Two friends of mine, I’ll call them Jan and John, went to Thailand together on a holiday during which they decided to attend the biological vaudeville which constitutes one of the better-known pop cultural contributions of parts of that beautiful country.
During the show, a performer shot a metal-tipped dart out of her vagina from whence it flew over the audience before lodging itself in John’s arm. Bleeding slightly from the flesh-wound, John saw a local doctor who recommended an HIV test “as a precaution”. On their return, Jan told me that they had to wait until after the three month window period to know whether John was in the clear. I found myself anticipating John’s imminent death from AIDS, and how it would leave completely unanswered the fundamental question of whether the essence of life is comedy or tragedy.
Japanese prank videos have me wondering the same thing.
It is impossible to watch these pranks – and there are millions of them – without simultaneously feeling how awful and how hilarious they are. It is also impossible to watch them without wondering how litigation and public liability insurance work in Japan in a way that lets these pranksters get away with pulling this stuff on total strangers. Somewhere between slapstick and schadenfreude, the japrankster milieu is one of light and shadow. For better or worse, this is not a question of cultural relativism; despite extensive Japanese narration, no translation is needed to understand exactly what is going on and to find it hilarious. The traditional wisdom is that comedy is tragedy plus time. These videos simplify that equation, and our lofty perceptions of ourselves, by removing time.
But we can take comfort, maybe, in the fact that the Japanese prankster is an equal opportunity offender – young, old, weak, strong –the prank does not discriminate. Maybe this means that we are really just laughing at ourselves. Then again, nothing kills humor like analysis. Sometimes we just want to see a naked person clinging for dear life to a massage chair while barreling down a ski slope.
Epilogue: John did not have AIDS.