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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Warai: Laughter, Comedy and the Television Cultures of 1970s, 80s and 90s Japan

  • Author(s): Humphrey, David Christopher
  • Advisor(s): O'Neill, Daniel
  • et al.

An examination of Japanese television comedy from the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, the dissertation traces changes in laughter's imagined social role, as well as its use within the television medium. Narratives of the era frequently depict the period as one characterized by a turn towards consumerism and political apathy, and single out television's role in this shift. I employ television comedy as a lens through which to re-examine these shifts. My analysis focuses on the genre's laughter as discursive object, and reveals the emergence within Japanese television of an ambivalent form of laughter, which functioned within the medium to both order and disrupt. While television laughter worked to coordinate the affective rhythms of viewers, that same laughter hid beneath its seemingly cheery surface discordant notes and jarring beats. Against this backdrop, I consider both the mechanisms that maintain media culture in Japan, as well as the possibilities for eruption that still lie below its surface.

Comprised of four chapters, the dissertation divides the years covered into roughly two, overlapping phases. The first two chapters cover a period from the early 1970s to the mid-80s, and explore the rise on Japanese television of communally binding forms of laughter. The first chapter considers how producers of the popular comedy show Hachi ji da yo! Zen'in shugo (It's 8 O'clock! Everyone Gather `Round, 1969-1985) contrived to produce on the show a rhythmic and socially unifying form of comedy. The second chapter focuses on the show Kinchan no doko made yaru no! (How Far Will Kinchan Go! 1976-1986), and examines how its producers mobilized the show's putatively "warm" tone of laughter in constructing the show's affective pull on its viewers.

The final two chapters cover a period form the early 1980s to the mid-90s, and explore the eruption within Japanese television of more explosive and disruptive forms of laughter. The third chapter turns to the 1980-81 manzai (duo standup comedy) revival, and examines how boom-era shows co-opted the voice of youth laughter as a signifier of authenticity within the broadcast. The final chapter examines the evolution of the Japanese reality-style "documentary variety" genre, and considers how the genre employed its "documents of laughter" to transform sites of political and social contestation into spaces of laughter and mischief, and thus divorce them of their historical context.

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