Nichijou and the Standard Failings of Random Comedy

I have a great deal of respect for movie reviewer Roger Ebert and equal respect for the respective geniuses (a word I don’t throw around lightly) of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, so when the two parties clash, it’s very difficult not to have mixed feelings. One such clash took place in the distant past, 1998, over a movie that a young Parker wrote, directed and starred in, Orgazmo, which has relevance to me right now only because I just watched it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was a silly comedy, filled with the types of sight gags, gross out moments and winks at the audience that one might expect given the premise of a Mormon-cum-reluctant pornstar, but it also showed examples of the Parker/Stone wit, and their knack for approaching dumb topics in a dumb way, but someone coming out of it looking very, very clever.

Ebert panned the movie, finding almost nothing he liked about it, and labeling it “sophomoric”, which he used deliberately to be damning, opening by saying it’s a word usually only used willy-nilly by amateur movie critics. Obviously I can’t say I agree, but my respect for Ebert lies in the fact that, oftentimes, I don’t, but I can still see where he’s coming from, and have no question he’s simultaneously trying to be fair and also calling things as he sees them. By the same token, I don’t like everything made by Parker and Stone… some of the early seasons of South Park were hit-and-miss, and I’ve never been a big fan of the much loved South Park movie.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker in Orgazmo. I lol'd even if Roger Ebert didn't.

The interesting thing about Ebert’s review of Orgazmo is the comparison between sophomorism and genuine wit that runs throughout it. It reminded me of an issue often faced by random anime comedies, and in particular, the one that’s relevant to anime fans right now: Nichijou. A disclaimer: I’m definitely not saying Nichijou is sophomoric. What I am saying is that I think it lacks wit. I really liked how Nichijou started, and gave my thumbs up to the Nichijou OVA, but with each subsequent episode I’ve found my enjoyment waning. The problem with a random comedy such as Nichijou is that, after the first handful of episodes where the absurdity still has novelty value, if it’s not witty, it becomes predictable.

The most recent episode, ep 5, had some of the worst examples, one example being the scene where Yuuko whacked a block out of a totem pole on her desk. Who couldn’t see that the block would deflect and hit someone in the head? The punchline was the reaction of the unwitting victim, Mio, who threw the black back at Yuuko so quickly, with the entire event taking place before the rest of the pole fell perfectly in place, but, along with the physical impossibility of the event (yes, I know, that’s the joke), the initial predictability ruined any chances of it being funny. Another extremely predictable moment came with Tsuyoshi’s turn at the episodic jump rope gag. As a gag character, there’s so little to him that there’s not too many other jokes they could have used.

Is this really funny?

In Ebert’s Orgazmo review, he also talked about sophomorism using a sledgehammer and crying out for your attention. Nichijou often does these things too. Take the scene that opens ep 5, where the Professor puts on a pair of cat-ears and says “it’s me-ow”, to which Nano replies “it’s moe!”… over and over and over again. Where’s the punchline? If it’s supposed to be cute, then why the need to be repetitive and drive it into the ground? The scene in the middle of the episode where Yuuko and Mai play paper-scissors-rock and the loser has to defend themselves from a dose of physical violence also suffered from “look at me” syndrome. Yuuko is loud and annoying, and her “God is dead” reaction added almost nothing to the skit (wouldn’t it have been more apt if she said it when she got whacked by Mai’s carving of Buddha), but there was this awkwardness during the entire scene as it was clear that Mai wasn’t uninterested in playing Yuuko’s game. It also meant that Mai was never going to be the butt of the jokes as the audience was always going to sympathize with her more than Yuuko.

Nichijou seems to miss opportunities as well. The skit with the Professor giving “birth” to Nano’s daruma statue was one of the funnier jokes in the episode, but the fact that they cut out before Nano was seemingly about to give her second reaction made it feel like the punchline was left hanging. It was a bit of the same when Yuuko gave a long explanation to Mio about her Ouija board game only for the joke to end with Mio not wanting to play. Is that really the most interesting punchline they could come up with? If it’s an absurdist comedy, why not have them play, and then have something happen with timing such that Yuuko and Mio misinterpret it as them angering the spirits. Or an awkward moment where the “spirits” reveal Mio’s crush on the goat dude. OK, those are a bit predictable, which shows why I’m not a comedy writer. How about this then: why not tie it in somehow to the Bob Hope/medium joke at the beginning of the episode? There, now that’s kinda funny.

What would Shinbo do?

