My first article of my It Came From Japan series would like to introduce everyone to a little show that while very big in Japan, gets little attention outside the land of the rising sun and I’m a little bothered. Because Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! ( Downtown's 'This is no task for kids!!'") or Gaki no Tsukai for short, is one of the smartest “dumb” shows I have ever seen. The love child of The Gong Show and Jackass, Gaki no Tsukai shines in the type of television programming that americans really haven’t seen since the variety shows of 70’s. But the difference between Gaki and there failed American brethren is, Gaki no Tsukai is actually funny. Lets delve a little further into the absurdity that is Downtown’s Gaki no Tsukai!!
Gaki no Tsukai Origins: Downtown Comedy duo: Hitoshi Matsumoto & Masatoshi Hamada
Now considered one of the most prolific comedic duos in all of Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto and childhood friend Masatoshi Hamada both born in 1963 grew up poor in the industrial city of Amagasaki. After graduating high school and quitting their jobs (Hamada attempted to become a professional motorboat racer but failed) they began performing together under the stage names "Matsumoto Hamada", "Teruo-Haruo" and even “The Wright Brothers” before agreeing on the stage name “Downtown” before making their début in 1983 both at the age of 20.
After making their début they had difficulty reaching an audience, with no money coming in both Hamada and Matsumoto had to move back in with their parents and commuting to gigs by train. But continued effort began to pay off as audiences began to show and in April of 1987 at the age of 24 they hosted a local television variety show called Yoji Desu YÅda ("It's Four O'Clock") gaining celebrity status within the Kansai region. But in early 1989 they packed up their bags and headed north to Tokyo and on October 3rd 1989 the pilot episode of Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! aired.
Breaking the Status Quo
Unlike comedy acts in America which usually consists of solo acts or ensemble, popular Japanese acts majority of the time come as a duo performing a Manzai act. A Manzai act consists of two comedians, one of the members called a boke or “funny man” and a tsukkomi or “straight man” bantering between one another at fast speeds with jokes generally built around the misunderstandings of the two as well as the common sight of light violence by the tsukkomi towards the boke(such as head slapping or shoulder jabs) when the boke says something stupid or nonsensical.
Another common trait of manzai acts, like many other occupations in Japan, involve senior and junior relationships. In most cases older more experienced comedians will take a younger group under their wing training them in proper comedian etiquette, act structure, and joke delivery.
Downtown never had a mentor, and due to this developed their own style, not relying on the tropes of earlier menzai acts where fast witty talk was the norm, Downtown took the slow and steady approach. Instead of fast snappy conversation, Downtown would mumble sentences slowly using their Kansai dialect instead of the more uniform Tokyo(Edo). Standard manzai acts usually spoke with their faces to the audiences Matsumoto and Hamada would face each other while speaking making it feel like a real conversation more so than an act.
With their brash unorthodox approach Downtown became the most popular manzai act in the late 80’s and early 90’s Japanese comedy scene.
With Gaki no Tsukai gaining popularity during the early 90’s, addition of comedian Hosei Yamasaki in 1995 and the Cocorico comedy duo which included comedians Shozo Endo and Naoki Tanaka in 1997 as regular cast members, the show gained a whole new dynamic. After the additions many of the segments fans of the show have come to know and love today evolved and flourished. One of which gave Gaki no Tsukai the notoriety it has today. It is simply known only as, the Batsu Game.
The batsu game or “punishment game” is a game that either a single member or the entire group participates in generally after they lose some sort of bet or competition. The first batsu game shown in 1990 where Matsumoto, after losing a singing competition with Hamada, had to go on a morning tv show known as "Zoom In!! Asa!" and wreak havoc on live air.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the batsu game became what it became to this day, which is the no laughing game. The game rules set that if any member of the group participating in the group smiles or shows any sign of laughter during the situation that they are put in (either by the winner of a bet or competition, or producers of the show itself) will be punished. Punishments usually consisted of some type of gluteus punishment such as: blow darts, baton slaps, or kendo sticks.
The no laughing batsu game is now held as a new year’s eve celebration special, in which producers set up a setting and theme for the five to take part in such as: police officers, nurses, spies, or teachers. Famous Japanese actors, comedians, and musicians, will often make appearances in character roles of the theme that year in complete surprise of the audience and participating members themselves.
From here to eternity
Now with the Downtown duo nearing 50 years of age, they show no signs of slowing down. A quarter century on the same station, in the same time slot, and over a 1000 episodes aired, Gaki no Tsukai is the definition of consistency. It's great to see that a show can keep it’s edge, be original, and most importantly, stay funny.
What makes Gaki no Tsukai thrive in Japan while nothing of the sort is being aired on American television? Culture? Comedian Infrastructure? Different senses of humor? I do not know but I am happy that Japan has given us Gaki no Tsukai. It's a delicacy of: fart jokes, cross dressing, vicarious pain, uncomfortable situations, and the simply absurd. Yet with a pinch of heart and that japanese spirit, Gaki no Tsukai goes down easy leaving you always wanting more.