A Boke Without A Tsukkomi – Thoughts on Comedy and Gravitas

1. A TINY PREMABLE THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MAIN POINT

Tim Rogers, known by many to be a very very obnoxious game critic, hates Japan. In fact, he wrote an article about it. You can find it here:

http://kotaku.com/5484581/japan-its-not-funny-anymore

As expected, the comments are filled with people who hate on Tim for being a whiny expat attacking the country that was nice enough to take him in. Normally, when faced with such a situation, normal responses would be either to post an apology, or, to post a boisterous reply maintaining an ego stance. The first method is called the diplomatic method, and the second method is called the Donald Trump. Actually, the second method has a greater risk-reward factor, because if you can maintain that personality, you gain a reputation for ‘telling it straight’, and that nets you followers no matter how wrong or misguided your statement is.

Tim Rogers did neither. Tim Rogers took the rational strategy and posted an equally long list of everything he loved about Japan, indicating that his relationship to the country is, like anything in real life, an ambivalent point upon a spectrum, rather than a straight-forward dichotomy of like-and-hate. This is his second article:

http://kotaku.com/5516355/the-life-of-game-why-i-live-in-japan

Yet, despite this being the most rational strategy, this is also the least rewarding strategy. This is mainly because people tacitly assume that, on the internet, anything that is longer than one paragraph, or, to some, even a few lines, has to be a ‘rant’. After imposing the definition ‘rant’ onto the article, they will proceed to ignore it and assume that they have read it, or, if they have actually read it, they will immediately forget 75% of it except for the parts that they particularly like. This is because they do not understand that it is quite impossible to internalize anything written with a certain level of intelligence on your first try.

As expected, there was an article here by Steve Alexander that tried to ‘counter’ Tim that was posted, over here:

http://www.reaxxion.com/5873/a-measured-response-to-kotakus-japan-its-not-funny-anymore

As expected, it only deals with the first 3 points, which are, really, more like Tim’s trolling than any real gripe, and then proceeds to label everything as a rant and immediately take a higher moral stance. Such a tactic, on the internet, is called the ‘holier-than-thou ragequit’.

Before I get on to what I really want to say, I feel a moral responsibility to protect Tim. I feel this moral responsibility because Tim Rogers, contrary to people’s belief, is actually one of the real game critics that has anything to bring to the table, and one of the writers out there that can actually write things of substance, although he also has a boatload of quirks that can easily shake people off from his style. I can say this because I’ve read every single essay by Tim out there, and listened to all his readings on Youtube of his novel.

Tim Rogers writes in a style that might be, superficially, compared to Alt-Lit.

This is an excerpt from Tao Lin’s Taipei:

“Paul cried the first day of preschool for around ten minutes after his mother, who was secretly watching and also crying, seemed to have left. It was their first time apart. Paul’s mother watched as the principal cajoled Paul into interacting with his classmates, among whom he was well liked and popular, if a bit shy and “disengaged, sometimes,” said one of the high school students who worked at the preschool, which was called the Discovery Center. Each day, after that, Paul cried less and transitioned more abruptly from crying to interacting with classmates, and by the middle of the second week he didn’t cry anymore. At home, where mostly only Mandarin was spoken, Paul was loud and either slug-like or, his mother would say in English, “hyperactive,” rarely walking to maneuver through the house, only crawling, rolling like a log, sprinting, hopping, or climbing across sofas, counters, tables, chairs, etc. in a game called “don’t touch the ground.” Whenever motionless and not asleep or sleepy, lying on carpet in sunlight, or in bed with eyes open, bristling with undirectionalized momentum, he would want to intensely sprint in all directions simultaneously, with one unit of striving, never stopping. He would blurrily anticipate this unimaginably worldward action, then burst off his bed to standing position, or make a loud noise and violently spasm, or jolt from the carpet into a sprint, flailing his arms, feeling always incompletely satisfied.”

This is an excerpt from an essay by Tim Rogers:

“I asked my mom and dad to buy me a watch for my sixth birthday.

I wanted a specific watch. I wanted a Timex watch with a black face, white numerals, and an orange second hand. Its strap was nylon and black, with a wide gray racing stripe down the middle and a narrow gray racing stripe running down each side. The top of the watch was hard plastic. I saw the watch in the Montgomery Ward department store at Town East Mall in Wichita, Kansas. I described the watch to my mom. I wrote the description on a sheet of paper. The watch was nineteen dollars.

My mom presented me the watch in the courtyard behind our townhouse at just after ten in the morning on Friday, June 7th, 1985. School was out for the summer. Kansas was hot. The grass of the courtyard was dark green and in wild clumps. The clouds were big. Possessive of a present-day aptitude for connecting accurate numerals to air temperatures, I am re-remembering this birthday at this living adult moment, twenty-nine years later. On this occasion, I award that day with an air temperature of eighty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. I live now on what we might consider a different planet from the planet I was on when I received that watch. Here in 2014, I can type “temperature Wichita Kansas June 7th 1985”, and my computer tells me that the high temperature that day was 91.9 degrees Fahrenheit. My computer does not tell me the humidity: my memory tells me it was between twelve and twenty percent.”