Ebert brought up Quentin Tarantino in his Orgazmo review, almost but not quite wondering out loud if a director with more knowledge about genre tropes would be able to bring enough nuance to the jokes to make them witty and unpredictable. I sometimes wonder the same thing about Nichijou and anime’s (dare I say it) equivalent to Tarantino: Shinbo Akiyuki, who I think is seriously underrated as a director of comedy, even in spite of his massive prolificacy and the recent acclaim he’s received for Madoka Magica. One of Shinbo’s knacks is that he seems to be able to sense when he has material that doesn’t have super strong lasting power, as was the case for Soredemo Machi, Natsu no Arashi and Arakawa, among others, and infuses them with episodes and/or scenes that are slightly more serious in tone towards the end. Whereas this course of action generally results in failure for the typical throwaway harem comedy, Infinite Stratos most recently, Shinbo has a deft enough hand and gives us enough reasons to care for his characters, to make the serious and not-so-serious elements in his comedies meld seamlessly. He obviously doesn’t always do this: try to find a serious moment in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. But I’m wondering if the occasional sequence in Nichijou, free of levity, would improve the lasting power of the comedy and give us a few more reasons to laugh with, and not just at, the characters.

17 Responses to “Nichijou and the Standard Failings of Random Comedy”

  1. On the repetition on the cat ears skit of Nano and the Professor:

    Basically it reinforces the silly relationship and the youth of the professor. You may have experienced this with children when you praise them for something, they then do the same thing again, hoping to get more praise.

    In this case Nano the one year old is the parent figure to the eight year old professor.

  2. @Anonymous

    To quote Jim Rome: “I get it, it’s just not funny.” Sorrow’s point on whether or not that joke was the best they could come up with, or if it was seemingly a casualty of the randomness still applies. By knowing your explanation of the joke, does that make it funny? More apt, if you HAVE to explain the joke, is it funny?

  3. Yeah, the thing with Nichijou is that it’s absurd, but it’s not grounded in any sort of logic I find funny. That’s the best part of absurd premises — when the carry out a train of logic that seems perfectly, uh, logical in its own way but still catches you off guard as its happening. The jokes in Nichijou are either predictable (as you write) or just not funny for my taste.

    Shinbo comedy is a mixed bag for me, too, but it works when he’s got strong characters behind him (rather than a bunch of one-joke characters like Pani Poni Dash! or when Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei started wearing thin).

  4. @Anonomyous
    Sure, I get that the Professor and Nano have a silly relationship, and I get that there’s a mother-child thing going on that’s essentially been tipped on its head. But if they’re going for humour in that scene, how does the repetition serve. And if they’re going for something different, such as sweetness, or an attempt to give us more info about their relationship, then doesn’t the comedic, tongue-in-cheek tone of the scene compromise that? There was an opportunity for something in that scene, but I think they fell short on both fronts.

    @TIF
    That quote is unfortunately how I’ve reacted to much of Nichijou, especially the most recent episodes.

    @Shinmaru
    Sticking with the Shinbo theme, I’d say Arakawa is a good example of a comedy weaving together a whole heap of logical trains that don’t have any sensible tracks. It also helps that Recruit gives us a somewhat normal lead to follow. Sure, he was messed up in his own ways, but by being relatively less eccentric than everyone around him, we’re able to grab onto something. It makes the absurd stuff more effectively absurd, because we’re able to compare it with something/someone we can sympathize with. I think Mai, Mio or even possibly Nano could be that character in Nichijou… but none of them are utilized as well as they could be.

  5. I admit: I have been enjoying Nichijou, although not always consistently.

    It’s random comedy and the material has no coherent connection with each other whatsoever. If I have one peeve about the show, it’s how inconsistent the humor can be i.e. the focus on Hakase and Nano, and Mai. The first two characters’ interactions just pale in comparison of the other gags, and Mai’s deadpan humor just doesn’t work.

    But the bigger issue to me is, comedy is a very subjective genre. I understand the idea of effectiveness and consistency in the delivery of punchlines, but I can imagine how the “best” comedy out there may not even appeal to everyone. For one, there are many types of comedy/humor: deadpan, parody, dark, satire, etc. Plus, comedies don’t appeal to me as much as other genres, so if I come across one that makes me laugh or at least puts a smile on my face, then there’s only so much I can criticize.

  6. Watched episode 2. Only laugh they got out of me was the jump rope gag and I don’t know why. Dropped.

  7. @The Typical Idiot Fan

    No the scene was not for laughs, it was to create a cute/endearing scene. I explained the scene because the original blog post did not seem to understand the scene. When watching the episode itself, obviously i don’t have to go pause the scene and think for 10 minutes. I get the message as the scene unfolds and go on to the rest of the episode

  8. I disagree that Nichijou is a simple, absurdist comedy that lacks wit. It may be random at times, and certainly relies on a great deal of sight gags, but I also feel that anti-humor is a huge part of Nichijou’s appeal. The whole idea is that there is no punchline, or that the punchline is something incredibly unfunny… which is funny on a meta-level.

