TV & Radio
July 1, 2006
Is what's funny in Japan funny in L.A.?
The Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy troupe will find out today when it takes the Kodak stage.
By Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
TOKYO — Everyone knows a joke's never funny when you have to explain it. So the members of Japan's Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy troupe know they are risking stage death this afternoon when they bring their act to L.A., to see if gags that make them howl in Japan can get a giggle out of Americans too.
Consider what the Japanese find hilarious:
• Two guys spend 10 minutes finding ways to squeeze the word "egg" — "tamago" in Japanese — into their machinegun conversation.
• A female comic with a green Mohawk and long blond side locks that a Hasidic Jew would die for moans about her lack of romantic prospects.
Don't get it? Then try the wildly popular Razor Ramon, also known as "Hard Gay." A 30-year-old shock comedian who dresses in sunglasses and a Freddie Mercury-inspired micro leather outfit, Hard Gay's guerrilla act includes helping out people who haven't asked for it while swiveling his hips to "La Vida Loca" and screaming his signature catchphrase "Hoooo!" Hmmm.
That's the kind of baffling mania to be had from Yoshimoto Kogyo, which is bringing about two dozen of its top stars to the Kodak Theatre today at 5:30 p.m. for a single sold-out show — all to be performed in Japanese. Some of Yoshimoto's acts rely on more slaps to the forehead than a Three Stooges movie, but the company dominates the Japanese comedy landscape, a talent-spewing machine whose stars gravitate from packed live performances at its fabled Osaka theater to roles on Japan's ubiquitous zany TV shows.
"We've prepared many spots and skits that a non-Japanese audience would understand," says Koji Imada, 40, one of Yoshimoto's core performers, during an interview at a Tokyo TV station shortly before he left for California. "Our humor creates situations for people to laugh at even if they don't speak Japanese.
"Like we have Medaka Ikeno, a really, really short guy — that'll be funny," he says with the assurance of someone convinced that any adult male under 5 feet is inherently hysterical. "We're very worried about Hard Gay, though."
Yoshimoto's managers know from their occasional forays abroad — the last one was in Shanghai in 2002 — that not all comedy travels across languages and cultures, even if the foreign audience is filled with expat Japanese nostalgic for some humor from home. The Kodak show has been directly marketed at Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals living in the L.A. area, right down to Japanese-language advertising. The performance has no plans for English skits, and there will certainly be no headsets for translation.
But the audience will still have been inculcated in American sensibilities. Which may account for comedian Kampei Hazama's onstage flop in New York during a 1997 Yoshimoto performance.
Hazama's routine featured a scene in which his monkey character tries to mate with another comedian playing a cat.
"Japanese people love that skit, even kids love it," says Imada. "But in New York, no one laughed. Parents were trying to shield their children's eyes.
"We failed," he acknowledges, though noting that foreign failures can have an upside back home. "When we tell that story to Japanese audiences back here, they laugh even harder," he says.
There's not a lot of crossover between Japanese and American comedy. Imada says he has never heard of "Seinfeld," though surprisingly he has seen episodes of "Soap," the '70s sitcom that broke boundaries on the bizarre.
"Oh, and I liked that show with the wife who wiggles her nose and had special powers," he says animatedly. " 'Bewitched,' yeah. And John Belushi. His samurai guy? Not so accurate. But very funny."
Much of Yoshimoto's comedy follows a Japanese form called "manzai," a conversation between two or three performers, roughly scripted, in which the funny half of the act plays off the straight man. Think Martin and Lewis or Sonny and Cher, but with names like "Downtown," "London Boots" and "Oriental Radio."
But comedy in Japan has its own cultural peculiarities, with a firm line drawn between performers and the audience. At a recent Yoshimoto performance at its Tokyo theater located on the top floor of a department store, the crowd that seemed weighted toward young women was respectful throughout.
Not a heckle. No boos. Not even a groan. If a joke wasn't funny, they just sat quietly.
Then the straight man would slap the funny man and everyone got back on the laugh track.
"Humor in Japan is something the general public watches on TV," says Imada. "They leave humor to the funny people, the professionals. We show our art. And the audience is supposed to accept it and enjoy it."
If Internet chat rooms are any measure, there are some L.A.-area fans already familiar with Hard Gay and other Yoshimoto characters who are looking forward to an American performance with gushing enthusiasm. They need not worry that Yoshimoto will expect them to be up to speed on obscure Japanese news that hasn't crossed the Pacific. Politics and news have not been trendy in Japanese comedy for at least a decade, Imada says.
Instead, the emphasis is on lightness. Jokes about daily life. Funny words, or sounds, repeated with grimaces. (And before Westerners roll their eyes, they might ask what was so universally funny about "Well excuuuse me" anyway.) With a frequency that might make some Westerners uneasy, Japanese comics take glee in mocking other peoples' looks. Bad teeth. Extra pounds. Lack of height.
Which is why Imada is so unsure about how well Hard Gay will go over with a California audience. When he gyrates his way across a stage in an exaggerated flounce, just who is the joke supposed to be on?
And Imada knows a little bit about California. He even knows the governor.
In the early 1990s, several Yoshimoto players were hired and flown to Los Angeles as extras in an ad Arnold Schwarzenegger was shooting for a Japanese health drink. After the shoot, Schwarzenegger asked the troupe to show him some "typical" Japanese comedy.
"We cleared a small stage in the corner of the studio and brought out a chair for him," Imada recalls. Then they ran through a few skits. One included a scene where a woman comedian gets pushed hard by a male comedian.
"It's her act," Imada says. "She gets smashed against a wall by the man and then she says to him: 'You're so generous.' The Japanese love it.
"But Schwarzenegger went very silent. He said it was funny, but he didn't laugh at all." Imada pauses. He's a comedian — he knows about timing.
"We're not going to do that one in Los Angeles," he says.