I have a perhaps naive belief in the power of comedy to say something. Through the disarming capabilities of comedy you can push past barriers that you could only otherwise cover in the gravest of tones. It’s why I try to argue against the belief that comedy is some kind of mysterious thing where enjoyment and taste can’t be broken down and explained why. It may be dry and dull to explain a joke, but I’m a critic so that’s what I do. It’s because of this belief in the depth of comedy that I despair at so-called “random” comedy. Where the joke is entirely in the construction and not in the meaning.
Or to put it another way, I feel very depressed that common anime fandom opinion is that Nichijou is a comedy classic and Watamote was some forgotten, briefly popular thing.
I have read some very fascinating posts breaking down the comedic construction in Nichijou. How the use of timing, reactions, exaggeration at the right times, all flow together into creating a sketch. But the laugh generated feels hollow to me because there’s no reason as to why its funny outside of the form. Asked to explain why it’s funny or what you can take away from that joke leads to dead ends. Some jokes do have a theme behind them that ties into some kind of general social commentary, but these are so few and far between that it feels more like it stumbled into these jokes by accident rather than intentional wit.
When I say depth behind these jokes, I don’t mean everything has to be a scathing critique of the capitalist system or anything so highbrow as that. Even a joke as old and typical as “black people do this but white people do that” at least has something behind the joke. ‘Different cultural upbringings result in different behaviors and attitudes’ is a solid basis behind a joke. It doesn’t necessarily need to use that joke to then go on to talk about deeper layers of racism that generate these differences or anything, although it might hit stronger and be more memorable as a result. So long as it has something it’s commentating on, that joke works for me.
Watamote uses comedy to talk about crippling anxiety. It doesn’t disarm the subject in doing so since it can be stressful and almost depressing to watch, even though it might make you laugh. Comedy is just the medium it uses to tell that story. Nichijou meanwhile uses the skin of comedy to tell nothing. It is the structure of a joke with no meaning behind it. Every laugh felt hollow until I eventually grew frustrated and gave up. I figured people would just forget Nichijou because it has nothing to it. It’s not memorable because no joke sticks with you as there’s nothing in real life it’s commenting on.
Turns out I was wrong. Several years later Nichijou is still held up as some kind of comedy classic, with Youtube videos shared of iconic scenes from the series. It looks like one of those series that has withstood the typical memory span of a rapidly regenerating anime fandom, so newer fans are returning to that series. It’s not like I was expecting the entire world to love Watamote or anything, since it’s a cringe-inducing comedy that’s active torture to watch at times which makes you uncomfortable. Writing about Watamote here is as much to explain to the surprisingly large number of comments I get from people wondering why I hold the series in such high regard.
But Nichijou’s perseverance bothers me. Yeah maybe that makes me a bad person because I’m annoyed people like a thing I don’t like. But it’s got to me because it tells me that all my talk about the power of story through comedy isn’t shared by fandom as a whole when you can dress up emptiness in the clothes of a successful comedy and it will do just as well.