Understanding jokes and other forms of comedy in a foreign language can be a difficult undertaking for language learners. To begin with, comedic wordplay based on homonyms (two words with the same sound but different meaning) is often used and may involve subtle aspects of pronunciation (intonation, etc.) Pop culture references are also abundant, including things like celebrities and politicians. Finally, just because you understand a joke doesn’t mean you will find it funny––although this also applies to comedy in one’s native language.
Taking after my personality in English, I tend to try and make frequent use of word-puns in Japanese (these are called 親父ギャグ), though I won’t say my success rate is particularly high. But besides that I have often stayed away from spending time trying to watch and appreciate Japanese comedy, mostly because in the past I’ve not had much luck with content that actually makes me laugh (partially due to lack of understanding on my part, to be sure).
There are several styles of comedy in Japan. One of them is “manzai” (漫才) that involves two people arguing back and forth, a traditional style that is associated with the Osaka-region. I talked a little bit about manzai in this article, a review of the book “Hibana” (“Spark”).
Another popular style is コント (konto), a word that derives from the French “conte”, meaning a short tale of story. This style is much more freeform and is pretty similar to a comedy skit you would see in the Western World, including things like costumes and props. While Manzai is typically done with two people, Japanese konto can involve any number of characters.
Lately I stumbled on a comic duo (コンビ, konbi) called “Sandwich Man” (サンドウィッチマン) who were surprisingly funny. By the way, while the name sounds like it is referring to a single person, keep in mind that the concept of plural isn’t that ingrained into Japanese as much as English; and even though there is a differentiation between “man” and “men” (おとこ vs. おとこたち), the difference between “man” and “men” doesn’t always reflect in loanwords (for example イケメン which can refer to a single person).
Even though “Sandwich Man” relies on various forms of wordplay, cultural references, and crazy antics, I managed to understand enough on a first watching to enjoy myself. I think one of the reasons was that many of their skits tend to be set in everyday environments: a train station ticket booth, a classroom, or someone’s house. Also, because of the setting and props it was easier to understand than traditional manzai routines, which as previously mentioned are generally about two people arguing. (Update: after watching a few more of their skits I realized that there are some similarities to manzai after all, especially in the roles each character tales.)
As I was watching some of these skits, I realized that despite many of the lines themselves being unrealistic, the conversation as a whole was spoken with a certain authenticity or realism that I don’t often get from movies or books, and this reminded me of speaking with natives or being in Japan. Many of the skits start out with everyday phrases (like “I’d like to buy a ticket to…”), and they felt like I was overhearing someone speaking on the street in Japan.
My ability to argue or debate in Japanese is still only a fraction of what I can do in my native English, and now I feel that watching these types of skits might actually give me some new words and phrases to help me hold conversations better.
This duo has many skits on Youtube, but here is one I think is a good way to get started. It’s only around 6 minutes and is relatively easy to follow. When you watch it, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. Just being able to laugh at a joke here or there is an achievement. For me, just the fact I am able to understand a joke targeted for native speakers gives me a sense of satisfaction, and makes the joke somehow funnier.
I’ll explain two of the jokes in this just to give you a head start.
The first is in the middle of a discussion about train seating. Typically in Japan 自由 (jiyuu, “free”) seating is where you can sit anywhere (the opposite of 指定 [shitei], “assigned”). The train counter guy says to the customer, “自由でいいね” (jiyuu de ii ne) which literally means “Free (seating) is good, right?”. But the way he says it sounds sarcastic, as in “It’s sure nice to have freedom, isn’t it?” The customer proceeds to complain about the misleading way he spoke (言い方 [iikata], “way of speaking”)
Then, near the end, the train attendant says he will はっけん (hakken) the ticket. The customer thinks he is saying 発券 (to issue a ticket), but then the attendant suddenly overturns a box of tickets, spilling them all over, and starts looking through them. It turns out he meant 発見, a word also pronounced as “hakken” that means “discover”.
If you enjoyed that, here is one more that is a bit longer and more difficult (not to mention a bit more extreme). This one also relies heavily on word play, with three jokes about mishearing words in the first 60 seconds.