Opinion: Why I Prefer Japanese Comedy to American Comedy




Of all the strange developments in my life, developing an addiction to Japanese comedy was probably the strangest. I enjoyed American stand-up comedy quite a lot while growing up but, these days, I almost never watch it, and when I do, I end up frowning and grumbling through the whole thing. What exactly changed? Was it just me, or was it the comedy scene itself?

I spent a lot of time pondering this conundrum, and I think I’ve finally been able to nail down the answer. Before I give you that answer, however, I should probably illustrate the differences between Japanese and American comedy.

Screenshot of a panel from "Suiyoubi no Downtown"

The Japanese term “Owarai” is a bit vague but, as I understand it, it includes both live comedy shows and televised comedy (like sketches and variety shows). The Wikipedia article on the subject describes it in the following terms
The word owarai is the honorific form of the word warai, meaning "a laugh" or "a smile". Owarai is most common on Japanese variety shows and the comedians are referred to as owarai geinin or owarai tarento. Presently, Japan is considered to be in an "owarai boom", and many minor talents have been finding sudden fame after a gag or skit became popular.

Gimmick comedian "Hard Gay"

The main format for live performances is called “manzai.” Unlike American stand-up, which usually consists of one person monologuing to a crowd of people, manzai usually has at least two performers at once who play off of each other in a conversational manner.

Famous manzai duo "Summers"

Recently, YouTuber “That Japanese Man Yuta” put out a video on the subject of manzai, which I thought was an excellent primer on the subject. In it, he dismisses claims that Japanese comedy is mostly slapstick humor. 

Slapstick comedian "Egashira 2:50"

While it’s true that there are many elements to manzi (and owarai in general, for that matter) outside of physical humor, I would say that it is still undeniably more physical than American comedy, and usually includes a lot of pantomiming and head-slapping.

You can check out Yuta’s take below:



Another side of Japanese owarai, the variety shows, is one that I am far more familiar with, having been exposed to it through the small but dedicated online fan communities around the more popular shows (namely Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!, Lincoln, and more recently Suiyoubi no Downtown).

Suiyoubi no Downtown's logo

True to their name, these shows have a lot of variety in how they deliver laughs. Much of it comes from having different comedians (often ones from manzai duos) compete against each other in silly games. These can range from mild ones, like quiz shows, to extremely bizarre concepts.

Quiz game (with silly hats) from "Uchimura Summers: Second"

One of my favorite episodes of Gaki no Tsukai consisted of the five main comedians being dressed up in winter coats and driven to a spicy curry restaurant with the heat in the car blasting (all on a hot Summer day). Any complaints from the cast would be tallied, and the person with the most complaints would be punished at the end.



An extremely popular game segment in Gaki no Tsukai is the Kiki series, where the cast members try to guess which brand of a certain food item (like ketchup of beer) they were given using taste alone.

Kiki mayonnaise

Another popular activity on variety shows is “dokkiri,” or pranks. Popular variants of these include sleeping pranks, where as the name implies, people are bothered in comical ways while they’re sleeping. And, of course, there are the ever-popular hidden camera pranks.

Dokkiri from "Damasareta Taishou"

An interesting example of “dokkiri” I watched recently was on the show “Lincoln.” The cast believed manzai comedian Masakazu Mimura was losing his edge as a straight-man, or “tsukkomi,” so they staged a fake photoshoot for a popular magazine and made a lot of strange events happen, hoping to awaken his “tsukkomi” spirit. An assistant spilled water on him three times in a row, a small dog was wandering around the set, and one of the cast members left because he was apparently sick, only to return for the cover shoot with an IV still in his arm.



The common thread through all of these is how insanely bizarre and creative they can be, as well as the elements of danger that help grab hold the audience. It seems that Japanese comedians and the production staff on these shows are constantly trying to find ways to one-up each other.

To be honest, I can’t really say the same about American comedy these days. In fact, it almost seems like the opposite is true.

As I said earlier, I used to be really into American comedy, with some of my favorites being Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, and George Carlin. However, lately the entire medium has seemed increasingly grating to me. The comedy scene seems like it’s been flooded with the whiny vocal-burnt voices of alcoholic women and beard-sporting hipsters who want to come across as a quick-witted social commentators more than they want to make people laugh.

Louis CK

Sure, the comics I mentioned earlier also wove social commentary into their routines, but they still placed the jokes at the forefront of the act and made sure to end any big statements with a punchline. With most new comedians I hear, it just seems like material I could get from any self-righteous 20-something year old on twitter.

I only got 10 minutes into the last special I tried to watch, one by Ilana Glazer, before I decided to watch something else.

Yeah... Not for me...

Maybe it’s more that I’ve personally moved away from stand-up comedy. I certainly won’t deny that’s a possibility. However, a lot of media outlets seem to agree with me on the idea that stand-up comedy has slowly been changing over the past decade or so. There have even been media outlets trying to coin the phrase “anti-comedy” or “post-comedy” to describe acts like Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who prioritize sending a message to the audience over telling actual jokes.

Serious business.

In an article for Vulture entitled “How Funny Does Comedy Need to Be?,” Jesse David Fox writes the following:

Like post-rock, post-comedy uses the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result — laughter — instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation. The goal of being “funny” is optional for some or for the entirety of the piece…
You listen to enough comedians talk on podcasts, and you’ll hear a generation wrestling with comedy itself, and what it means to be a stand-up when there are fewer big opportunities, but more small ones.
Looking at all of this together, what I’m seeing is a shift away from comedian as provider of a service (laughs), and toward comedian as artist. Really, this shift has been happening slowly since the dawn of modern comedy… These are the growing pains of an art form in transition.

