The W: The Comedy Tournament for Women Only
The W (officially called “Onna Geinin No. 1 Ketteisen the W”) is a recently created annual comedy tournament that just crowned its second champion in December. The tournament has drawn considerable attention for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it is a comedy contest strictly for women. The first champion of the W was solo-comedian (pin genin) Yurian Retriever. In the 2018 edition of the contest, the “sister” duo of Asagaya Shimai (they are actually not related but look like it) were victorious. In a country that sometimes has mixed reputation when it comes to the advancement of women that is certainly understandable. Personally, as one who wrote an MA thesis on women in manzai I’ve been wanted to write about this tournament for a while but have had trouble finding the time to watch much of the contest itself (young children in the house and all).
At first, when I heard about the creation of a comedy tournament which would allow only women to participate I wondered how it would be viewed by the women who perform on stage themselves. Would they consider it a positive step, a boost for the industry? Or would they consider it condescending, an outright statement that women cannot compete with men in comedy without some help from the industry? I never got around to writing in depth after the first edition of the W last year but the amount of articles, negative feedback on SNS, and the general feeling about the contest that came with its 2nd broadcast made me take a closer look.
Overall Negative Reaction to the W
The reaction after the broadcast of the latest edition of the W was often negative or at least questioning in nature regarding how the contest is set up, the quality of the performers, and the amount of the prize money. One article from the web magazine Wezzy did a good job of summarizing many of the reactions. The article is entitled, “Samusugita ‘The W’ Josei Geinin wa ‘Busu’, ‘Debu’ no Neta Bakkari De Tsumaranai?” This roughly translates to “The too-cold ‘the W"‘: Are female comedians with only ‘ugly’ and ‘fat’ jokes boring?” (The Japanese adjective for cold, samui, is often used to describe when a joke falls flat and is unfunny) In the article several comedians and commentators give their reaction to the contest. On the radio show of the manzai duo Knights, essayist Nomachi Mineko put it this way. “To be frank, it was tough. It was not funny.” She added, “All the famous female comedians didn’t participate in the contest.” Knights member Hanawa chimed in by say that female comedians material focused too much on just “being female”, that the issue of “not having a boyfriend” should be done instead on variety shows, and that they should focus more on just constructing a proper set of material.
The article continued by bringing up the issue of contest winnings. On his radio show, popular male comedian Ariyoshi Hiroiki stated that he thought the amount of money that the champion is awarded doesn’t quite match the tournament. The winners of the W are awarded roughly $100,000 (US). This is the same amount that the winners of the M-1 Grand Prix, a much more established contest for manzai duos of any gender (although generally male). Ariyoshi went on to say that the winnings should instead be set a $10,000 (US). He added that he did think that Asagaya Shimai were funny but that there were various issues in play.
The article admits that there did seem to be a lack of laughter from the studio audience noting that some on SNS commented on how quiet it was for a comedy program. I can certainly attest to that as well. The skit performed by Yurian, the champion from last year, didn’t seem to generate the kind of reception that one would predict for someone made famous by the W. (I found it extremely unfunny as well although humor is always subjective) Furthermore, the ratings for the broadcast, 11.5%, placed the contest below the M-1 Grand Prix (18.8%) and King of Konto (11.6%) with the highest rated moments actually turning out to be when Downtown’s Matsumoto Hitoshi gave commentary to routines.
Problems With the Format of the W
Some of the criticism aimed at the W has been regarding the format of the contest. Unlike other tournaments which have restrictions according to experience, type of comedy, and other rules, participants of the W simply have to be female. They can do skits (konto in Japanese), manzai, or perhaps other styles of comedy and are not restricted by having too much or too little experience. Those participating in the M-1 Grand Prix have to have been performing professionally (with that duo) for less than ten years. This contest is also only for manzai duos. Furthermore, with the popularity of M-1 and the large amount of male comedians the number of entries for M-1 had a reported 4640 duos try for the title. The King of Konto, a tournament for those who do comedic skits, had 2490 groups participating. In stark contrast to these numbers, the W only had 606 entries in 2018. This of course would give the women an advantage when trying to win the $100,000 prize money, the same amount as M-1. In addition, this lower number of participants could contribute to a less-polished act making it into the finals (or perhaps even winning it all).
Here is where things get tricky however. In this day of stressing equal rights, equal pay, and general gender equality it is easy to see the argument for having the same amount of prize money for M-1 and the W. I can also see the arguments that the prize money shouldn't be the same because of the lower number of entries, the gender restriction, or some other reasons. But with the comedy industry being dominated for years by a majority of male performers it is natural that a contest like this would feature fewer performers.
Although this is a little different, for years in the United States some comedy clubs had little rooms set aside where female comedians could take center stage. The move was perhaps condescending in nature but because of this opportunity many female comedians were given a chance to work through material, gain confidence, and going onto bigger and better things.
Voices From the Comedians
So what is the value of the W? How do female comedians who participated in it feel about the contest? I reached out to a few female comedians that I know of and one commented that she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it as she had lost in the 2nd round and didn’t have a TV to watch the finals. Another didn’t get back to me but one other had some interesting opinions on the W. Here is what she had to say:
“As a female comedian, I feel that this contest is a great chance (for me) and therefore I am grateful for its existence.”
“Some say that male comedians have an advantage because there are often supported by female fans. However, by limited the comedians to female, you can’t make excuses like that, making the contest all about who is funny and who is not funny.”
“Regarding the prize money amount I hadn’t really thought about it but I guess it is appropriate. I also think that because there are no males participating the winner of the contest isn’t really the true “number 1”. In this aspect, I suppose the prize money amount is high.”
Finally, this comedian also had an interesting question regarding the future of this tournament.
“I also wonder what contests like this would do in the case of transgender comedians.”
As you can see there are certainly a lot of issues to explore with this contest and I would certainly like to do some more in-depth research on it when my schedule allows. Although I didn’t go into here there were several articles that also supported the existence of this unique tournament. Particularly, comedian Shindo Tatsumi of the manzai duo Baka Yo Aikata Wa has an excellent blog entitled “Shindo Tatsumi no Onna Geinin Kenkyuushitsu” or “Shindo Tatsumi’s Female Comedian Study Room.” In it he tackles issues surrounding this contest as well as analyzes female comedians from the past and present.
Although I had a hard time finding much funny about many of this years the W I think I share the opinion of some writers which basically we should give this program a chance to develop into something special, further adding diverse and funny voices to the stage.