A quick and dirty Japanese humor tutorial

Japanese humor is slowly but surely infiltrating mainstream media in the US. Fake Japanese game shows on ABC, human Tetris on Fox, the YouTube video of the guy that shoots out of a toilet stall into a ski slope... as someone who grew up in Tokyo watching Japanese variety shows every night, though, I have to say that the US adaptations don't really get it.

Previously, I explained why I thought I Survived a Japanese Game Show doesn't work on my blog. I also wrote this little blurb explaining why:

The host of a real Japanese game show is a politically incorrect, sarcastic man who revels in mild forms of torture and isn't afraid to smack a woman on the head. (The feminist in me battles the light-hearted Japanese humoree every time I watch one.) The contestants are stoic, and driven by the determination not to make a fool of themselves and the desire to win money and/or fame. The show's creators are constantly upping the ante, forcing contestants into grueling, sometimes life-threatening situations. A panel of yappy celebrity commentators and on-screen subtitles emphasize LOL moments and onomatopoeia. And, perhaps most importantly, the show can't be overproduced–it's the barebones "variety"-style set-up that has allowed the Japanese game show to survive and thrive for decades.

(In one famously controversial show, an aspiring comedian named Nasubi was locked naked in an empty apartment and forced to live on winnings from magazine sweepstakes until he earned $10,000. When he finally reached his goal 14 months later, the show's producers gave him some clothes, blindfolded him, and took him on a surprise vacation to South Korea, where he was locked in yet another apartment until he won enough money to buy a plane ticket home. While some vehemently opposed the show, most watched it religiously with delightful horror and amusement. Nasubi wrote a best-selling book about his experience and later became a successful stage actor.)

It's the type of comedy that only works in a culture where lawsuits don't take precedent over a nationwide commitment to make fun and have fun. 

In a nutshell, a real funny Japanese TV show will have you thinking, over and over:

This is embarrassing to watch.

This is so wrong.

I'm so glad that's not me.

This is f-ing hilarious.

The above clip is from one of iconic 80s comedian Ken Shimura's many variety shows. Every Japanese person over the age of 25 probably knows it.

( Lisa Katayama is a guest blogger.)