Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello. Morecombe and Wise. The duo made up of a straight guy and a more off-the-wall character was a staple of western TV and movie comedy for decades. While it has been all but replaced by the sitcom, in Japan it is still the format that most comedians follow. The boke, or whacky half of the manzai duo provides most of the visual and verbal humor, which plays off the prompting, prodding and usually head-slapping of his partner, the tsukomi. I say "his" because the vast majority of Japanese comedians are male. There are a few female manzai teams but comedy shows tend to favor pretty, and disposable, young singers or actresses for the female roles. The comdey field is dominated by the many and varied stars and wannabes of the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo agency.
Many of the established comic stars got their start in manzai, often through TV talent shows where they competed with other acts to get a chance to appear the next week. Among the acts that came up this way are Tunnels, Ninety-Nine and Cocorico. There are also acts made up of three or more members. The most famous group of all, The Drifters, reigned from the late 1960s to the mid-80s. As a comedy band, they opened for the Beatles at the Budokan in 1966 and a few years later their Hachiji Da Yo! Zen'in Shugo show became a TV phenomenon. With rankings rarely below 40%, the irreverent comic variety show set new standards for live TV crudity. It was the show parents tried to prevent their children from watching but with little success. After the show's demise in 1985, members Shimura Ken and Kato Cha started their own series and they remain two of TV's most recognizable faces, especially when in character. Shimura's Baka Tono and Henna Ojisan are two that are instantly recognizable. The former is a parody of a feudal lord while the latter is just a dirty old man.
The Drifters (L-R): Takagi Boo, Shimura Ken, Ikariya Chosuke, Kato Cha, Nakamoto Koji
Caricatures of Shimura Ken's Baka Tono and Henna Ojisan
One reason for the decline in popularity of the Drifters in the 80s was the arrival of a new brand of comedy. Similar to what was being called "alternative comedy" in the UK at the time, the Oretachi Hyokinzoku show's members included Akashiya Sanma, "Beat" Takeshi and Yamada Kuniko, all still major stars. Featuring parodies and constant ad libbing, the show had much more of an air of "cool" and was more in tune with the times than the Benny Hill-esque humor of the Drifters. Takeshi and his troupe, known as the Takeshi Gundan, made outrageous and unpredictable shows such as Genki ga Deu Terebi hugely popular. Most of the faces from the gundan still show up regularly on TV.
Of the groups active today, one of the longest running is Dacho (Ostrich) Club while Neptune have become very popular in the last couple of years. Members of the Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy troupe, home to such stars as Downtown, London Boots and Cocorico, often interact and appear on each other's shows or TV comercials.
The gei-noh kai (entertainment business) is kind of an incestuous universe unto itself. The TV schedule, and the variety show genre in particular, is populated by a host of celebrities that seem to pop up all over the place. Sometimes you'll see the same faces, at the same time, on different channels, wearing different "hats". There aren't actually that many comedy shows and most well-known comedians can be seen doing the circuit, appearing as panel guests or roving reporters.
But while the Japanese may have a reputation for being humorless, prime time TV shows are rarely without their comic element and "light" entertainment rules the airwaves. The sign of an established comedian is that he doesn't do straightforward comedy anymore but hosts his own show and has acting or other gigs on the side. The top stars, like Sanma and Takeshi, can have several regular shows at the same time. Sanma has acted in several drama series and Takeshi is a world-renowned movie actor and director.
Rakugo, the traditional form of comic storytelling, still has a following but most fans tend to be older. The rakugoka (storyteller), dressed in a traditional kimono and seated in the seiza style on a cushion and with a folding fan and towel as the only props, relates tales old and new, full of puns and other wordplay. It's a gentle and sophisticated kind of comedy but is seen as quaint and outdated by most young people. They are more interested in the cruder slapstick of manzai and the established comedy troupes. Interestingly, two of the most famous comedians, Akashiya Sanma and Kitano "Beat" Takeshi started out on these two quite different routes. Akashiya began as an apprentice rakugoka while Kitano was one half of the Two Beats manzai team in the 1970s.