A couple of weeks ago, my professor invited me and the other grad students out to Ryogoku to watch a rakugo performance. For those unfamiliar with the artform, rakugo is a traditional type of long Japanese comic monologue dating from the Edo period. Performers sit on a small pillow in front of the audience and retell an established set of stories — generally, word-for-word. Although the ochi (falling) at the end of the story is akin to the punchline in the Western sense, devoted fans already know how things turn out and evaluate the performance on the individual’s storytelling technique and articulation. Rakugo performers sometimes write their own material but not usually until becoming a certified master of the art. In general, new stories are not a dominant part of the overall experience.
This was my first time I had seen rakugo in about a decade. I could somewhat navigate the arcane language this time around but unfortunately still lack the necessary familiarity with Edo period urban cultural references to create an adequate context for the ha-ha. With Japanese drama like Noh, you can sit back and enjoy the music and movement without understanding the “dialogue.” Non-textual clues, however, don’t get you very far in rakugo: there is almost nothing besides the performer talking in various voices and making the occasional Michael Winslow sound-effects of eating crunchy food. Watching rakugo as a foreigner is maybe as difficult as a non-native English speaker watching a Colonial-era proto-Seinfeld perform at the Ye Olde Improv.
When compared to comedy in the West, rakugo differs not just in terms of format, but in the core philosophy behind the humor. Rakugo is orthopraxical comedy: performers deliver well-known scripts line-by-line, attempting to reconstruct a “perfect” reading. Only masters with hierarchical stature can make additions to the canonized form.
Across the seas, rakugo’s cousin — American stand-up — is meanwhile orthodoxical comedy. Besides old-timey Vaudeville, brand new material is a basic requirement for a stand-up comedian. Whereas rakugo gains its legitimacy with links to the past — kimonos, antiquated language, formal “Japanese” gestures — American comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Mitch Hedberg secured their place in the cultural history books by breaking taboos and innovating on past methodologies.
Viewed from a certain perspective, the rakugo audience comes to enjoy clichés, hear stories they already know, and giggle at punchlines that were hot stuff two-hundred years ago. Although it may be unfair to compare a “classical” artform to cutting-edge pop culture, comparing cliché usage in rakugo and recent American comedy is a fairly illuminating undertaking.
The half-hour Comedy Central show Stella — starring Jewish-American The State alumni Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain — has a unique comic language that can best be described as a lexicon of schizophrenic comedic material built upon an absurdist grammar. Although the Monty Python comparisons are somewhat deserved, Stella‘s better jokes are not just illogical wackiness for the sake of absurdity. The show relies on the classic Dada/Surrealist technique of compressed time but only to create a large number of opportunities for the show’s red meat: the ironic explorations of bad movie clichés and well-worn dramatic conventions.
In a scene from the second episode “Campaign,” for example, Michael Showalter gives David Wain an apologetic friendship make-up speech that snakes from frat brother heart-to-heart to bad Degrassi Jr. High Canadian accents to faux-Scottish solidarity (“Are we still mates?”) to a disinterested airhead departure — all in the span of thirty seconds. In “Paper Route,” the three protagonists cycle through a laundry list of terrible job interview clichés in order to secure morning newspaper delivery work — including the well-worn line, “My greatest weakness is that I care too much…? Is that a weakness?”
But opposed to specific parody (like most of their feature film Wet Hot American Summer) the sharpest humor in Stella transcends the cheap reference joke (i.e., “This one thing looks like this other thing I know.”) and reveals the stupidity of minor artistic and cultural forms that have never before been specifically codified as “convention.” For example, when the three protagonists mend their broken friendship after becoming emotionally distanced, their serious conversation soon morphs into a late-night rap session on metaphysics:
MIB: I’m spiritual, but I’m not…. “religious.”
MS: I know there’s something out there, but I don’t know if I want to call it “God.”
These aren’t specific references to bad movie dialogue as much as they are pitch perfect recreations of hackneyed teenage conversations. Faux insights on God may seem like an obvious target for ridicule, but the following riff hit eerily close to home for me. As the three become stranded in the forest with no hope of returning to civilization, they chat about David’s wonderful meals:
MIB: You know what it is? You’re really good in the kitchen.
DW: I learned it from my mom years ago.
MIB: It doesn’t matter. You should develop it. It’s wonderful.
DW: I’d love to develop my piano. That’s what I wish I could do…
MIB: Well, that you have a gift for.
DW: Stop it.
MIB: You do, you have a really musical ear.
DW: Well, I tool around a bit.
MIB: David, you can play any popular song just by listening to it one time.
DW: You know what it is? I know chords. But put a piece in front of me, and I can’t even…
Stella‘s humor takes dialogue, themes, cultural moments, and artistic techniques verging on cliché status and pushes them all over the edge. The specific combination of methods may be new, but the show follows from a long history of using humor as a way for culture to clean house. Before you can build something new, someone has to point out the parts of the structure needing to be junked and gutted. Whether it’s exposing politicians as hypocritical boobs or questioning the use of narrative flashbacks, Western humor is not so much progressive as destructive. Stella does not have the mind-twisting fourth-level brilliance of the best Mr. Show sketches (“The Audition”, “Pre-Taped Call-in Show” and “Young People and Their Companions” in particular), but the three comedians manage to keenly uncover a lot of cliché conventions that would normally still be festering under the surface.
Jumping back to rakugo, I certainly don’t have enough grasp of the experience to form a meaningful judgment about the art in general, but I suspect my Western-influenced need for comedic destruction is fundamentally incompatible with full enjoyment. For starters, the elderly and I very rarely find the same things funny, and Japanese old people love rakugo.
In America, comedy is rock’n’roll: Down with homework! Don’t trust anyone over 30! Rakugo and the entire idea of inter-generational humor presupposes that social ideals and norms are stable and conservative. In the world of rakugo, clichés are not things to be burned at the stake, but they represent what is funny now and what has always been funny — from the beginning of the world to the end of time.