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Monday, February 18, 2013

Jokes, Explained : Trying to be Funny in Japanese

TV work gives me lots and lots of chances to think about how to be funny in Japanese.

Chances to try to be funny, on the other hand...

Let's just say I was more comfortable cracking a joke at my part time yakitori job, with a beer in my hand and two in my blood. Trying to get a laugh on TVis an incredibly nerve-wracking experience.

Of course, being the silly foreigner who says something dumb and amusing is incredibly easy. Saying something intentionally funny, not.

I always felt that in general, whenever I opened my mouth on any Japanese TV show, the other on-camera talent got a little apprehensive: "Is he gonna say something that makes sense? Is this going somewhere good?"

They worry first that I'm adequately understanding the conversation, THEN they worry that I might not be expressing what I want to contribute adequately, so when I come out with a joke, there's always a pause where they have to figure out if I said what I said on purpose.

Once, on a KBC morning show, I was doing a live 5-minute cooking segment, which is already stressful enough, but on that particular morning, my segment was preceded by something pretty hard to follow: A DIVORCE ATTORNEY came on to give advice about what you should know to protect yourself in your divorce. Pretty dark shit for an "over breakfast" talk show.

So when they finished with the divorce segment, they cut to me and the host asked "What are you cooking today, Bobby?"  I took a chance and said "Today, I'll be showing you some great recipes to know in case you get divorced."

The 3 seconds of silence that followed felt like the longest of my life. I really didn't know whether or not anyone would laugh. They finally did though, and the host jumped in to make it even funnier, but afterwards my Japanese counterparts confirmed my suspicions: they didn't expect that from me, and didn't know how to take it.

So, now that I'm getting ready to head back to Japan and to try to get back into the TV world, I've been thinking a lot about how to use, and to gain a reputation as someone who can use humor.

TIHSFS has a great write-up about comedy in Japan that I completely agree with. I'm not big on manzai, but I have some ideas for how I could use it to my advantage, but there are all these fine lines to walk.

Can I make something that Japanese people find funny, without turning myself into the gaijin stereotype? I really don't know.

Can I use it as an angle, and make jokes about Japanese that I can only get away with because I'm a foreigner? Yeah, for sure.

If I'm smart enough to make Japanese language jokes, BUT those jokes hinge on me pretending that I don't understand Japanese, do I cancel out the points I earn by coming up with the jokes, because I sold out in the delivery? It kind of makes my head hurt.

But the long and short of this is, I made something to try it out:

The reactions to it have been mixed. Of the people who realize that it's intended as a joke, most seem to like it so far.

For some others, it's gone completely over their heads, and they're trying to correct my "mistakes" in the comments. I kind of feel bad for them.

One person actually wrote "Your Japanese is kind of incorrect, but it was still very interesting."
Ha! What, pray tell, other than the "incorrectness" was interesting about this?

But because the ostensible premise (I'm introducing Japanese words to gaikokujin students) is a believable one, I'm also disappointing my foreign viewers who aren't getting the jokes: you'd have to know an awful lot of Japanese already to get them.

So for easy reference, I'll be offering the explanations for the jokes below. I know that'll make them less funny... but maybe people will get some vocab benefit out of them, and maybe once you know how they work, you'll be able to use some of them, or try making your own.

And, if you have any thoughts on my "comedy" predicament, please let me hear them in the comments.

Jokes from the video:
体編 karada hen : meaning "the body" and "compilation," but I've mispronounced it as "taihen," 大変.  The joke gets repeated at the end, when I say "Taihen otsukare sama desu,"which my character thinks means "We've finished the body compilation," but could actually mean more like "You've had a terribly hard time with this."

でこ deko   : meaning forehead. 
デコでこ deco deko  : using the homonym for "bedazzled," or "bejeweled" plus forehead. 
でこ凹 deko boko  : means "concave and convex" on its own, but I've conflated it with "forehead."

