"That funny American" is stirring up the world of Japanese entertainment. His name is Patrick Harlan, but on stage he's called Pakkun. This 32-year-old manzai comedian is enjoying a sudden burst of popularity, along with a Japanese comic, Yoshida Makoto. They form a duo called Pakkun Makkun.
Manzai began around the end of the 1800s and has kept people laughing ever since. It's one of Japan's spoken performing arts, generally silly banter between two stand-up comedians with a little slapstick thrown in. One of them is the boke (the funny scatterbrain), the other is the tsukkomi (the good-natured teaser). The boke says something stupid, then the tsukkomi tells him off and maybe whacks him on the head.
Harlan is the boke. He's good at gabbing about "the things that Japanese people take for granted but foreigners find really strange."
"If you whack an American on the head, he'll get really angry. I know I did. When I was new at manzai I'd think, 'I'll whack him back, after the show in the dressing room. 'But if you play the boke for a while, you'll realize the role has depth. The boke pretends to be foolish, but all the time he's saying what other people really want to say, but can't. He says exactly what's on his mind, uninhibited."
Harlan was born in the U.S. state of Colorado. While studying comparative religion at prestigious Harvard University, he was also the choirmaster for a choral group. He came to Japan with the group on their Asian Tour, around graduation time.
"I was really impressed with the way Japanese people looked after us. We were just students, but they organized some fun welcoming parties for us. I ended up thinking, this is a country where I could make a go of it."
For a long time he'd wanted to be an actor, but didn't feel confident enough to try out in Hollywood. He was at a crossroads, wondering where the future would take him. In the end he didn't go back to the United States he stayed in Japan and began teaching at an English conversation school.
"At first I had trouble with the vague expressions in the Japanese language. It was hard understanding what people wanted me to do for them. But when I got used to the vagueness and could speak that way too, I realized how convenient being vague could be I wouldn't want to stop speaking that way. Take, for example, the word 'yoroshiku.' In English, when you ask a favor, it's often best to say exactly what you want. 'Yoroshiku' is just a vague request, so if the other person can't do it there are no hard feelings on either side." When Harlan started appreciating this intriguing side of the language, his Japanese grew by leaps and bounds.
Before long, he decided to try to make his dream come true in Japan to become an actor. He joined a theater group, but plays and TV dramas in Japan only rarely have an American character in them. So he decided to become a manzai comic.
"When I started out, my aim was to learn more Japanese, but after I got on TV, I somehow became famous and I ended up having more fun doing manzai than anything else."
He's busy doing other things as well appearing on TV as a reporter or English conversation teacher, being a radio disc jockey, writing books... He lives in a condo in Tokyo. His writing keeps him so busy he can't relax on holidays.
"Things are a bit hectic, but I'm hoping to build on what I'm doing now and become a film actor some day. Of course, it would have to be a movie with a leading role made for someone like me!"
Books introducing English to Japanese readers, co-authored by Harlan. Some pages explain English grammar in simple terms, drawing from Harlan's former experience as an English-language instructor. Harlan says the books can help readers improve their English enough to show their sense of humor in the language.
The popular manzai comic duo, Pakkun Makkun. Audiences love to laugh at the witty banter between Patrick Harlan (right) and Yoshida Makoto. (Photo credit: HAV MERCY)