"Manzai," a form of traditional Japanese double-act or stand-up comedy, originated in farcical exchanges between two characters called Tayu and Saizo.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), manzai artists were said to have performed in private homes, where they were rewarded for their services with cash or rice.

Interestingly, the roles of Tayu and Saizo were established in the early days of manzai--the former as "tsukkomi" (the straight man) and the latter as "boke" (the funny man).

Historian and philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi (1922-2015) characterized Tayu as "orthodoxy" and Saizo as "heterodoxy" in his work titled "Tayu Saizo Den" (Tayu-Saizo Chronicle).

Tayu delivered his scripted lines deadpan like a prim but genial man, while Saizo made goofy comebacks typical of his impulsive and zany persona.

These characterizations still seem to match the boke and tsukkomi roles of today.

Because orthodoxy or common sense per se cannot draw laughs, I never doubted for a moment that boke had to be manzai's real star.

But my belief was seriously shaken when I watched an iconic year-end TV manzai show titled "M-1 Grand Prix," where the audience guffawed at tsukkomi's all-out effort to be serious and intense.

"Milkboy," the duo who won the top honors, demonstrated how just a wisecrack or two from the boke could inspire the tsukkomi to keep expanding his ideas.

In the case of "Pekopa," who placed third in the contest, the tsukkomi became over-analytical to the point of abandoning thought. I hope I am making sense to people who saw that show.

A story in The Asahi Shimbun's digital edition was headlined "Tsukkomi Shijo-shugi," which may translate as something like "tsukkomi for tsukkomi's sake."

According to the article, the year's M-1 Grand Prix left the unmistakable impression that the present trend of manzai is for tsukkomi to play the lead.

This is a change of revolutionary magnitude for someone like myself who still remembers the manzai boom years when boke ruled supreme, as was the case with The Two Beats duo.

There were so many infuriating political and economic developments during 2019, I tried to do my best delivering tsukkomi lines in this column.

But now, the year-end M-1 show seems to have taught me the need to be artistic or creative in doing my tsukkomi act, since it won't do any good to just express straight anger.

I must work hard at it.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 27

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.