Playing the Irreverent, Cynical American on Japanese TV (March 15, 2005)
"Starting at zero is a good place to be when a new opportunity comes around," says Colorado-born Patrick Harlan. That is precisely where he was when he stepped into the world of manzai, a two-person form of stand-up comedy that has entertained the Japanese for over a century. The typical manzai duo consists of a boke, or funny-guy, and a tsukkomi, or straight man. Harlan plays the boke half of the duo Pack'n Mack'n, while also doing everything from hosting TV and radio shows to writing columns in magazines as an all-round talent.
Discovering Japanese Comedy
Harlan moved to Japan immediately after finishing college in 1993. He wanted to experience a different culture, and he also hoped to pay off his student loans by working in Japan. Having accomplished the goal after two and a half years teaching English in Fukui Prefecture, Harlan decided to try his fortune as an actor in Tokyo. But after about a year of acting, modeling, and voice-over and DJ work, it seemed that really big opportunities were just not opening up.
That was when he was introduced to Yoshida Makoto, who was looking for a manzai partner. "I said, well, I like comedy, and if I'm going to be an actor in Japan I need to know the Japanese comedy style," Harlan recalls. "And for some reason, the manzai thing took over my life. It became my main gig, with acting being a subset."
The Japanese and US styles of stand-up comedy are very different, the most obvious distinction being that US comedians usually perform solo, whereas duos are standard in Japan. There are differences in dialogue style as well. The US comedian responds dryly to silly remarks and lets the audience figure out what is funny. The tsukkomi, however, immediately chides his partner's ridiculous behavior, in effect explaining the joke.
"It did take me a while to get to know the patterns," Harlan confesses. He would sit backstage at comedy shows and observe the other duos: Why is this funny? What common sequences do they use? "Once I had those patterns figured out, I thought, 'God, this is funny, maybe funnier than American comedy!'"
The Comedian and the Gaitare
Being a comedian is great fun, Harlan says. "Being a manzaishi [manzai comic], you get to ad lib constantly. You get to goof around, you get to be spontaneous and irresponsible." He enjoys playing "the irreverent, cynical American" so much, "I don't think I'd ever just go back to acting entirely without this manzai character as well."
Harlan is also known as a gaitare. Gaitare is short for gaikokujin tarento and refers to foreign born, all-round entertainers in Japanese show business. Harlan is one of the main personalities on a weekly TV show for students of English, has his own weekly slot on the bilingual J-Wave radio station, regularly writes columns in magazines, and does much more besides.
As for the place of manzai in his current life, Harlan explains, "If you're talking about manzai as in performance on a stage of set material by two people, then it's a very small part of my life, maybe five percent. But if you're talking about being professionally funny, which is what a manzaishi does, then it's huge - probably eighty percent of what I do."
Hitting the Limelight in Vegas
In 2003 Pack'n Mack'n performed in Las Vegas, with new material that Harlan wrote specifically for US audiences. "I think the way we did it was a pretty good compromise - the American comedy style in the manzai form," he says. Although there were a few minor slips, Harlan feels that the performance went well enough. As he puts it, "We weren't as funny as the headliner, but we were better than the opening guy." Performing in Las Vegas was also highly gratifying on a personal level. "My mom came down to see the show from Colorado Springs. I also called my hometown newspaper, the world-famous Gazette Telegraph, and they did this great three-page spread. That was enough of a reward, because people from high school who hadn't seen me in fifteen years called up and said, 'I saw your article, looks like you're doing great things, congratulations.'"
Making the Best of Every Opportunity
Looking to the future, Harlan says that what he has are not plans but policies, which are to work hard, study, and try new things. "If I had to name a goal, I'd love to be in a Hollywood movie," he continues. "I'd love to be able to do some sort of crossover work and to expand into the global arena," including appearing as a duo on comedy shows in the United States and other countries.
"But all of these things are just ideas and not really plans. The plan is to make every opportunity that comes along fruitful. And not to look a gift horse in the mouth; not to say, 'It's not good enough, I want something bigger, better.' Just to actually work with what I've got, which is a lot. The Japanese entertainment industry has given me an incredible number of opportunities. The plan is to just keep plugging away, to make each of them meaningful."
Comedian, entertainer, actor. Born in Colorado in 1970. Earned a B.A. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University in 1993 and arrived in Japan the same year. Formed the comic duo Pack'n Mack'n with Yoshida Makoto in 1997. Cohosts Eigo de Shabera Night on NHK television, hosts Jam the World (J-Wave Radio) on Fridays, and appears regularly on other TV and radio shows. Coauthor of Bakusho Mondai, Pakkun Eigo Genron (Bakusho Mondai and Pakkun's Principles of English) and other books.
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