How’s everybody doing tonight?
I said, how’s everybody doing tonight?!
That’s more like it.
So what’s the deal with Snuggies? It’s like, is it a blankie or is it a hoodie? Amiright?
Have you ever been in the middle of telling a joke, inhaled a bug, coughed up your lungs and forgotten the end of the joke, only to have your friends stare at you in extreme horror?
No? Only me?
That has never actually happened to me. I usually start laughing too early at my own joke to make it that far.
Jokes are, I assume, global. They cross cultural bridges, bring people together and break ribs the whole world round.
Whether you’re hoping Japanese can get you a job, you’d like to learn enough of the language to travel or you’re just interested in how Japanese people see the world, taking a look at Japanese comedy can give you a leg up.
To start with, watching comedy shows is a great way to learn Japanese through TV.
Also, if you want to tell and understand jokes, not only will you have to take a closer look at the language, you’ll have to learn what makes Japanese humor unique, thereby gaining cultural insight.
In the United States, we have our slapstick, sitcom antics, while in the United Kingdom, they have terse, stoic sarcasm that I very rarely catch.
So what is comedy like in Japan?
An Intro to Japanese Comedy
American vs. Japanese comedians
There are two major types of comedy in Japan: verbal and physical. Verbal involves common wordplay (puns, etc.) but also arbitrary phrases popularized by お笑い芸人 (おわらい げいにん, famous comedians).
Just like America loves Amy Schumer or Aziz Ansari, Japan loves its comedians, but unlike their American counterparts, 芸人, from Shigezou to 8.6byouBazooka, don’t just stand in an auditorium making observational jokes about their lives. Instead, they put together skits, perform on popular talk and comedy shows and sometimes even write songs.
Amy Schumer’s name is actually “Amy Schumer,” but I can guarantee not a single person on this earth was born with the name “8.6byouBazooka.”
Japanese comedians make up personas and form groups. In this sense, Japanese comedians tend to be more like Penn and Teller.
Japanese verbal comedy
In addition to celebrity comedy, Japan loves 言葉遊び (ことば あそび, wordplay), 駄洒落 (だじゃれ, puns), 親父ギャグ (おやじ ぎゃぐ, dad jokes), 早口言葉 (はやくち ことば, tongue twisters) and so on.
Puns and dad jokes are meant to be said with a straight face, and received with a straight face as well—or, for the particularly dramatic folk, received with a mock fainting and uttering of “死んだ！(しんだ！, I’m dead!)”
But my particular favorite is the response, “帰れ！(かえれ！, Go home!)”
Japanese physical comedy
The other main type of comedy, physical, is popularized in comedic game shows such as “Human Tetris” and “Silent Library” (Japanese innovations that have spread to the United States). Watch Jimmy Fallon fail miserably at “Silent Library,” as most of us Americans would.
American comedy has mellowed out since the days of “The Three Stooges” and Bugs Bunny, and now mostly relies on cleverly-timed words.
Japanese comedy, on the other hand, is balanced between groan-soliciting puns and blatantly slapstick physicality.
In the United States, we convey our meanings in what we say, while in Japan, it’s at least as much in how they say it.
Aside from Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, there isn’t much overtly physical comedy (anybody remember “All That”? “Mad TV”?) in the English-speaking world.
Ready to dive in and see some Japanese comedy in action? Let’s take a look at some Japanese videos that show examples of physical comedy and TV comedy.
TV Comedy Videos: Comedians and Game Shows
TV comedy is a mix of verbal and physical, but the defining feature is its slapstick-itude. Whether it’s a matter of trying to define “rassun gorelai,” a phrase made up by comedy duo 8.6byouBazooka, catching marshmallows while bound to a wall by rubber bands or dancing, comedy shows always have an element of absurdity.
Japanese audiences also tend to be oddly fascinated by pain for comic relief.
Here are a few comedians and game shows to illustrate just what makes the Land of the Rising Sun laugh-puke.
志村けん (しむら けん, Shimura Ken)
Shimura-san is a skit comedian, gathering small casts and filming scenarios focused on characters that he creates. One of his most well-known skits internationally is his “English Teacher” skit, where he teaches a class of perplexed foreigners (posing as Japanese students) how to speak English.
For another video, check out “Shiken” (The Exam).
小島よしお (こじま よしお, Kojima Yoshio)
As mentioned before, Japanese comedians often adopt characters or personas, and Kojima-san is a prime example. He regularly appears in nothing but a Speedo, something just strange enough to make you go “Hmmmm?” Kojima-san created his own signature dance move (which you can see in this video, where he stamps and punches at the ground simultaneously) and uses it to endorse a variety of products. He performs on such shows as “VS Arashi” (described in detail below).
