I’ve been doing standup comedy for about thirteen years now. Which is to say, as long as I have lived in Japan. Except for some brief forays into stand-up in university and while I was in Los Angeles, 99% of my professional comedy writing and performance has been done there. Now that I’m back in the States I’ve noticed a huge shift in my comedy writing. It wasn’t an active or conscious decision as much as it was a matter-of-fact change in my relationship with society.
I was reading a magazine in the dentists office, a place ripe for comedy. I came across an article, which immediately set off my comedy radar. I still don’t know the exact details of the bit, but I immediately knew there was material in there somewhere. In short, the article was Outside Magazine’s tips for how to be happy in 2014. Some of them were good, but that’s not funny so we’ll ignore that. One of their tips is to randomly pitch a tent in nearby woods on a weeknight. Oh, that and eat more elk meat.
There are a few reasons why this is funny. First of all, elk is a funny meat. Secondly, this advice is idiotic. This is apparent to MOST people. I emphasize “most” because this is essential to my point. Not all people find it idiotic, and therefore are not in my target audience. Most busy, stressed out or unhappy people do not have the option to just go camping midweek. A parent of three, who is worried about mortgage payments, or a single college student trying to find a job isn’t trotting down to the local wild game butcher in search of elk meat to cure their weekday blues or sleeping outdoors (by choice). It’s safe to say that people who are unhappy (as a group) would hate someone who said at a party, “Actually I’m much happier now that I do a little spontaneous mid-week camping in the gorgeous campground near my house. Plus my tryptophan rich diet of elk meat is really brightening my day. You’ve got to try it.”
The key to the standup dynamic is the relationship between the comedian, the people or things being made fun of and the audience. Jokes, for the most part, are most successful when the teller is tapping into the angst already present in the audience towards a certain “other” or even “enemy.” This is why humor almost always relates to topics that are widely understood by the audience and about groups perceived to be outside what the audience considers themselves to be. Even better yet (but not absolutely necessary) is to mock groups people dislike or fear. As a result there are lots of jokes about the government, teachers, bosses, dentists, the IRS, the police or other groups generally in positions of power over us “normals.” It’s funny to see a supermodel trip on a runway, its concerning to see an elderly person fall (for most people). Of course, Im speaking generally here and not about gallows humor, self deprecating humor, puns, irony and such.
In Japan, as a white American male, my relationship to the audience was different then it is in the US. In Japan I was a member of a 2% minority of society, “gaijin”. However, my audience was comprised of 70-80% of foreigners. The Japanese who were there at least understood the life of a foreigner living in Japan fairly well. In this way, the joke writing process there was very similar to the process for a minority comedian in the US. Lots of my material were jokes whose mechanics were basically “Japanese people dance like this, but foreigners dance like this!” It was a way for my mostly foreign audience to blow off some steam and say “Oh my god, he is right! That is how THEY dance.” This was important because the foreign community was comprised of lots of different groups whose only commonality was being not Japanese. The fact that they are not part of the mainstream of society can cause feelings of alienation, inferiority, frustration even anger. So for example, going after the immigration office is a surefire bet when thinking about what topic to mine for comedy gold. But a Japanese person isn’t really going to get a joke about Japanese immigration.
Friends in the US have told me to do jokes about Japan. I can’t really do this because a typical audience here would not have the same point of reference or attitude towards the Japanese people as a typical audience in Tokyo. As a result any joke about the Japanese would have to adhere to some local American stereotypical conception of them. Probably something not funny to me about penises, bad driving, or World War 2.
In America my relationship to society is as part of the majority “normal” class in most situations. Instead of the “us versus the majority” approach it becomes one of “us versus ‘the other.'” The danger in this approach is that it can quickly become racist, sexist, and many other -ists. If the target of the humor is not chosen wisely it can become a form of persecution and the comedian. Most people will laugh at a well made “fat/blonde/old/racial/ugly/stupid/whatever jokes” whether it’s moral or not. People almost always think they are normal and the target of the joke is someone worse than them. But the key is, that the audience already has a shared opinion about it.
Often the Japanese use the phrase “Oh… ha ha, American joke.” This is always said when they think the joke isn’t funny. But actually what they are saying is “I don’t understand the frame of reference that makes this joke funny.” When it is funny they understand the joke, and it is no longer “American” it is just funny. One of my friends was actually offered a job to help translate the cartoon South Park into Japanese. Although the job would have been good money, he turned it down. He said, “No matter what I do, or how well I do it, my translation will be bad. It will not be funny, and people will say ‘Wow, that translator sucks.'” South Park depends on cultural references and Americanisms so completely “foreign” to a Japanese audience that any translation would be largely meaningless. Slapstick, on the other hand, survives translation well. This is why the French so famously love Jerry Lewis.
So here we are back to our elk eating, weekday camper. For most people who qualify themselves as unhappy or having problems, people like this are assholes. I can say asshole, because I’m confident a high enough percentage of people reading this don’t eat elk or go camping on weekdays. All of us “normal” people with problem filled, frustrating, or unhappy existences can actually release some of that unhappiness by directing it towards laughing at elk-breath here. It’s an ironic twist that laughing at people who read Outside magazine is probably what made me happiest in their entire list of recommendations for being happy.
My typical stand-up routine in Tokyo