顎   ago  :  chin. 
憧れの顎    akogare no ago: the chin we wish we all had 
穴子の顎 anago no ago: the freshwater eel's  chin.

首  kubi :  neck 
首長族 kubinagazoku  :   long-necked tribes. I've used a picture of the Japanese obake, rokurokubi, with rings around its neck. This is NOT the right usage of the word. 
乳首 chikubi  :   nipple 
乳首長族 chikubinagazoku  :  long-nippled tribe

人刺し指 hitosashi yubi  :   means "index finger" but I've used the wrong kanji for "sashi" so that it means "to stab." "person stabbing finger." 
長指 naga yubi :    should be 中指 naka yubi, meaning middle finger, but I've misunderstood it as "long finger." 
薬指 kusuri yubi  :  ring finger, which the Japanese call "the medicine finger." My picture interprets the word very literally. 
子指   ko yubi   :   little finger, though I should've used the kanji for small "小." I used the one for child to set up the next joke... 
孫指 mago yubi   :  6th, grandchild finger.

ヤクザ指 yakuza yubi   :   hopefully evident...

太もも futomomo  :  the Japanese word for "thigh," which makes use of the kanji for "fat," or "thick."  Sets up the next joke... 
細もも hosomomo  :    not a really word, but replaces the "fat" kanji with the kanji for "skinny"

袋はぎ  fukurohagi  :    misunderstanding of the real word for "calf," fuku-RA- hagi. Extra silly because "fukuro" means bag.

下半身タイガーズ kahanshin tigers  :    literally "lower body tigers," but also references the Hanshin Tigers baseball team.

And the proverb: I'm misrepresenting it as :
秋と夏は嫁に食わすな。Aki to Natsu ha yome ni kuwasuna.
(Don't let your wife eat during Fall or Summer.) 
The actual proverb is : 
秋なすは嫁に食わすな。Akinasu ha yome ni kuwasuna.
(Don't let your wife eat the fall eggplant.) 
It means don't spoil your new wife, not "starve her." 

That's it! If I missed something, let me know.


Anonymous said...

since I knew you were joking I didn't take any of it seriously but a lot of it really did go over my head since I'm not at a high level with my Jpn but it was entertaining still.

Misha Penkov said...

Well, I got your jokes, and they made me laugh pretty hard. Keep up the good work!

kamo said...

Oh hello. That'll be where the traffic spike came from then. Thanks for that :)

"I'll be offering the explanations for the jokes below."

This was the funniest thing in the entire post to me. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Because it's a trouble a lot of comedians, especially satirists, come up against - how do you signal you're joking without blowing the suspension of disbelief necessary to make the joke funny?

I'm a huge fan of Stewart Lee, and he takes this straight on, and makes a joke of of explaining the joke. I'm perfectly willing to admit he's an acquired taste though - http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Uj2LcKdRU0o#t=143s

I guess that's an option open to you, but it might be worth thinking about ways of indicating early on that you do actually have pretty good Japanese and thus do understand the jokes. Les Dawson's piano and Tommy Cooper's magic were only funny because you knew they could really do it. 'Course, you'll probably need a good deal more set up than most natives.

Glad you're back up and posting again.

hardkoretom said...

You shouldn't have to explain your jokes. If the people are being so critical that's their problem and they are just way too dense. From what you describe it sounds like you are going for subtle humor, which is probably the best. "Did he just say that?","Did he mean to say that?". You shouldn't try too hard making people laugh. if it makes you laugh then somebody else will probably think its funny too. just imo.

good luck!

Bobby Judo said...


Yeah, this post and the video are for different audiences. This is for people studying Japanese and who might actually want to take something linguistic away from the video. Thanks though!

Grace Buchele said...

A lot of my humor in Japanese is very hit-or-miss. Most of the time, my husband's the only one laughing (because he gets my dark, sarcastic sense of humor).

It's funny seeing what kinds of jokes work in other languages, though.