“VS 嵐” (ぶいえす あらし, VS Arashi)
Celebrities often host or appear on shows, and Arashi (“Storm” in Japanese), a popular music group, is as celebrity as they come. “VS Arashi” is a game show where a team of six athletes or celebrities compete against the five-man music group—plus one or two special guests—in a variety of high-energy games. Watch these newly-married celebrities compete against baseballer Uehara Koji in a pinball running game, and try not to laugh when they joke about the shortest member of Arashi.
“AKBingo” (えーけー びんご)
AKB48 is arguably the most well-known pop group in Japan, so naturally they have to have their own variety show: “AKBingo.” Unlike on Arashi’s show, AKB48 spend most of their show competing against each other.
Here’s episode 235 of “AK Bingo,” featuring a guest comedian.
And finally, for those of you who, like me, enjoy having claustrophobic episodes (#sarcasm), there’s “Tore！ミイラの間” (とれ！みいらの ま, Tore! The Mummy Room). Participants compete in challenges in a mummy-themed arena, guided by a computerized sarcophagus. Watch this poor soul try to remember two-stroke kanji while strapped to a large, spinning metal apparatus with toilet paper rolls hanging from each side, wracking her brain to avoid being wrapped up like King Tut. Pardon me while I fetal-position-convulse the trauma out of my memory.
If you were on the fence about learning Japanese before, I hope these videos have inspired you to keep reading.
Now, back to verbal comedy. Below are some actual Japanese jokes to give you a glimpse of how humor and the language work together.
Just Kidding! 6 Jokes in Japanese That’ll Have You ROTFLYAO
Japanese verbal comedy, excluding non-comedic wordplay (tongue twisters), comes in two major flavors: bad (puns), and dad (gags).
The first, 駄洒落, are like the puns we tell in English. Like when you and your friend are talking about the handsome balloon standing five feet away, and your friend says, “Hey, c’mon…don’t inflate his ego.”
Yeah, I suck at puns…in English.
One major difference between Japanese and English puns is that English uses clever substitution of a word for one that sounds the same but has a different meaning, or uses the multiple meanings of a word (to inflate a balloon with air, versus to inflate someone’s ego with praise) to create a joke.
Japanese puns, on the other hand, take both of those words and put them in the same sentence.
The verbal jokes in the second category, 親父ギャグ, are literally “old man jokes,” or “dad gags.” Those are the same as “dad jokes” in English:
“Dad, I’m pregnant.”
“Hello, Pregnant, I’m…a grandpa?!”
Like I said, why did I think I could write this article?
Below are some puns and dad gags.
1. アルミ缶の上にあるみかん。(あるみかんのうえに ある みかん。)
“The orange on top of the aluminum can.”
The science of the joke: “Aluminum can” in Japanese is アルミ缶 (あるみかん), where the split between words is あるみ + かん, but if you move the split one syllable to the left (ある + みかん), you end up with ある (there is) and みかん (mikan/mandarin orange).
アルミ缶の上にあるみかん is a full sentence turned into a modifier, “___ that is on top of the aluminum can.” Therefore, the phrase is “The mikan that is on top of the aluminum can,” and arumikan is repeated twice.
Granted, this is not a sentence, as there is no predicate (what is the orange even doing?!). Fragments are common in Japanese puns, and they can be inserted into longer dialogues or combined with other phrases to form full sentences. For example: そのアルミ缶の上にあるみかん、ほしいの？(Do you want the orange that is on top of that aluminum can?)
Additionally, because both of the similar-sounding words are included, you can interpret Japanese puns in more than one way. In this case:
“The orange that is on top of the orange that we have/that exists.”
“(Please put) the aluminum can on top of the aluminum can.”
“(Please put) the aluminum can on top of the orange that we have/that exists.”
So you can see, with a little extra hhhrrrrngggggh, a deep breath and a push…pop! You can change the meaning of the joke without changing the phrase.
2. 職員は、どこで食べたり飲んだりするん？食飲室で！(しょくいんは、どこで たべたり のんだりするん？しょくいんしつ で！)
“Where do the teachers eat and drink? In the staff room.”
The science of the joke: This one I’m particularly proud of…because I made it up myself. The joke here is in the words “staff,” “food” and “drink.” If you break the word 職員 (しょくいん, staff) down into its two Chinese 漢字 (かんじ, characters/letters), you get 職 (しょく, working) and 員 (いん, member).
The Chinese pronunciation, or 音読み (おんよみ), for the character 職 is しょく, or shoku, as in 就職 (しゅうしょく, job-hunting) or 職業 (しょくぎょう, occupation).
食 (しょく, food) has the same Chinese reading, shoku.
Some 漢字 have multiple readings when used in Japanese. For example, 食べる, to eat, is たべる, or taberu, but 食事, meal, is しょくじ, or shokuji. The first, taberu, is the Japanese native pronunciation, and is a word that existed in Japanese before the 漢字 for “food” was adopted from Chinese, while the second, shoku, came from Chinese and is used in compound words such as 朝食 (ちょうしょく, breakfast) and 食後 (しょくご, after eating).
