Why the World Loves Japanese and Korean Humour But Can't Copy Them
If you’re a fan of American reality game shows such as Hole in the Wall, Wipeout, American Ninja Warrior, and others like it, you are most likely aware that they got their inspiration from Japanese and Korean game shows, with their creative and liberal use of physically-demanding tasks and usually comedic elements.
If you’re also a fan of Japanese and Korean game shows, you are well aware that the western game shows, while entertaining, fall way off the mark when compared to the Japanese and Korean offerings. Even when the West tried to directly address Japanese game shows through the short-lived ‘I Survived a Japanese Game Show,’ they failed.
The main problem is that the rest of the world frequently has trouble copying Japanese and Korean humor, which is one of the main reasons why their game shows are so engrossing and popular. As for why they fail at copying the humor, here are a number of reasons:
#1- Vicious Sense of Humour for Man's Vicious Nature
Watch a single episode of Japan’s most popular comedy game show, Power Purin, and you’ll realize one thing: the west’s game shows – even the ones modeled after Japanese ones – are all watered down when it comes to comedy. They play it safe. Sure, there may be risqué elements from time to time or a little bit of slapstick that looks particularly painful, but it’s nothing compared to Power Purin, where a contestant will be required to sip boiling hot soup, touch live scorpions, and play nipple tug of war all within the span of a single segment. The original shows are brutal and vicious. It’s also very popular with people.
Hiroshi Osaki, who is the president of one of the largest TV production companies in Japan – Yoshimoto Kogyo, explains that most people have the misconception that comedy should be “nice and clean,” but he clarifies that the truth is that people retain a vicious sense of humor and vicious nature that can eke out pleasure out of seeing other people tormented. In their comedy game shows, this is made even more palatable by the fact that the contestants are not average people but comedians.
#2- Comedy Academy
Japan and Korea both have comedy schools, where aspiring performers pay money just to learn the craft and to be given the opportunity to perform on national TV. People might be familiar with Hollywood’s comedy troupes and academies (the alumni of which frequently end up on Saturday Night Live and similar shows), but Japan and Korea’s comedy schools are more extensive; the students are trained not just in acting, delivery, timing, and skit conceptualization but also in physically demanding tasks and pain tolerance. The things that they will do if they end up graduating into the proverbial big leagues are things that would injure (or maybe even kill) a normal person, but the comedy schools will train them how to handle themselves, avoid harm, and leverage the torment they get and turn it into something that will entertain the audience.
#3- Pure Spectacle
The contestants in Japan and Korea’s game shows are not the average person hoping to win a prize. They are performers that aim to make a spectacle out of their antics. People are not meant to relate to them, and the focus of the shows is to punish the losers instead of rewarding winners. This is why the game shows don’t really have prizes: the point is to watch who loses, not who wins.
#4- Deglamorizing Glamorous Celebrities
In many variety shows and game shows, both in Japan and Korea, idols are frequent guests. And the shows deglamorize these celebrities, by making them do silly and sometimes demeaning tasks or by revealing their more human traits.
The game shows in Korea and Japan show that even idols are not exempt from all the absurdity. Contrast this with other countries where they tip-toe around guest celebrities and avoid embarrassing them (or worse, the ones where the celebrities storm off and get mad after being embarrassed.)
The shows have no pretensions about their depth. The viewers see that the producers and cast are fully aware that the shows are shallow and do not require anyone to think or wax philosophical. It’s slapstick comedy that’s meant to be stared and made fun of. This is very appealing to the average viewer because it lets them check all of their real world worries at the door, relax, and just enjoy the show
#6- Real and Fantasy
The comedians and idols in game shows are all playing a real game and the punishments they endure are very real (though there are steps taken to at least protect people.)
However, what makes it different from other reality and game shows is that they are still performers. Their reactions, their state of mind, and even their overall attitude all combine to make scenes and situation entertaining to the viewers. Here is where the phrase “roll with it” applies. Their reactions are real, but they exaggerate or dress it up, sometimes with help from producers and onscreen prompt, to turn everything into a spectacle. The end product is a scene that is rooted in reality yet still exciting to see.
