style of comedy
with origins dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Modern manzai
was developed in the late 19th and early 20th century
and continues to branch out and evolve to this day throughout Japan
Manzai is similar to and has elements of Western stand up comedy and slapstick comedy, and is best described as a very fast comic dialogue performed between 2 (or more) comedians, who are called manzaishi in Japanese. One manzaishi who has the role of the smart person, called the tsukkomi, while the other manzaishi has the role called the boke, or not so smart person. The relationship between the tsukkomi and boke can be likened to the one between a pitcher and a catcher in American baseball because they play off of each other and work together. In actuality, despite the "stupid" image of the boke, in most cases he is the actual creative genius behind the two.
The dialogue between the tsukkomi and the boke revolves around plain everyday conversation, current events and things in the news, and some acts do humorous skits like on Saturday Night Live. Overall, the jokes revolve around gags, puns, silly actions, and misunderstanding of the boke that tend to make the conversation digress away from the original topic. The tsukkomi uses one-liners, sharp comebacks, put downs, and corrections in order keep the dialogue on track. The boke and tsukkomi also use humorous body language, facial expressions, and sometimes physical contact and props.
Upon first going to Kansai or whenever natives gather, many people think that everyone sounds as if they are performing some sort of improvised manzai routine. That is because boke and tsukkomi naturally occur in the everyday conversation of most natives of Kansai. They even will congratulate each for a nice tsukkomi or boke. For them, it is a way to enjoy conversation and create a good friendly atmosphere or mood. Most importantly, it shows the warm heartedness and good nature of these people. This type of communication is about humility and putting others before yourself by being able to laugh about and be open about oneself. When Toshio "aho no" Sakata describes himself as "aho, aho, aho no Sakata", you can't help but feel sorry for him and begin to like, even love, him because of it.
However, with many "new-age" manzai acts like "London Boots", the tsukkomi have strong personalities and dominate and belittle their boke partners. It creates an atmosphere of hostility and is at times violent. But boke and tsukkomi as comedy and/or communication is in no way about making fun of, putting down, scolding, or bullying. You don't feel for the boke because he is simply stupid, but because he is being plain harrassed and tortured. If I thought that was interesting, I would watch reruns of Jerry Springer late nights.
Manzai comedy and manzai type communication is a distinct part of the culture of Kansai. Most Kansai people like to joke around, have a good time, and, most significantly, are easy going and not as serious as other Japanese. Surely the differences developed in the Edo era, when Osaka was a merchant town that relied on personal communication and interaction for business and Tokyo was full of serious samurai who "couldn't" laugh. Naturally this developed into a friction that continues to today as some non-natives don't appreciate this culture and even say Kansai natives joke "too" much. And then again, as Kansai natives will retort, others are "too" serious.
Interestingly, on a side note, Takeshi Kitano is a former manzaishi and not even from Kansai, he is from Tokyo!
Another form of traditional Japanese comedy is Rakugo.