Hamada Masatoshi (Hyogo Prefecture, 1963- )
Matsumoto Hitoshi (Hyogo Prefecture, 1963- )
Japanese comedy and variety shows can appeal to foreigners in two main ways: you can actually understand and appreciate the humor or, even if you don't, you can just sit back and laugh at people who are obviously making complete idiots of themselves. I don't really "get" a lot of the comedy - it loses a lot in translation and relies a bit too heavily on slapstick for my taste. But once you get to grips with Japanese and learn to just accept the mindlessness of it all, the shows are as good a way to kill off brain cells as any other, I suppose. You get to know the more familiar faces and styles.
Comedians traditionally belonged to a particular "troupe" and served as apprentices to more established stars until they made it big themselves. This exists still in rakugo, the traditional storytelling form of comedy. Aspiring TV comedians often follow a similar route. The most famous example at the moment is the Yoshimoto Kogyo troupe and the undisputed rulers of that particular roost are Downtown: Hamada Masatoshi or Hama-chan as he is usually known and Ma-chan (Matsumoto Hitoshi).
Downtown have been big stars since around 1991, having trained and spent almost ten years working their way up the ladder within Yoshimoto. Their brand of comedy is manzai (see Beat Takeshi). Hamachan is the tsukomi who is constantly angered or bewildered by the nonsensical or plain weird boke outpourings of Ma-chan. There's lots of movement, shouting and slapping of heads (Takeshi prefers a plastic squeaky hammer for this) which often seems unscripted and chaotic. In the case of Downtown, the pair know each other so well that that is usually the case.
The pair went to the same elementary school in a suburb of Osaka, though they didn't become friends until junior high and they went their separate ways in senior high. After high school, Hamada had an unsuccessful try at becoming a motor boat racer. A chance meeting with his old friend led to Hamada getting caught up in Matsumoto's long-held dream of becoming a comedian and the pair joined Yoshimoto's training school in 1982.
Not seen so much anymore are the menagerie of weird characters that Downtown used to create on Downtown no Gottsu Ee Kanji (Downtown's Feelin' Good!). Ma-chan dressed up in a huge afro wig as Dansu Sensei (Dance Teacher), as Aho Aho Man (Stupid Stupid Man) or as a fairy named Exciting; or more recently Hama-chan as Eccentric Shonen Boy. Together with Yoshimoto foot soldiers like Imada Koji and Yamada Hanako, the pair performed the weirdest sketches, sometimes hilarious sometimes just baffling. But these days, they appear mostly as presenters of fairly tame variety or talk shows, relying mostly on Ma-chan's spontaneous outbursts for laughs. There are often veiled references to his playboy lifestyle and he is one of Japan's most eligible bachelors. hama-chan has been married since 1989.
Downtown have also made a lot of money from activities outside of TV. They've released best-selling albums under their own name and as the Geisha Girls. Hamada also got together with super-producer Komuro Tetsuya and released a couple of million-selling singles as H Jungle with t. Recently they jumped on the revival bandwagon, leading the Yoshimoto gang in a version of Sakamoto Kyu's 1960's hit Ashita ga Aru sa, also the theme of a popular TV drama starring the gang. Both Hamada and Matsumoto have written best-sellers, though Matsumoto's unique wit ensured that his books sold considerably better. Together with TV and various commercial endorsements, including at one time convenience store chain am/pm, these various sources of income combined to make Downtown the biggest taxpayers in the entertainment business for several years running in the 1990's.
Yoshimoto Kogyo is very much a Kansai operation, although it's not limited to people from Osaka and its surroundings. Most of its comedians speak Kansai-ben, the strong, earthy dialect that developed among the merchant classes of Osaka, as opposed to the more elegant tones of Kyoto or the standard language of the Edo (now Tokyo) aristocracy. Matsumoto and Hamada have never lost that dialect and have actually used it to their benefit. They use it in the titles of their TV shows - you won't find translations of Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende (This Is No Job For Kids!) or Gottsu Ee Kanji in a standard dictionary. But Downtown are such big stars that these expressions have entered the common vocabulary.