Japanese comedy is an inherently boom and bust business. Comedians often base their humor on one specific physical or verbal gag — such as Sekai no Nabeatsu or Yoshio Kojima — and ride it into the ground. Depending on the comedian and the gag, sometimes even one appearance on the right TV show is enough to launch a career or pull someone out of obscurity. Sekai no Nabeatsu and Shofukutei Shohei, for example, have both benefited from Downtown’s “Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai” (“You absolutely must not laugh”) batsu game broadcast every New Year’s Eve.
Other comedians put in their time and slowly build up a critical mass of popularity. The latest group to do so is the young manzai duo Daburu Koron (Wコロン). Puns have long been called oyaji gyagu (old man jokes) in Japan, but boke (funny man) Nezucchi and tsukkomi (straight man) Kiso Sanchu have taken advantage of the oft-denigrated joke and elevated it to an art form, reviving the “nazokake” (謎掛け), an old Showa Era type of Japanese riddle.
The two start their routines like normal Japanese comedians doing give-and-take jokes, but at some point Nezucchi will shout out “I’ve got one!” (“Totonoimashita!”) He then offers up a riddle. In Japanese the form of the riddle is “X to kakemashite, Y to tokimasu.” An example is the self-deprecating joke seen in the YouTube clip above.
In the clip, Nezucchi says, “Daburu Koron to kakemashite, shun o mukaeru mae no kudamono to tokimasu.” In translation this is something like, “What links both Daburu Koron and unripe fruit?” Kiso Sanchu then asks, “What do you mean by that?” (“Sono kokoro wa?” ) And Nezucchi provides the answer along with his trademark catchphrase: “Nobody wants either of us. I’m Nezucchi!” (“Mada urete imasen. Nezucchi desu!”) Nezucchi puns on the phrase “urete imasen” which can mean both “hasn’t been sold yet,” in the case of the unripe fruit, or “isn’t popular yet,” in the case of the comedians. While some nazokake like this rely on idiomatic expressions, most take advantage of the large amount of homonyms in the Japanese language.