    At least, that’s why I continue to laugh through Nichijou, despite having much of the same sentiments as TIF: “I laughed and I don’t know why.” It’s not important for me to know why. Laughing is good.

  9. Anyone who’s a KyoAni-tard will laugh of this one regardless.

    It’s not funny. Get over it.

  10. I’m a KyoAni-tard and I’m not laughing at this. Has nothing to do with studio appreciation bias, I assure you.

    We may give certain studios or production companies the benefit of the doubt at times when it comes to confusing or stupid shit, but if the punchline is “It’s KyoAni!” then it’s not working.

  11. My guess is, the main point of Nichijou is to provoke the “WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN…” response. Yeah.

  12. Anyone who’s a KyoAni-tard will laugh of this one regardless.

    I’m not a KyoAni-tard and I’m laughing. I even thought episode 5 was the best episode yet. Nichijou will either make you laugh or it won’t. If it doesn’t, then too bad. If it does, then great!

  13. Nichijou is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Some of the sketches are akin to Buddhist koans, in that they present a deeper truth in an extremely compact, seemingly non-sensical form. Others are jokes about Buddhist concepts, and others are anime in-jokes.

    Many of the jokes, for those who get it, are about how un-Buddhist-like the characters are, and how they just don’t get it. Every character is, in this prism, ignorant. Later in the series they subtly make fun of how the viewers don’t get it either.

    For example, there’s a sketch where the Mohawk-guy goes to denounce the Buddhist monk for believing in demons. He pretends to be ill, so the monk gives him a box with medicine; Mohawk-guy was expecting an exorcism, and light-hearted exaggerated reactions ensue. The in-joke is that almost all Buddhist monks don’t believe in demons, and that Mohawk-guy, who is presented as an aspiring scientist with an interest to disprove religion, doesn’t understand science or Buddhism.

    Nichijou is, for the most part, not random, but instead obscure. It’s mostly a series of koans set in the context of a high-school anime. If you have a good understanding of Buddhist philosophy, and research what are the bizarre objects and phrasings that appear, you will get Nichijou.

  14. Oh, I forgot to discuss the art.

    The art is one the best I’ve seen in an anime series. It’s wonderfully bright and detailed; it is clearly a work of love. There are also some art-world jokes in the series, as Nichijou is also very art-world — as an aside, one of the goals of Buddhist practice is to cease the flow of verbal thoughts and categorizations in the mind, and experience life without filters or mental categories (good, bad, rich, poor, “I am my job”, “I am my personality”, “I am my social group”, “I am what I consume”, etc). That’s why Buddhism intersects with the pictorial world, because Buddhists prefer to live without words as much as possible.

    Nichijou is, to me, one the best 2011 anime for the thinking-person, on par with Ghost in the Shell (the original film) and Angel’s Egg. It rises so above the other animes that I’m surprised there isn’t _at least_ a cult following already — but then again, it’s foolish to make anime for the thinking-person, and least of all with such obscure references, even to a Japanese person (Shintoism is the dominant religion in Japan; Zen — a sub-sect of Buddhism — is barely understood by the populace there).

  15. Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha! You hit the nail on the head. Thank you.

  16. @Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha!

    I just finished this series and I saw some of the skits and gags and realized that they were In fact buddhist related.

    I understood some but not every single one.

    And the topic seems quite interesting to be honest.

    You seem to understand the skits better than us.

    Can you explain some of them please? I tried to find info in the internet but its difficult.

    This is my e-mail. Gate, Richardgll86@gmail.com

    Thanks!

  17. We recently had a viewing the series in our group, and I have to say, Nichijou is not funny. Mai comes off as an uncaring asshole to her friends, which, for me, makes the series really dark. What kind of person makes a promise to help a friend and then instead sabotages that friend? I find little comedy value in Mai’s constant bullying.

    As said earlier, “I get it, it’s just not funny” sums it up well. So the show is actually a meditation about Buddhist philosophy. Great. Fantastic. That doesn’t make it funny — or insightful, for that matter. I don’t have to watch a damn anime to realize how “un-Buddhist-like” people are: I can just read the news. Besides, if Mai is supposed to be our exemplary Buddhist, she’s kind of an asshole anyway, so why would I want to be like her?

    Besides all that, the random humor, by and large, falls flat on its face. Nichijou is the Family Guy of anime.

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