The Endless Tournament of the Not Funny

One thing I don’t get about Japan is it’s unceasing love for comedians. Perhaps it stems from a lifestyle that’s so work-oriented it’s driving people to suicide. In that environment, some humor must be a nice thing.

That part I get. What I don’t get is their love of unfunny comedians. For the most part Japanese humor is old vaudeville slapstick with two comedians, one the straightman and one the stooge. The stooge does something dumb and the straightman responds by slapping him on the head. In fact, it’s common for the host of a comedy show, if he’s a comedian to hit his comedian guests. They even do this to women which can be rather disturbing to someone from the west. (More on that in another post.)

There’s also a reliance on goofy gestures and pratfalls. Most comedy duos also have a signature gesture they use to announce the end of a joke as most of the audience isn’t laughing and need a cue to commence polite golf claps and polite, er, golf laughs.

Soon after I got to Japan, I saw a TV show where several comedians played a form of baseball. Nine members of a family were arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid. The members’ ages ranged from elementary school kids to retirees and included at least one teenager. Each comedian was given a set number of “pitches” (i.e. jokes) to make all nine members of the family laugh.

I wanted to practice my Japanese so I thought I’d watch and see if they could make me laugh.

Spoiler: they couldn’t.

Almost every comedian went up and started making stupid gestures or simply acting stupid. The elementary school kids laughed right away but everyone else kind of seemed sad for the comedians. Finally, Takashi Okumara of the Japanese comedy duo Ninety-nine got the chance to “pitch”. After a few failed gestures and stupid puns, he announced something called “Bruce Lee DJ”. He made a big show of balancing imaginary headphones and putting on a record. Then as he started to scratch the record he started making Bruce Lee kung fu chicken noises and kung fu gestures.

I’m not sure anyone else laughed, but I did. It was an actual joke requiring set up, timing and delivery. It also required a bit of knowledge about Bruce Lee.

It may not have been that funny, but by that point I was hoping for anything resembling a joke.

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