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Talent agencies enjoy the biggest laugh

by Philip Brasor

Yoshimoto Kogyo, one of the biggest talent agencies in Japan, recently announced that it plans to build a new 1,000-seat comedy theater in Shinjuku. The company already operates a 458-seat theater in the Shinjuku Lumine building, and like that one the new venue will present only Yoshimoto acts. The company’s comedians have always been popular, but recently their popularity has gone through the roof.

Yoshimoto’s revenues were 34.3 billion yen last year. The company employs 250 people and represents about 700 comedians (as well as singers, athletes and “cultural” figures). On a corporate scale it’s not big, but in Osaka it is more than a business. The city’s cultural identity is inextricably linked to Yoshimoto, which is more than 90 years old. In the minds of most Japanese, comedy has always been associated with Osaka — a disproportionate number of the country’s most popular comics come from the Kansai area and most of them are represented by Yoshimoto.

But over the past two decades the company’s entertainment business has gravitated to Tokyo. Yoshimoto now divides its business activities along East-West lines. According to a series that ran in the Asahi Shimbun last week, Osaka’s main income is derived from its theater and real-estate businesses, while in Tokyo, it’s television. About 70 percent of Yoshimoto’s overall revenues come from Tokyo, and 60 percent of those revenues consist of fees for talent.

According to an unnamed source in the Asahi series, Osaka has simply become the breeding ground for comedians, while Tokyo is the place where they work. Actually, it’s not that clear-cut. Yoshimoto runs a school system called NSC (New Star Creation), where it trains comedians for its stable. The Osaka school opened in 1982, and eight years ago NSC launched a Tokyo school. About 1,000 students take the one-year course annually, which costs about 400,000 yen. The graduates audition for the company’s smaller theaters, and if they are a success they will be “promoted” to more prestigious theaters in the chain. However, they won’t really start making money until they get TV work.

NSC, whose graduates include Downtown, the highest paid comedy act in Japan, has allowed Yoshimoto to phase out the apprenticeship system that was traditionally used to foster new comedians. The handful of comics who make it into the company’s theaters hone their skills and if audiences like them they slowly work their way up.

Some people think this system is too passive, “like waiting for a dragonfly to emerge from a pond full of mosquito larvae,” as one older comic put it to Asahi. But there’s a certain democratic fairness to it, since it’s the audiences who decide who’s promoted.

And promotion, in the long run, means TV work. In the ’90s, Japanese commercial television became dominated by variety-talk shows. For a time, any famous person would do as a guest, but comedians were specially suited to the variety format, whose main merit on the production side is that it was cheap. All producers had to do is assemble a bunch of celebrities in a studio and toss them a topic. The only thing paid for was talent.

Scripts and rehearsals added to the cost, so it was important to find celebrities who were naturally witty and could speak extemporaneously and at length, so producers hired comedians, who in turn fortified their own star power. Even the hosts of these shows have mostly been replaced by comedians.

Comics have always been in demand on TV, but every decade or so there’s a pronounced increase in programming that features funny people. In the ’70s it was konto (skits), in the ’80s manzai (standup), and in the ’90s impersonators. But the current “owarai (comedy) boom” is deeper and wider, owing to the proliferation of schools like Yoshimoto’s and a younger, more enthusiastic audience that is mostly female. This audience has encouraged comic forms that depend as much on individual quirkiness as they do on skills.

As a result, variety shows have begun giving up ground to pure comedy performance programs, like TV Asahi’s new “Warai no Kin Medal (Comedy Gold Medal)” (Friday, 9 p.m.), where comedians compete for a 3 million yen grand prize. The studio audience acts as judge, mimicking the kind of gleaning process that goes on in the comedy theaters.

According to Nippon TV’s Monday night documentary series, “Super TV,” which last week aired a documentary on the owarai boom, there are 128 comedy performance series now being broadcast in Japan, so there would seem to be a bright future for anyone with natural wit and theatrical flair, but the NTV program implied that only a small group of popular comedians are really making big money. The pair who make up Cunning, a Tokyo duo who appear on TV comedy shows fairly often, apparently have to take occasional part-time jobs to make ends meet. And unlike a lot of major manzai groups in the past who often hired outside writers, the current incumbents have to come up with all their own material, a feature that gives their routines a more individual stamp, but also consumes a lot of time — when you’re on TV every night you have to have a very large repertoire.

One would imagine that comedians are happiest doing their own jokes in their own way, but given the workload and the employment situation, the ultimate goal is still to become a variety-show celebrity in your own right, which means all you have to do is show up and be your funny self. Fans of these comedians might prefer to see their heroes perform routines, but the talent agencies get paid either way.