In October, a Colorado couple fooled the American media into believing that their 6-year-old son had possibly taken off in a homemade helium balloon, setting off a police search that received nationwide coverage. By the time the little boy was “discovered” hiding in the couple’s attic, a Japanese TV crew had made it to their home and interviewed the mother, Mayumi Heene, a Japanese national. She expressed relief that her son was safe and asked the crew to tell her parents back in Gunma Prefecture that everything was OK. At the time I thought it was strange. Why doesn’t she just call her parents herself?

It all turned out to be a hoax designed to make the Heene family famous and get some TV producer interested in using them for a reality show. The Heenes, who met at acting school, had already appeared on one reality show, “Wife Swap,” so Mayumi understands what TV crews want. A whole new species of performer has emerged in the United States with the mainstreaming of reality programming over the last 15 years or so. The rich couple who talked their way into that White House dinner several weeks ago also belong to this species. They got in by just acting as if they belonged.

Japanese TV pioneered the use of average people back in the 1970s, but Western-style reality shows are different. On series like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “Temptation Island,” average people are thrust into situations that the producers believe will generate drama, and the average people, who usually get hired through auditions, know what’s expected of them. That’s why you see a lot of unpleasant behavior. At the end of their episodes of “Wife Swap,”where Mayumi and another mother changed places for a week, the Heenes gleefully insulted their opposite couple and the way the couple raised their children.

Japanese shows aren’t necessarily averse to showing such behavior, but over the years producers have become sensitive to charges of setting up situations (yarase). According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, in the late ’90s the use of shiroto (amateurs) declined after “Denpa Shonen,” a show that specialized in reality situations, was repeatedly accused of staging some of its segments. Subsequently, even reality shows now use geinin, or professional comedians, and as a result the number of yarase accusations has dropped considerably.

Professional comedians are by definition always playing, so they can never be accused of faking something or being manipulated, since that is basically their job description. Their very participation in a program implies that the situations are in some way staged, so nobody is being fooled by the reality premise. By the same token, it would seem that reality programming loses its special appeal when comedians are the subjects, since the viewer inherently understands that it isn’t, in fact, reality.

This paradox has had an interesting result: Comedians are no longer expected to be funny. One of the busiest TV personalities right now is Hiroiki Ariyoshi, formerly of the comedy team Saruganseki, which became extremely famous when the duo hitchhiked around the world with no money in 1995 on “Denpa Shonen.” After that adventure, Saruganseki vanished from TV completely. A year or so ago, Ariyoshi suddenly started reappearing on variety shows without his old partner, presented as a washed-up comedian making a comeback, except that he wasn’t even trying to be funny.

And, as he pointed out recently on the variety show “Sekai Gyoten News,” he wasn’t even funny when he was famous. It wasn’t required of Saruganseki as they trekked the world. They were required to be pathetic and desperate, begging for rides in dangerous places and taking part-time jobs in restaurants. Anyone could have done what they did, but because they belonged to a talent agency the producers would never be accused of exploiting them. Their whole reason for being was to be exploited. (It should be noted that a minor scandal erupted when it was reported that they sometimes flew from one location to another.)

Ariyoshi still isn’t funny. As he revealed on “Sekai Gyoten,” which that week was presenting geinin kurobanashi (comedians’ hard luck stories), his job is to “do anything” he’s told, and considering how ubiquitous he is on TV right now he obviously does “anything” very well. From what I’ve observed it mostly has to do with being blunt and quick in conversation, which could be considered a type of gei (skill).

But some of the other comedians on the show confessed to having even less talent. Yoshio Kojima, the squeaky-voiced guy in the Speedo who two years ago was the toast of the nation with his “Sonna no kankei nee” (It doesn’t make any difference) routine, admitted that he has yet to come up with a new neta (gag) that anyone finds funny, so he still has to wear the bathing suit. Essentially, he’s getting by with making fun of the fact that the “kankei nee” bit is the only thing he’ll ever be famous for.

But such a distinction can be lucrative. For several weeks this summer a segment on the variety show “Kizuna Shokudo” featured half a dozen ippatsuya (one-hit) comedians who opened a restaurant on Shonan beach. They did all the cooking and serving themselves dressed in the getups they wore when they were successful. The customers didn’t ask them to be funny, they just enjoyed seeing them reduced to hired help; but, of course, they were always hired help.

In such an environment, attitude is more important than talent. I once saw Ariyoshi dress down Dandy Sakano, another ippatsuya comedian who was never funny, though he seems to work under the illusion that he is. Ariyoshi said that Sakano will always have trouble finding work until he “abandons his ego.” Apparently, the straightest path to success as a TV personality is to have no personality at all.

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