The Value of Reruns

October 28th, 2007

I always basically considered reruns a sort of unnecessary evil, but now I’m starting to think they’re a necessary evil.

Japan, basically, doesn’t have reruns. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that everything disappears into a big memory hole. There are reruns of old prime-time shows during day-time television slots. But the American system of showing reruns of a show during prime time, right after the first showing of the season, absolutely does not exist. Reruns are the provence of late night and soap-opera-hour, and even then relatively sparse.

What this ends up meaning is that shows have to be produced constantly. There is never an off-season. And what that means is that there is far less winnowing of the wheat from the chaff. When you have to come up with 22 hours of programming a day every day for eternity, you can’t afford to throw away any ideas, no matter how weak.

I remember reading an essay / editorial / interview with a comic book artist or newspaper cartoonist (ok, so obviously I don’t remember it all that well) about what it takes to succeed in the world of syndicated comics. The answer wasn’t “good art” “good story” or “good ideas”, but “the ability to consistently produce something”. The best artist in the world won’t get a good cartooning job unless he can come up with three panels a day.

And that’s exactly what succeeds in Japanese TV. Comedians don’t become big because they’re funny, they become big because they can produce enough…whatever…to remain on TV every day.

This leads to an infuriating phenomenon where incredibly un-funny “comedians” are on the TV All. The. Time., while really funny comedians are seldom if ever on the TV. Unlike the US, this isn’t necessarily just a case of “I find them funny, but most other folks don’t”. No, there are folks whom everyone agrees are really funny, but never make it big because they can’t come up with a routine every week forever.

It also leads to the proliferation of gimmick comedians and padding. This is especially true in the poisonous エンタの神様, which hits the trifecta, featuring mainly unfunny gimmick comedians with tons of padding.

The standard structure is:

  1. Gimmick look
  2. Trademark line
  3. Joke
  4. Trademark line

With extra bonus points if it’s in the form of song, which strings things out even longer. Witness the following joke structures:

Straight comedian:

“I wondered why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.”

Gimmick padding singing comedian:

(Comes out on stage dressed as a dog)

“Bow wow, woof woof! It’s dog-time!!”


(Pulls up guitar)

“It’s time to sing a joke♪, it’s time to sing a joke♪, oh won’t you listen, cuz it’s time to tell a joke♪”

I wondered, oh yes I wondered, I wondered wondered wondered wondered wondered”

“I wondered, why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then…”

“It hit me.”

“Aroo!! Woof woof!!”

Which enables you to fill up a 10 minute comedy segment with approximately 3 to 4 jokes.

The same situation occurs with dramas. Which is a shame, because the Japanese drama format is a formula for succuss: each season is around 13 episodes. There are no future seasons. The series starts with an end in mind, builds up to that end, and then ends. There isn’t much shark-jumping: shows don’t start good and end bad, because there isn’t enough time for that. They either start good and end good, or start bad and end bad. And you seldom if ever get the “they’re just making shit up” feeling that you do when you watch things like X-Files or Lost.

And yet, due to the need to constantly produce new series, with never a break, the quality is horrible. The barrier to entry into the acting profession is incredibly low, since you need a lot of actors to produce constant unremitting television. So you have bad actors working under severe time constraints, and you just end up with dross.

Don’t get me wrong, America has some severely bad television. A lot of severely bad television. But it’s also got good series. It’s a pretty good representation of Sturgeon’s Law (or Sturgeon’s Revelation): “90% of everything is crud”. Japan, however, is aiming really hard for 100%, and it seems to be by pure luck that every once in a long while something decent comes out, bringing that number to 99%.

8 Responses to “The Value of Reruns”

  1. Tim Says:

    A good example to prove your point would be Kojima Yoshio, with his same ‘sonna no kankei neee! ‘ song-and-dance act seen repeatedly every day. Although I think that guy may be reasonably witty, it seems the show producers don’t want much more from him than his standard line, slightly modified to fit the co-host entertainers.

  2. bugbread Says:

    The list is neverending, really. Hard Gay? Regular? Choshu Koriki? Da Touch?

  3. Jesse Gillespie Says:

    Shitsureshimasu– I sincerely apologize for going about it in this method, but would it be possible to get your email address? I simply wanted to send a SLIGHTLY more personal message than a blog comment. If possible, thanks. If not, wakaruyo, ne?

  4. bugbread Says:


    Actually, thanks for asking that. I hadn’t noticed until just now that my email address was nowhere on the site. I’ve added it to the “about” page, but for your reference it’s “”. If your message is about a spiritual/religious issue, though, I should let you know in advance that I’m not interested (sorry, nothing personal).

  5. bugbread Says:

    Sorry, that probably came off as somewhat snotty. I just googled your email addy (don’t want to give my email address to a spammer!), and it popped up your missionary activities and not much else. I just checked your blog, though, and I think I may have gotten the wrong impression.

  6. Victor V Says:

    I guess that’s also where stuff like this comes from…

  7. SImon Says:

    NHK used to run reruns of classic TV series after midnight a few years back. I managed to tape almost all of the Red Dwarf shows ever made which was cool. They might be worth looking out for if you want a taste of the good, the bad and the old from the English speaking world!

  8. bugbread Says:

    Well, the good thing is that with the advent of the internet, I can watch a lot of decent foreign TV (and get a warped view of American TV quality, as the only stuff I see on the net is what people praise to high heavens, so I get the mistaken impression that’s it’s generally better than it probably is).

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