First, let me say this: it sucks being famous and having snot-nosed kids like me who don’t know what they’re talking about make stupid comments about you. I think that almost all (if not all) the comedians on Japanese TV are funny, I just picked the ones that gave me the highest LPM (laughs per minute). Probably the main problem for those who have a low LPM is that they are in the wrong situations — Oriental Radio (オリエンタルラジオ) are amazing on stage, but don’t get the chance to shine comically in their current work as late night variety show hosts: the format just doesn’t work for them. Downtown (ダウンタウン) are funny, too — when they’re not just going through the motions out of boredom, i.e. not on their variety show but in those punishment game (罰ゲーム) specials they do, and in their skits from the 1980s and 1990s. And a lot of guys who I used to think sucked eggs are amazing once you take them off those variety shows and put them on a more personal program like Hitoshi Matsumoto Presents: Funny Stories (人志松本のすべらない話). As you can see, it sounds like I have beef with variety shows. I don’t, really, I don’t. It’s just that, when you think about it, having virtually all Japan’s comedians do variety shows is akin to having every athlete in the world play soccer, whether or not they were good at it or even like it, just because it was the only professional sport in the world. Variety shows are cheap and easy to do, and they may have been a good choice when Japan was poor and coming out of WW2, but Japan is rich now. And TV can act like it if it wants to…and get sets that don’t look like they were made by Miss Keene’s class at Pokey Oaks Kindergarten.
There’s also the interesting phenomenon of comedians who are funny in-studio or to other comedians, but not to the TV-viewing public at large. Denis Leary seems like an example of that in the anglosphere; other comedians find him funny. Downtown, when stuck on a variety show, are funny for their guests — if I were to be interviewed on TV, I’d want to be interviewed by Downtown, they seem like great fun to be around — but it just isn’t as funny for viewers.
Anyway, the list. I haven’t bothered to rank it, but there are ten of them.
- [雨上がり決死隊/Ameagari kesshitai/The Suicide Mission Squad at the End of the Rain(?)]: Ameagari Kesshitai, a duo made up of 宮迫博之 (MIYASAKO Hiroyuki) — the tanned one — and 蛍原徹 (HOTOHARA Tooru) — the round-headed one, are that very uncommon thing in comedy (at least it seems uncommon to me) — the perfect combination and execution of both slapstick and verbal comedy. And it’s not the stupid kind of slapstick, it’s the original, funny kind. The kind that you would laugh at even if it were just your friend doing it. That thing where Miyasako slaps his own face and then looks into the camera, or the two-legged flying kick of punishment for saying something wrong that sends Hotohara crashing to the ground. And then there’s the look that Miyasako gets on his face when he’s about to tell a joke [see picture], so you kind of get to laugh twice — once for the look and once for the joke.
- [JINNAI Tomonori/陣内智則]: Jinnai is a rarity in that he works alone. His skits often involve uncooperative machines — lewd passport photo-taking machines, arrogant arcade games, sassy car navigation systems. Big laughs to be had.
- [Impulse (インパルス)]: super-funny skits! Mostly revolving around portly 堤下敦/TSUTSUMISHITA Atsushi playing straightman or authority figure to slim 板倉俊之/ITAKURA Toshiyuki’s abject inappropriateness. One of their funniest recurring characters is Johann Riebelt, a young Japanese man with a bad case of alcohol poisoning and major delusions of grandeur who thinks he’s German. They’ve also done great one-shot skits like フック船長/”Captain Hook” and “Mafia Boss”.
- [Drunk Dragon/ドランクドラゴン]: Another portly-skinny duo. In that sense, they bear a shallow resemblance to Impulse. The content of their comedy is different though, often revolving tangentially around the entertainment industry itself — silly TV shows for learning English, awkward and uncalled-for displays of English “proficiency” [some middle-aged men in Japan looove to whip out the old English to impress other Japanese people…when they really should have kept it zipped up], fanboys who are waaay too overprotective of the object of their fanaticism, and cetera. And of course, it makes you laugh.
- [Garage Sale/ガレッジセール]: these guys are sketch comedians. Their best stuff is on the show One Night Rock and Roll, where Gori cross-dresses as Gorie.
- [Bobby KONDA/近田ボビー]: Nigeria in the hizzouse! Although he is actually Japanese now. And technically he’s a tarento rather than a comedian. But he’s funny as heck. I loved reading on Japanese Wikipedia about how amazing at Japanese he has to be in order to suck as much as he pretends to. Playing the fool and raking it in — genius. AFAIK, he acts under his old name, Bobby Ologun (ボビーオログン). Bobby also happens to be an example of a comedian who shines on variety shows.
- [Taka and Toshi/タカアンドトシ]: 欧米かっ！”What are you, Euro-American?!”, the signature wisecrack of this pair, frequently rolled out when too much katakana Japanese is used. I find it quite useful in my daily life…
- [Lover Girl/ラバーガール]: do really funny skits often involving one person speaking polite or otherwise euphemistic Japanese and the other person taking liberties with the literal meaning of what was said. That makes it sound really technical and it makes Japanese sound hard to understand, neither of which are true. Anyway, the point is, you’ll laugh.
- [The Laughter Problem/爆笑問題]: politics is a dish best served hilarious.
- [Untouchables/アンタッチャブル]: I’ve only ever seen one or two of their skits, but I laughed so hard that they earned a place on this list.
- [Ungirls/アンガールズ]: these guys LOOK funny…tall, lanky, gangly…awkward in a good way, just like their skits.
- [Anjush/アンジャッシュ]: have made a career of doing situational misunderstandings. Some of the skits are a bit forced, but some are pure genius.
- [Oriental Radio/オリエンタルラジオ]: rose to fame on エンタの神様/Enta no Kami Sama with their ヒップホップな武勇伝 (“our hip hop legends”) skits. Since that time they’ve been stuck on a boring variety show, so there you go.
- [Downtown/ダウンタウン]: one of the longest-running and most highly respected comedy outfits in Japanese history. They’re not always as funny as they used to be — not because they can’t be but more because they almost can’t be bothered to go trying to get laughs any more; they’re “beyond that” if you will. But, yeah, look out for their old stuff.