On the surface, both write in a certain stilted and disaffected style. Both seem to relay information rather than describe. Both scenes, in this case, talk about childhood psychoses. The difference is that Tao Lin can only conceive of things on a single level, which is to convey a sense of alienation, whereas Tim Rogers writes with an alienated reverie. Simply put, the word choices he focuses on are better, and reach out to a larger theme than merely rumination on the lifestyle-dessicate that usually comes with such writers. Furthermore he knows that the disaffection is merely a vehicle hiding true pathos, which comes later in the essay, especially the ending, rather than, in Tao Lin’s way, a mere recapitulation. No matter how ‘intellectually’ worded, there is simply no emotional foundation in the lackluster strategies of most Alt-Lit out there.

This is why Tim Rogers is quite worthy to note, because he opens up a path from that sort of writing, and prevents it from referring back to itself. Furthermore, unlike most Alt-Lit writers who try to be ironically or wryly entertaining, Tim Rogers is actually entertaining in his writing, and creates characterization of comparative breadth.

Of course this completely goes over the head of a chump like Steve Alexander, and, fair enough, outside of his autobiographical writing and essays, which he writes with an authorial focus, the rest is really quite obnoxious. This is probably because Tim doesn’t really care about a concept like ‘getting views’ and writes because he feels like writing. Either that or it doubles as a screening wall to keep the types of people he’s not interested in out of his view.

Anyway, the main point of this article, though, is not Tim Rogers, but something that Tim Rogers wrote, which is this:

“I can’t get behind Japanese comedy. God, I can hardly stand to be in front of it.

The majority of Japanese comedians are people who stand on a stage reciting one catch phrase over and over again. Like, there was this guy who dressed up roughly as a player from the “Lion King” musical, stood on stage, and chanted like at the beginning of “The Circle of Life.” He would occasionally stop, be awkwardly silent for a moment, and then start chanting again. He was really popular for a while. I mean, that was all he did. He wasn’t given his fifteen minutes of fame because he was somehow more appealing or interesting than everyone else working in the field — it was simply his turn in line.

Another form of Japanese comedy involves two men standing on a stage simultaneously. I don’t like this form of comedy. I’ve expressed my dislike for it to many people, including people trying to make it in the field of this very form of comedy. I say the comedy is antiquated and Bob-Hope-like. The comedians or ex-comedians to whom I express this opinion all sigh, say, “You know, man, I’d love to get out there and do some edgy jokes, though that’s just not how it works here, man. You have to play by the rules. You wouldn’t understand. You’re not Japanese.”

2. A BOKE AND A TSUKKOMI

The comedy, of course, is Manzai. Furthermore, Tim’s assessment is something I more or less agree with. Most of Manzai doesn’t seem to be particularly funny to outsider sensibilities. Yet, to not know how Manzai works is also to miss out some of the underlying dynamics that goes on in Anime like the Monogatari Series, or Visual Novels like Cross Channel.

So this essay is going to be about Manzai, but, it’s also going to be about Comedy and Gravity.

As a starting point of analysis, I’m going to use this video:

The structure, if you look at it, is quite simple. One starts off with a story about how his bike-bell got stolen. This segues into the other telling the same story, but making a progressively exaggerated fuss about it, to the point of becoming psychotic.

Now, watching this video, if this was a one-man routine, for example, if the comedian merely started off with a story about a stolen bike-bell and then progressively got exaggerated, you’d probably find his performance absolutely irritating. The ending amounts to yelling and acting nuts. Like an irritating friend who’s trying too hard. What gives the act its balance is the Tsukkomi who’s there to point out all of the exaggerations and ridiculousness of the whole deal.

Now that seems like an extremely interesting concept right? The fact that the comedy involves explaining the illogical parts to the audience. Almost akin to explaining the joke outright, except most of the time the reaction is one that ties to that without a complete reveal of the structure that goes on behind it. This concept of the ‘straight man’ always sets up a grounding for the joke.

I would say, it isn’t funny, at least to me, but it feels very social. It has a feeling less like a sharp wit, like Robin Williams, dealing barrage after barrage after barrage, but it has the feeling of two friends hitting it off very well together, and letting you in a bit on the whole deal. In Gaki no Tsukai, the most famous Japanese comedy show out there, you more or less get to know the comedians as characters, rather than as people with routines. Most of the time, although its sadistic, it’s more about social reactions to the various punishments or scenarios that the characters are given. One of the most hilariously evil moments comes when one of the comedians actually has his history of marital infidelity and fetishism revealed on air in a fake courtroom, in front of his family members, just for shits and giggles. Manzai undermines the comic for the social.

