Recycling Cliches: Rakugo vs. Stella

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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.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

15 Responses

  1. r. Says:

    david, have you ever seen some ‘modern rakugo’ stuff? it is a totally different world that what you describe in your entry. there is a third way.

  2. marxy Says:

    By third way, you mean “tainted by poisonous Western individualism!”

  3. Chompsky Says:

    Rakugo guys don’t recite works “word for word”. They follow a story’s established plot line and frequently use the same phrasing as the texts, this is true. But they also often use their own wording in telling a tale, and sneak in references to current events, fads, etc., into the story. Such improvisation, as well as the speaker’s storytelling skills, are a big part of the appeal, I think. (Not exactly the same thing, but yo you think people go to see Shakespear to “enjoy cliches”, by the way?)

  4. Momus Says:

    If cliches “represent what is funny now and what has always been funny – from the beginning of the world to the end of time” (and you probably know that such sweepingly universalistic statements set my teeth on edge, but let’s just look at your argument’s internal contradictions here), it would mean that comedy about cliches was a tremendously unchanging, and conservative, form, wouldn’t it?

    You can’t claim both that American comedy innovates constantly and that it’s doing the one thing that’s always been funny and always will be. Or are you zooming innovation down to the level of the adverbial: exactly how it’s doing it this year? But if you’re zooming American comedy’s originality down to small details like that, why not zoom rakugo’s originality down to “the way they tell ’em” too? And why not claim that it’s universal too? After all, you’re happy to claim that rakugo is intergenerational, which is a step closer to “universal” than the generation-gap model you present for American comedy.

    Personally, I didn’t find Stella funny at all. It wasn’t universal enough to cross from the American to the British culture, let alone achieve the kind of universality you seem to be claiming for it. (To compare its fratboy nihilism to Monty Python’s elegant, intelligent subversion is outrageous, by the way.)

    In America, comedy is rock’n’roll: Down with homework! Don’t trust anyone over 30! Rakugo and the entire idea of intergenerational humor presupposes that social ideals and norms are stable and conservative.

    Not because it’s funny, but because it’s better “pop sociology of pop” than you’re displaying here, I’d like you to look at Father Doesn’t Understand Teenage Son’s Obsession With Classic Rock, a story in The Onion.

    That joke spells it out: in America rock’n’roll (the value you present as the ultimate in disjunction and innovation) represents the most utterly “stable and conservative” set of values there is, values tied up with the ultra-individualist archetype of the rebel loner, values which are as intergenerational as anything in rakugo. From the beginning of the world to the end of time, amen.

  5. marxy Says:

    I know that I should have written an anti-Stella tirade first so that Momus would have fallen in love with the show THEN written this piece. Pretty soon I’m going to write an essay on how I don’t like to make out with 80 year-old women, and Momus will start lecturing me on how there’s nothing better than making out with 80 year-old women.

    More later…

  6. marxy Says:

    They follow a story’s established plot line and frequently use the same phrasing as the texts, this is true. But they also often use their own wording in telling a tale, and sneak in references to current events, fads, etc., into the story.

    It was my understanding that the introductions are self-created, but most of the classic stories do not get much tweaking – especially from those without formal certification of the higher status. The issue again is degree: compared with other artforms how much is rakugo about new material vs. old standards?

    you probably know that such sweepingly universalistic statements set my teeth on edge

    First of all, you misread my essay. I rewrote the last sentence to make it more clear: “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.”

    The Confucian orthopraxy that grounds Japanese society has its own universalistic presuppositions – only they’re based on practices/praxis and not core beliefs. What I’m saying is that conservative artistic traditions generally understand their artform to have a “correct” methodology that is unrelated to time. This in itself is a form of “pompous universalism.” Yes, you are right: the idea of constant innovation and heterodoxy becomes in itself an extension of orthodoxical beliefs. But it certainly creates more of what we call social and cultural “change.” Not saying that change is good, though. That’s a Western orthodoxical mindset.

    You can’t claim both that American comedy innovates constantly and that it’s doing the one thing that’s always been funny and always will be.

    Nowhere in the piece did I write that American comedy is better than Japanese comedy. If you think that innovation is a higher pursuit than stagnation, that’s your own dirty little orthodoxial mind bringing you to that conclusion.

    Also, how is it that you can say that comparing Stella to Monty Python is “outrageous”? Are you allowed to make pompous universalist value judgements of culture and I’m not? Are fratboys not people too?

    Also, have you ever actually met a frat boy? How dare you criticize a culture that you do not belong to!

  7. Chompsky Says:

    To ask again, what’s the big difference between a crowd of English speakers going to enjoy, say, a comedy by Shakespear and laughing at the parts they always laugh at, and a crowd of Japanese speakers going to see rakugo?

    “The Confucian orthopraxy that grounds Japanese society has its own universalistic presuppositions – only they’re based on practices/praxis and not core beliefs.”…

    Yow.

  8. marxy Says:

    To ask again, what’s the big difference between a crowd of English speakers going to enjoy, say, a comedy by Shakespear and laughing at the parts they always laugh at, and a crowd of Japanese speakers going to see rakugo?

    That’s a pretty good parallel. I would guess that plays are associated with the writer of the play, where rakugo scripts probably are not. Maybe in the realm of “comedy” – where individuals perform routines as individuals with no background “production” – there’s nothing really like rakugo in the West, but if you think of it as an artform consisting of nothing but one-man plays, perhaps it is not so different.

  9. check Says:

    As usual, I see there is no shortage of sesquipedalianism here…regardless, both concepts sound enjoyable to me.

    Nicely written essay, David.

    Your unreluctance to critically analyze Japan typifies a real love. I’d much rather observe this honest relationship – warts and all – than be patronized with cloying, self-indulgent proclamations of rose gardens.

  10. alin Says:

    a comedy by Shakespear …. rakugo

    that might make interesting talk. the poles set up here are to weirdly apart. nice effort but seriously bizzare. what next? new balance versus geta?

  11. marxy Says:

    Geta are orthopraxical footwear!

  12. Chris_B Says:

    Do they even have frats in UK/EU? Are movies like Animal House funny for those people?

    How much do Americans really understand the class jokes in Monty Python?

  13. jasong Says:

    I’d heard of rakugo being performed in English, but didn’t know it had got this far. And am I dreaming, or wasn’t there a foreigner in Japan who performed rakugo in Japanese?

    Classic English-language comedy routines seem to have “definitive versions” (thanks to recorded media?) I don’t think 300 years from now anybody will do a “better” rendition of Who’s On First?

  14. saru Says:

    Definitive versions and comedy as rock’n’roll–This reminds me of something I heard about recently, comedy karaoke. People get up and try their hand at famous comedy bits (like “Who’s on First,” etc.). Of course everyone knows the punchlines, but like a Rakugo audience, perhaps, they want to see how the performers get the nuances, timing, etc.

    This also reminds me of VH1’s “Rock and Roll School,” in which Gene Simmons teaches a bunch of kids how to rawk like Kiss. If you need any more proof of rock’s ossification, there it is. He teaches them the exact poses, etc. “Raise the pick in the air and put your head down like you’re smelling your armpit.”

  15. Marcus Says:

    I’d be hesitant to say US (Western) comedy is innovative because it’s breaking taboos. The taboos are usually just sex and dirty jokes have been popular… well, probably since the beginning of mankind. I think there is little room for all that innovation and most stories do have reminiscent punchlines. I think the gap between western comedy and rakugo might be exaggarated, just because they look so different and seem so different.

    I also think it’s kind of shallow of try and analyze rakugo after only one sitting, without understanding all of it, which you of course are aware of yourself and do point out, but still.