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When Sanma goes, so may the laughs

by Philip Brasor

The tabloid Tokyo Sports has reported that one of the longest-running shows on Japanese TV, “Waratte Ii to mo” (“It’s OK to Laugh”), may go off the air next spring due to sagging ratings. Hosted by the sunglass-sporting comedian Tamori since its inception in 1982, the noontime show’s mix of celebrity interview and mild comedy became stylistically moribund years ago, and Tamori announced at least once in the past that he was leaving the show, which airs live five days a week. But Fuji TV always managed to lure him back with bigger paychecks.

Tamori hardly needs the gig any more. He’s one of the wealthiest men in show business and still hosts several other regular programs, including “Tamori Club,” which after more than two decades remains one of the few truly inventive comedy shows on Japanese TV. Apropos its title, “Tamori Club,” with its appealingly cheap production values, feels more like a hobby than a job, since it allows its host to explore anything he’s interested in, regardless of how trivial or ridiculous. It also allows him to exploit his off-color wit to full effect because it is broadcast after midnight, the time slot where he made his name back in the 1980s. That’s not true of his other regular jobs, where his sense of humor is usually in check because he’s expected to be a raconteur of some sophistication. In any case, “Waratte,” probably due to the available demographic (housewives), is more interested in guests (except for Takuya Kimura, at least one member of SMAP appears every day) than in Tamori’s jokes.

Tamori himself isn’t going to retire. In fact, rumor has it he will become the host of “Shoten,” another popular long-running comedy show, though it could be one of Tamori’s jokes. Shoten is a stuffy program featuring rakugo-ka (traditional comic storytellers) matching wits in an extremely rigid format. It represents the antithesis of Tamori’s free-associative humor.

Which goes to show that there aren’t many opportunities for truly funny people to be truly funny on Japanese TV, regardless of how much “comedy” dominates programming here. This reality likely has some connection to the comment that another veteran comedian, Sanma Akashiya, made on the July 2 installment of his talk show “Sanma no Manma”(“Sanma As He Is”). His guest was Chiharu Junior, a comedian who belongs to the same production company that handles Sanma, Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo. Chiharu asked his senpai (senior) when he thought he would quit. Sanma said that he would probably stop doing TV by the time he turned 60.

The comment went viral on the Internet within hours. What made it so galvanizing had less to do with Sanma’s perceived humility than with the notion of what Japanese TV would be without him. It’s like the joke media critic Tom Carson once made about the editors of the American men’s magazine Esquire: If you want to scare them, just say, “Remember, someday Jack Nicholson is going to DIE!” Sanma is 56, which makes him a little younger than the other two members of Japan’s acknowledged triumvirate of comic kings, Tamori and Beat Takeshi, who are both 64 and appear on TV with a regularity that would stun Western producers. However, only Sanma really makes his living completely as a comedian. As pointed out above, Tamori is mainly hired as a host, and Takeshi, thanks to his success as a film director, is now presented as a cultural icon and Japan’s gift to the world. He’s still funny, but on TV he’s really just required to show up.

Comedy is not just Sanma’s calling, it’s who he is as a human being. Though he is often hired to emcee programs, in the end he dominates the proceedings in ways that Takeshi and Tamori don’t. Sanma is irrepressible. It’s an aspect of his personality that, combined with the fact that he actually says funny things, makes him the exception that proves the rule.

Ever since the ground-breaking sketch show “Hachijidayo, Zeninshugo” (“It’s 8:00, everybody assemble”; 1969-1985), the dominant style of Japanese TV comedy has been ijirigei, or “making fun” of people, usually the weak — children, women, the elderly. This model was set in stone by Fuji TV’s “Oretachi Hyokinzoku” (“We’re a Bunch of Jokers”), which ran from 1981 to 1989 and starred Takeshi and Sanma. Picking on people who couldn’t defend themselves became the default mode for Japanese comedy, and over the years younger comedians who grew up with the show adopted the model, which invariably involves humiliation of others or of themselves. Such a comedic style is limited, especially when stretched over decades and plied by thousands of practitioners.

Sanma is the only comedian who can still make ijirigei work for him, but the point is, he has no talent for anything else. His acting in TV drama series is stiff and uncomfortable. He doesn’t direct like Takeshi or Hitoshi Matsumoto of the comedy duo Downtown. Unlike Shinsuke Shimada, perhaps the only other ijirigei comic with a similar trap-door wit (but in a much crueler vein), he shows no interest in punditry. Even on his new show, a Japanese version of the long-running American series “Saturday Night Live,” he proves funnier as a stimulant than as a player. “Hachijidayo” included, Japanese comedians have never been good at sketch humor. Laughs are usually evinced when comics step out of character and draw attention to the sketch itself, something Sanma has reduced to an art form. When “Saturday Night Live Japan,” by definition a sketch show, is funny, it’s funny in spite of itself.

If Sanma’s comment implies that even he understands how unbecoming it is for a 60-year-old to earn a living by making fun of others, he remains the only comedian who could conceivably maintain his comic mojo into his twilight years, and while he hasn’t said he will retire completely, his absence from TV may make people finally realize that most Japanese comedians aren’t really that funny to begin with.