The characters 員 (いん, member) and 飲 (いん, beverage/drinking) likewise share a Chinese pronunciation, いん or in, as in 飲酒運転 (いんしゅうんてん, driving while drunk), 飲料水 (いんりょうすい, drinking water), 店員 (てんいん, store staff) or 会社員 (かいしゃいん, company employee).
Ergo, 職員 (しょくいん staff) and 食飲 (しょくいん, eating and drinking) * are homonyms, and you end up with:
“Where do the teachers eat and drink? In the staff (eating and drinking) room.”
* The actual word for “eating and drinking” is the reverse: 飲食 (いんしょく). If you, like me, are persistent in your joking, though, you can overcome this obstacle.
If you tell this joke out loud, use hand gestures for “eating” and “drinking,” or else you won’t receive the uproarious laughter you deserve.
3.日本は海に落ちて、ジャッパーン！(にほんは うみに おちて、じゃっぱーん！)
“Japan falls into the sea and makes a splash.”
The science of the joke: 日本 (にほん) means “Japan,” and ジャッパーン (じゃっぱああああん) is pronounced “Jap-paaaaan,” and comes from the onomatopoeia チャップン (ちゃっぷん), the sound of a large “sploosh,” or splashing. Therefore, “Japan falls into the sea, and Jap-paaaaan makes a splash.”
The Japanese onomatopoeia sounds like the English word for the country that is doing the falling into the sea.
It’s also funny because Japan is an archipelago, so there’s a lot of water.
4. 布団が吹っ飛んだ。(ふとんが ふっとんだ。)
“The futon fell off.”
The science of the joke: 布団 (ふとん) is a mattress, and 吹っ飛ぶ (ふっとぶ) is “to be blown off.” As with the first joke about cans and oranges, this is a pun that repeats sounds while changing the meaning. Unlike the former, the sound changes slightly in this joke: ふとん, or futon, becomes ふっとん(だ), or futton(da), acquiring an extra letter. It still works as a pun, though, as multiplying letters within Japanese words is one way of making them more expressive:
くさい (kusai) — It stinks.
くっさい! (kusssssssai!) — It really f***ing stinks!
ほら！(hora!) — Hey, look here.
オッラア！(orrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaa!!!!) — Hey…up yours.
“Thank you, Paprika.” *
The science of the joke: This type of joke is like when you’re trying to add Sriracha and mayonnaise to your bagel and the condiment streams collide in the air, creating a grotesque but delicious Sriracha mayo stream. Taking a bite of your creation, it’s hard to tell where the mayo ends and the Sriracha begins, and why in Amaterasu’s name anyone would be inclined to eat a bagel with mayo or Sriracha.
This joke is a form of しりとり, meaning “word chain” (but literally meaning “taking butts”), a game where one person writes a word, and the next person must write a word that starts with the last character of the previous word:
ありがとう (thank you) leads to…
とうがらし (paprika), which leads to…
羅針盤 (らしんばん, compass)
Generally, only the final character is used in the game. In this case, though, the last sound is used and because it’s a joke, rather than an official game of butt-taking, this transgression is completely viable.
The first half of the word, or the mayonnaise, if you will, means “thank you.” The Sriracha, the latter half, means “red pepper” (in some countries, “capsicum” or “paprika”).
This is without a doubt a “dad gag.”
* “Paprika” is also the title of a brilliant and surreal anime movie. As you can see, all of these jokes are layered like a shallot.
I would like to dedicate this award to my family, and my bell pepper seeds.
When using this in front of actual, real people, emphasize the middle syllable, とう, for that special comedic oomph.
This can actually have two meanings:
a. “My husband made an oopsie (a mistake to be laughed at, an embarrassing moment).”
b. “More beer for my husband.”
The science of the joke: Yet another “repeated sounds” joke, this one has yet another layer of meaning—a copper core sandwiched between stainless steel for that eye-catching sheen every chef loves to see.
Maybe I’m thinking of cookware…
“Husband” in Japanese is 夫 (おっと), and おっとっと is both the onomatopoeia for “oops” and the sound drunken salarymen make when refilling each other’s beer steins. It’s the equivalent of your drunk uncle saying “glug, glug, glug” as he refills the empty space next to your wine glass.
Show of hands—who’s had this happen to them at a family dinner? No? Me neither.
If you want to use this in the real world, wait for someone to make a mistake and then smack them with the long arm of wordplay—or, test it out at a party when someone’s pouring your beer.
If you’d like to take this one step farther, change “husband” to “younger brother,” or 弟 (おとうと), and see who catches on. I guarantee you’ll at least solicit a “Go home” and a hearty slap on the right cheek.
In case you haven’t had enough Gouda cheese today, here are some more videos of Japanese people being funny:
I double dog dare you to watch all of those without cracking up.
Thank you, thank you.
I’m here till Tuesday.