Where is Japan's Mary Tyler Moore?

A couple weeks ago comedy icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80. Although the height of her fame with the television sitcom that shared her name in 1970s was before my time I was always aware of trailblazing talent. With her death tributes from all sorts of media refreshed my memory of just what a revolution she proved to be for comedy and for feminism. It's hard to believe now but her decisions to wear pants on television and the idea of building a show around a single working woman were revolutionary at the time. (Another good recap of her legacy can be heard on Pop Culture Happy Hour) Naturally, with my location (in Tokyo) and interest in all aspects of Japanese comedy, I started to wonder where the "Mary Tyler Moore" of Japan was or if she even existed. Was there a comedic icon for women in Japan that embodied feminism like MTM? Was it even fair to use my Western ideas of feminism and comedy when looking for an equivalent in Japan? Clearly making a comparison between these two societies and comedic worlds is challenging. 

For one thing, in Japan, the format of the situation comedy (or sitcom) just doesn't exist. The closest format are the hour long "dramas" on television. The name "drama" is somewhat misleading as is actually used in Japanese to describe these shows that can vary in seriousness greatly with some shows being downright silly at times. Still, it would be interesting to see how media evolved to reflect the changing roles of women in Japanese society. 

In the world of stand-up comedy in the US it's pretty easy to come up with the names of the female pioneers. Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, and Roseanne Barr are just a few that come to mind on stage. Of course, on television one can't forget Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett for their artistic vision and their control over that vision. (Although I was never a fan of I Love Lucy you had to admire Ball for the foresight and expertise in which she ran her career and founded a successful television production company that brought us iconic shows besides her own "Lucy-brand" shows like Mission Impossible and Star Trek!)

When I returned to Japan to pursue a Masters I chose to study Japanese comedy, specifically manzai, and when I found that much of what I had wanted to study had already been explored I decided to go deeper and look at women in manzai. I'm not sure if I found everything I was looking for but it was enlightening to speak to women who perform manzai on the stage in Asakusa, finding out the difficulties that they encountered in the male-centered world of Japanese comedy. In the end though I would have to dive deep in Japan to see if any women in Japanese comedy had as much of an influence as Mary Tyler Moore had on today's female comedic stars. 

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