Japanese comedy is an inherently boom and bust business. Comedians often base their humor on one specific physical or verbal gag — such as Sekai no Nabeatsu or Yoshio Kojima — and ride it into the ground. Depending on the comedian and the gag, sometimes even one appearance on the right TV show is enough to launch a career or pull someone out of obscurity. Sekai no Nabeatsu and Shofukutei Shohei, for example, have both benefited from Downtown’s Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai” (“You absolutely must not laugh”) batsu game broadcast every New Year’s Eve.

Other comedians put in their time and slowly build up a critical mass of popularity. The latest group to do so is the young manzai duo Daburu Koron (Wコロン). Puns have long been called oyaji gyagu (old man jokes) in Japan, but boke (funny man) Nezucchi and tsukkomi (straight man) Kiso Sanchu have taken advantage of the oft-denigrated joke and elevated it to an art form, reviving the “nazokake” (謎掛け), an old Showa Era type of Japanese riddle.

The two start their routines like normal Japanese comedians doing give-and-take jokes, but at some point Nezucchi will shout out “I’ve got one!” (“Totonoimashita!”) He then offers up a riddle. In Japanese the form of the riddle is “X to kakemashite, Y to tokimasu.” An example is the self-deprecating joke seen in the YouTube clip above.

In the clip, Nezucchi says, “Daburu Koron to kakemashite, shun o mukaeru mae no kudamono to tokimasu.” In translation this is something like, “What links both Daburu Koron and unripe fruit?” Kiso Sanchu then asks, “What do you mean by that?” (“Sono kokoro wa?” ) And Nezucchi provides the answer along with his trademark catchphrase: “Nobody wants either of us. I’m Nezucchi!” (“Mada urete imasen. Nezucchi desu!”) Nezucchi puns on the phrase “urete imasen” which can mean both “hasn’t been sold yet,” in the case of the unripe fruit, or “isn’t popular yet,” in the case of the comedians. While some nazokake like this rely on idiomatic expressions, most take advantage of the large amount of homonyms in the Japanese language.

The two seem baffled themselves at their sudden popularity, noting that they haven’t changed at all and it doesn’t feel real. They appeared on the popular comedy show “Bakusho Red Carpet” last September and released a book of brain-training nazokake at the end of the year. More recently, their March 18 “Nazokake Night” live event in Asagaya sold out in five minutes. On Nezucchi’s blog, he recently posted a picture of a similar event in Kawagoe, and even in the small cell-phone image you can make out a huge crowd of people in the street waiting for them to perform.

On May 16, “Bakusho Red Carpet” set aside a special nazokake segment, separate from its standard routine of short physical gags after which participants are carted offstage by an automatic red carpet. Other comedians participated, but Nezucchi was the strongest, and gagman Sekai no Nabeatsu was clearly out of his element – at one point he tried to do a nazokake and, after realizing he didn’t have one ready, earned a few laughs by going off on an unrelated rant. Later that same evening on a different program, Nezucchi had his brain scanned while he was punning to explore exactly how much you train your brain while doing nazokake.

Part of the appeal of nazokake is trying to figure out which homonyms the group is using in their jokes; this must tap into the same pleasure center as the large number of Japanese quiz shows, which include kanji-based programs and general quiz shows. The sudden boom has sparked Twitter imitators using the hash tag #nazokake. One  thought up “How is the triple jump like taking care of your dog?” The answer? They both require “sanpo” — which can be both “three steps” (三歩) or “going for a walk” (散歩).

While each nazokake uses different material, Daburu Koron will test the Japanese public’s patience for puns: They are popular now, but nazokake might eventually encounter another period of dormancy in the not too distant future. If the group can vary their material and continue to tap into the public’s love for quiz-like wordplay, they might stay on the scene longer.

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