Of course, since Japan is still extremely hierarchical and socially tight, you can expect none of the Manzai to go to anywhere above the lowbrow, at least on live television. But when you have Anime writers, or Visual Novel writers, who can control both sides of the equation in their own artistic space, then you get to see a bit of the potential translated over. The entire episode 3 of Bakemonogatari is that famous flourish of non-stop exchanges that remains as one of the show’s most divisive points. Romeo Tanaka likes to set up 7-man exchange scenarios in the comedic sections of his visual novels. Japan has, after all, mastered this style of character-driven, rather than gag-driven, comedy, based around reactions to scenarios. In its fullest flourishing you get to see the jokes weaved in with the personalities you actively care about. It’s also one of the reason why Slice-of-Life pacing exists, because the comedy style is best suited when you’re placing characters within an event to comment on – Manzai as a style of life. The craziest would be to combine Manzai with a structured set-up, which means that you have a level 1 joke unfolding while, on the level 2, you have commentary on the joke itself that is also comedic.

One of the powers of the Tsukkomi is that it never places you too far from swapping out in a single scene to something of a more dramatic emotion. Of course, this is a conjecture. With a stand-up structure you can still do the same, as Woody Allen has proven so many times. It all depends on the delivery and execution. The thing is that Manzai provides a framework for you to view these things in more than one way. How to ‘transcend’ the merely funny in other words. It’s a tool that activates that possible route, and it’s been abused to great advantage. Cross Channel can pull off, sometimes, more than one mood switch in a single moment and still stay rooted to a certain ground no matter how ridiculously into the air the jokes go, because it relies on that partially naturalistic style derived from Manzai. The form is worth studying simply to gain that self-awareness of the possible ways things can go.

3. A BOKE WITHOUT A TSUKKOMI

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is the weakness of Postmodern fiction, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a Boke without a Tsukkomi. Gravitas in Po-Mo works are wholeheartedly unearned because they have no grounding motion, and frequently float away into eccentricities without any proper bearing.

As an example I’ll just grab the first parts of a Pynchon short story.

“Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour. On the kitchen floor, amid a litter of empty champagne fifths, were Sandor Rojas and three friends, playing spit in the ocean and staying awake on Heidseck and benzedrine pills. In the living room Duke, Vincent, Krinkles and Paco sat crouched over a 15-inch speaker which had been bolted into the top of a wastepaper basket, listening to 27 watts’ worth of The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev. They all wore hornrimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions, and smoked funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa. This group was the Duke di Angelis quartet. They recorded for a local label called Tambú and had to their credit one 10″ LP entitled Songs of Outer Space. From time to time one of them would flick the ashes from his cigarette into the speaker cone to watch them dance around. Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear. Several government girls, who worked for people like the State Department and NSA, had passed out on couches, chairs and in one case the bathroom sink.”

Now, applying my Tsukkomi minded vision of the world, you can see all the flaws in this kind of writing.

The first sentence alone has 2 jokes that are based on exaggerations. The first is the name “Meatball Mulligan”, and the second is the fact that it’s moving into its “40th Hour”. You can imagine the Tsukkomi at the back going “Is Meatball even a name?” or “You mean the party’s gone on for one day already?” This can continue on for the rest of the extract.

“You mean it was important that they were playing exactly 27 watts of Mussorgsky?”

“Are you just using the scientific name cannabis sativa in order to sound smart?”

“Should I be worried that he’s holding an empty magnum, or that he’s holding it like a Teddy Bear?”

“Does the State Department or the NSA care about what its girls are getting up to in their free time?”

You get the point. I’m not good at coming up with Tsukkomi lines for Pynchon, but his ‘hysterical realism’, and other things of the same make, feels to me like nothing but a Boke without a Tsukkomi. Cross Channel has a smarter method by being a tad self-commentative on the references so that they don’t float out in their own domain, or having other characters just plainly come out and say that they don’t understand what Taichi is saying. Pynchon’s jokes float on their own, and, at most, only warrant a “oh, that’s so smart”, but there isn’t any rooting down to a specific point. A writer like Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes with a style that comes in the form of mini vignettes with punchlines that aren’t just funny, but add a deeper import to the scene in conjunction with the whole plot.

“It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg on weekday afternoons to drink Würtzburger and to sing Lili Marlene (not to mention The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi) are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components—holidays, tourist attractions—there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue*, because oddly enough, later on winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.”

This is why, I feel, this part falls flat in its attempt at pathos. It’s wholly unearned. The first part sets up hysterics without any meat to their bones, and then to expect a wholesome emotional reaction from such a flourish is simply an act that aims to crumble. Another book I found overwrought in such a way was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, for an opposite reason though. A lot of lines in there were starkly poetic, and it felt grating to push myself through the book even though I found it beautiful. I felt it was flowing past me without any greater point.

Yet, being a Tsukkomi isn’t, as I noted above, just about explaining the joke. It’s about contributing realism to a ludicrous situation, but making that statement of realism become an additional element in itself. A conjecture as to why I think Japan has the counterbalance to co-opt post-modern literature tactics for their own use is because they have a history of this grounding. Like I said, just another conjecture. In the end, these kind of conjectures will fall away to the people who have the methods firmly held in their hand so that they don’t have to rely on abstractly floating out such theories, but it’s important to frame the possible pathways, at least until we reach that state. Until then, perhaps something about the possible pathways of future creation may be found in this innocuous joke structure of two comedians shooting the shit about various things.

Advertisements