle maker Nissin that is now a favorite on YouTube. The ad stars a bodybuilder-era Arnold Schwarzenegger striking absurd poses while holding two giant kettles. “We told him that this was a traditional form of spiritual training,” Ikeda laughed. “You know, karate, judo, kettle-flexing.”

While Schwarzenegger was perhaps stripped of his inhibitions unwittingly, Ikeda’s NSC students are well aware of what they are in for.

At a class earlier this year, the diminutive Ikeda, who sports 1950s-style slicked-back hair and long sideburns, marched in and was greeted in the usual NSC fashion: a military-style “Good morning!” from the 50-odd students standing in lines awaiting his arrival.

“Good morning,” he yelled back, before whizzing through some banter about his week.

“Are you going to be taking photos?” he yelled to me. “Yes? Okay, in that case we’ll leave our clothes on,” he deadpanned, before signaling for one of his assistants to hit the music.

Suddenly, the room was filled with a ridiculously boppy, “Sesame Street”-on-steroids piano soundtrack, and the students immediately burst into a raucous song and dance routine they had obviously practiced many times before.

“We’re not allowed to stutter,

We’re not allowed to stutter,

Whatever happens,

We’re not allowed to stutter.”

That, roughly translated, was the chorus; while the verses were filled with tongue-twisters that managed to incorporate every kind of sexual innuendo imaginable. And of course, for every anatomically evocative grotesquery vocalized, there was an equally evocative and generally even more grotesque action to match.

Later on, Ikeda explained that TV comedy isn’t just about set routines like manzai or skits.

“These days, a lot of the work is on variety or talk shows that aren’t scripted, and that means you have to be able to get up in front of everyone else and ad lib,” he said. “You have to learn not to hesitate, not to be embarrassed, and not to think too much — and all that is helped if you learn to express yourself not with your head but with your body.”

Another objective of these dances, Ikeda explained, is to get the students used to repetition. “In the first half of each class we do the same dances. Gradually the students get bored, and so they have to learn a new skill, which is how to present material and make it look fresh even if you have done it yourself a million times before,” he said.

In the second half of the class, Ikeda choreographs a new dance then and there — often involving characterizations such as of a biker or a computer geek — and the students then have to practice it and perform it in groups.

Although many NSC graduates report that Lucky Ikeda’s classes are fun, the school itself doesn’t always leave a good impression.

“The focus on manners at NSC was really severe,” explained 33-year-old Yuji Ayabe (class of ’99), from Peace, which is now one of Yoshimoto Kogyo’s most popular “young” duos.

“I thought everyone would be having fun there, but no. They were really strict with the greetings — standing and yelling ‘Good Morning’ to the instructors and so on.”

Ayabe’s partner in Peace, Naoki Matayoshi, added that in the acting classes he often had to pretend to be angry or happy. “I couldn’t do it seriously. I’d end up laughing. But if you laughed they would yell ‘Do it properly!’ ” the 31-year-old recalled.

NSC instructors make no apologies for what can seem to be a fundamental contradiction — between their nurturing of people to think outside the box, and the way they try to instill military-like discipline.

“No matter how funny you are, if you’re not a good person then you’re not going to get anywhere,” explained NSC instructor Honda.

“I want people working in the business to know that if someone is from NSC, they can rely on them to keep promises and to be able to function in a team,” he said. “And that starts with the basics, like greetings.”

One of the only Westerners to graduate from NSC is Chad Mullane, an Australian who went to the Osaka school in 1998.

“In the end, NSC is pretty much nothing more than a gateway,” says the 31-year-old who is still in Japan and working as a comedian. In Tokyo, more than 700 hopefuls apply to enter the NSC gateway each year. Some withdraw, some quit showbiz soon after graduating, and others give it their all for a few years before moving away from the field.

“After 10 years, there are only about 10 from each year left,” Mullane said.

The most common next step for NSC graduates aiming for careers as comedians is to audition for spots in the live stand-up shows that are staged almost every night at Yoshimoto Kogyo-owned theaters in Tokyo, Osaka and elsewhere.

In Tokyo, Mugendai Hall in Shibuya has one afternoon and two evening slots set aside for what amounts to a three-tier comedy ladder. Win an audition and you get an afternoon spot; perform well there and you move on up to the early evening shows; and so on. Of course, as in sport, if your performance isn’t up to scratch and fails to tickle the audience’s fancy, then it’s likely curtains for you.

The duo Peace spent almost a decade on that treadmill before, about two years ago, they began to get regular offers to appear on TV. At one point, Ayabe explained, they were doing up to 60 live shows per month. Even now, an average week sees them juggling more than a dozen live stage performances with their five or six regular spots on TV.

Yet NSC instructor Mizuno holds their careers up as a model to be emulated.

“Peace benefited from those many years of working live houses. If you watch them on TV, they can handle almost any situation,” he said. “And the reason they manage to handle that heavy workload — and keep on producing new material year in, year out — is because they love what they are doing.”

Ultimately, he said, NSC’s overriding objective is to test whether hopefuls share that commitment.

“What we really want to find at NSC is how much the students really want to do this,” he said. “Are you willing to practice for 10 hours straight? Are you willing to do that for years on end? How serious are you about becoming a comedian?”

No joke.