I’m sure there’s a market for this kind of stuff, but I’m definitely not a part of it. And to make matters worse, even the comedians who don’t seem to follow this “post-comedy” ethos still seem annoying and overly sanctimonious to me.

Dave Chappelle

Okay, I’ve rambled about stand-up enough for this post. What about other forms of comedy? Does America have an equivalent to the Japanese owarai variety shows I described at the beginning of this piece?

Well, yeah… kind of…

The most immediate genre I would point to is the “late night show,” which consists of comedian hosts interviewing celebrities, doing stand-up monologues inspired by current events, and also throwing in the occasional game or comedy sketch. Current examples include “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” There are also strictly politics-themes variants, like “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”

Stephen Colbert with former Vice President Joe Biden

I’ve never been a huge fan of the late night comedy show. However, I’ve never hated them more than I do now. Why? Well, if you google any of these shows and take a look at the recommended videos that pop up, you’ll instantly see the reason… They’re all centered around politics.

Seth Meyers

I know I specified that there is a subgenre of these shows that concentrates on politics, but it has become harder and harder to thematically separate those shows from the others. It’s obvious that TV stations are well aware that American culture has (sadly) become a lot more politically charged, and they’re all looking to capitalize on the current zeitgeist.

Personally, I enjoy catching up on events in the political arena, but I also want to get away from that stuff once I’m done. It seems there’s no escapism in American comedy anymore. It’s not being made to make people happy, it’s being made to smugly assure them that their political beliefs are correct or to help the comedian feel like they’re the smartest and coolest person in the room. Maybe that kind of thing is fun to some people, but it certainly isn’t to me.

Trevor Noah

Oh, and the PODCASTS. I almost forgot to mention those... Hoo boy...

Back at the beginning of the 2010s, an independently produced downloadable radio show (or podcast) called “WTF with Marc Maron” became incredibly popular in America. It consisted of the middle-aged comedian rambling into his microphone for a while before interviewing whatever guest he could drag into his home studio.

Marc Maron

Since podcasting was still in its infancy, the rough and candid nature of the show was incredibly refreshing at the time, and the show gained a dedicated following. Eventually, Maron was able to find more famous guests to bring in, and the show skyrocketed in popularity.

I occasionally listened to “WTF” in the mid 2010s, and found it to be… fairly entertaining, actually.

Maron's studio

It didn’t stop there, though. Marc’s contemporaries took notice of his popularity and started up their own podcasts. By the end of the decade, the market was flooded with hours upon hours of comedians droning into their microphones and doing ad reads, all of them hoping to catch on with the mainstream.

It may sound like I hate the podcast medium as a whole, but that’s not the case. It’s definitely possible to put out a couple hours of audio a week and be consistently entertaining. The problem is that most people can’t do this, even if they’re comedians. Stand-up comedy traditionally consists of an hour-long set of jokes that gets repeated and refined over time. That’s an entirely separate skill from speaking off-the-cuff in an entertaining manner.

The comedy podcast "Your Mom's House"

Because of this, most comedy-themed podcasts end up feeling incredibly stale and lifeless, even when they have other comedians on as guests. In fact, comedian guests can turn out worse because they often default to talking about the stand-up industry itself (boring), or they end up revealing that they’re just not very interesting personality-wise. Some, I would say, actually come off as deeply unpleasant and childish.

Recently, I heard a bit from Whitney Cummings’ podcast where she was interviewing fellow comedian Chris D’elia (known for being particularly abrasive on social media). It came off as narcissistic and banal, but the worst part was when D’elia claimed that internet comments “didn’t get to him” before immediately launching into a tirade about things people said that upset him. This sparked a conversation about internet criticism that made the two comedians seem incredibly petty and filled with edgy teenager levels of angst.

D'elia

I find absolutely no solace in American comedy at this point. From stand-up comedians constantly stroking their own egos to late night hosts trying to get petty jabs in at perceived political opponents, there’s no sense of “fun” left. It’s all so dismal and serious.

This contrasts directly with Japanese comedy, where the aim isn’t to look cool or witty. Comedians frequently goof off, act stupid, humiliate themselves, and even pull off daredevil stunts for the purpose of eliciting laughter from the audience. There’s no doubt in the aim of their comedy. In my eyes, it all seems like colorful hilarious mayhem compared to the drab and dull slate grey of modern American comedy.

From Gaki no Tsukai's "Pie Hell" batsu game

There are occasionally bright spots in American comedy, in my opinion. A recent favorite of mine has been the Comedy Central show "Nathan for You." the show revolves around comedian Nathan Fielder coming up with (often very silly and impractical) ideas to help struggling small businesses.

Notable ideas include renaming a cafe to "Dumb Starbucks" (which he argues would be protected from copyright law as a "parody"), and tying balloons to obese people to help them ride horses without them injuring the animals. Seriously, he does this kind of stuff. Go check it out.


Another great show is the late-night parody "The Eric Andre Show," wherein the titular host plays the part of a manic late-night comedian who terrorizes people with bizarre interviews and crazy hidden camera pranks. The show ended up being quite popular and spawned plenty of great memes.



Still these kinds of daring shows seem few and far between. Maybe in time, we in the western world will be able to loosen up and have fun again. Who knows?

Do you disagree? Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this subject via Twitter or Facebook. You can also check out my newest novel, "Everything is Cancelled!" on Amazon, available for Kindle and in paperback!



As always, thanks for reading!

Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 


Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 

Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American ComedJapanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 

Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy
Japanese Comedy to American Comedy Japanese Comedy to American Comedy 


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