#7- It's About Character Development
If you look at Running Man, you can easily see the characters that the regular cast members have developed – Jaesuk is the leader, Jongkook is the strong one, Kwangsoo is the stupid one, Sukjin is the weak one, Ji Hyo is the spoiled princess, etc.
It’s debatable whether the characters are real, completely fabricated for the show, or somewhat based on their real life personalities, but they sell it well and they manage to play off on each other’s respective quirks. This variety in personalities and images allows them to create varied reactions and cater to different viewers that may have different preferences when it comes to the brand of comedy.
Another appeal of these game shows is their spontaneity. Even if you know the formula and memorize all the characters, you never know what will happen on any given episode. This encourages viewers to follow on a per episode basis. This may be a reflection of cultures. Asian culture is more spontaneous while many western cultures emphasize formality.
#9- No Melodrama
If you watch reality and game shows in the US, Philippines, and other countries, you can see that they place a lot of importance on melodrama. Contestants, particularly losers, are treated with sappy tributes and vignettes, and segments frequently focus on scenes of people crying. It’s even common knowledge among people that producers of these shows usually meddle with the script or plant actors in order to encourage drama and conflict.
Contrast this with Korea and Japan, where things are treated more positively. There are still winners and losers, but even losing is used as a source of humor. This results in watching the show turning into more of a positive experience – people who watch them feel happy afterwards, whereas drama-laden shows from other countries make the viewing experience draining and frustrating.
#10- It's Nothing Personal
As mentioned earlier, the contestants of Korean and Japanese game shows can and will be humiliated on national TV, but everyone involved from the celebrities to the hosts and the viewers know that it’s just for TV and that it is not real, so there’s nothing personal. Everyone gets to laugh, celebrities get taken down a peg or two, but everybody’s dignity remains intact.
Here are Some Japanese Game Shows Worth Checking Out:
Takeshi’s Castle is the template for prop-based and physically demanding game shows like Wipeout, and is most likely the first Japanese game show that many non-Japanese have seen.
Hosted by comedian Beat Takeshi and his sidekick posing as feudal lords, contestants are tasked with invading their castle by going through various minigames and obstacles that are reminiscent of classic videogames – from traversing a wobbly rope bridge while dodging cannonballs, to riding bumpcars while shooting waterguns at each other, and even sumo-wrestling mascots.
Power Purin is not really a game show, it’s a variety show dedicated to humorous skits performed by a roster of young comedians, but it’s most popular segment is a batsu gemu (punishment game), in which one of the stars must endure creative tortures or challenges. But unlike western challenge shows like Fear Factor, the batsu gemu in Power Purin has no prize, and the main appeal is to see the contestant lose or suffer the consequences of a failed challenge.
The Trans America Ultra Quiz
The Trans America Ultra Quiz is an elimination game show that started the trend of harsh punishment for big reward: a chance to travel abroad to America, provided that they succeed in a series of challenges and quizzes and avoid elimination. It was unique at the time because the quizzes and challenges are usually simple, such as rock papers and scissors or musical chairs, but the losers get to endure a punishing game – which is sometimes instant such as getting slathered with slime or drawn out, such as tasked with eating gross food.
Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! (This Ain’t Kid’s Stuff!!)
Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! Is a variety show that started in 1989 and is still in production today, hosted by a comedy duo and focuses on improvisational humor. Its most popular segment is the imaginative batsu games that were foisted upon its guests and cast, the most iconic of which is the segment called ‘Silent Library,’ where participants were asked to tolerate punishments like having their nose hairs pulled while maintaining complete silence.
Minasan no Okage Deshita
Minasan no Okage Deshita is a variety show, but had a segment called ‘Brain Wall,’ which forced celebrity guests to strike poses so they can fit through odd-shaped holes in a moving wall. It was dubbed as “Human Tetris,” and is the inspiration for the American game show Hole in the Wall.