Banzai: Season 1

BanzaiSynopsis: Cult Japanese-style no holds barred betting show, often involving celebrities – always involving hilarity. Place your bets on a series of bizarre, and generally politically incorrect, wagers.

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Banzai: Season 1 7.5

eyelights: the silly concept. the extreme zaniness of the competitions. the overall high camp of the show.
eyesores: the exploitative nature of certain challenges. the irresponsible aspects of some content. the racial stereotypes.

“Place your bets!!!”

‘Banzai’ is a novelty television programme originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK.  A mixture of high camp and unusual competitions, it effectively spoofs zany game shows from Japan. It lasted all of three seasons, and was successful enough to cross the pond (after being re-edited for content in the United States).

The concept is simple: conceived as a betting game, each 30-minute episode offers a string of short challenges with two to five potential outcomes. It then invites the viewers to guess (or bet on) the outcome, allowing only for a split second to make a decision, revealing the answer in a playful way.  It’s fast and furious fun!

Hosted and refereed by Mr. Banzai, a bald “martial artist” who utters one-word reactions or shouts simple directives, the show features a voice-over narration and play-by-play commentary by Burt Kwouk and Eiji Kusuhara in the most outrageously clichéd Japanese accent one can imagine – halfway between intelligibility and risibility.

The show has been controversial precisely for its backwards stereotypes, causing Fox (in the U.S.) enough grief that they eventually cancelled the series. Coming in during an era of ‘South Park’, ‘Jackass’ and ‘Family Guy’, it’s unfathomable to me that the inappropriateness of this show might trump its peers, but there you have it.

And yet these character types had been seen on-screen even in recent memory. Burt Kwouk was actually Kato in the ‘Pink Panther’ series, and played a similarly-sounding character – hence why I recognized him right away. And Mr. Banzai is reminiscent of Kuni in ‘UHF‘ (in real life, Mr. Banzai is actually opera singer Masashi Fujimoto).

Thankfully, aside from the hilariously absurd challenges themselves, ‘Banzai’ has many other redeeming aspects, like the gonzo Asian-style graphics and animation, its many notable celebrity guests and the regular appearances of its contributors Mr. Hand-Shake Man, Mr. Cheeky Chappie and Lady One Question (who doesn’t actually appear in Season 1).

  • Mr. Hand-Shake Man is an Asian man who goes out to interview celebrities. He begins by shaking their hand, and proceeds to ask them various questions, all the while continuously shaking their hand. The challenge is to guess how long he can keep it up before the celebrity decides to get their hand back.
  • Mr. Cheeky Chappie is a middle-aged bespectacled man from the Orient with a penchant for the prurient. He’s basically the dirty old man of the show, taking part in any of the challenges that are even remotely naughty.
  • Lady One Question is an Asian woman who interviews celebrities, but limits herself to only one query – then becomes mute and immobile. Adding to the awkwardness of her staredown, Lady One Question sometimes places the mic uncomfortably close to the interviewee’s face. The challenge is to guess how long it will take before the celebrity clues in that they’re being played and moves on.

I first heard about ‘Banzai’ through a colleague many years ago, perhaps even a  decade ago now. He told me all about this and ‘Most Extreme Elimination Challenge’, and offered to make me a copy of both. Obviously, the moment that he brought me the tape, I plunked down and devoured it.

While I found ‘MXC’ entertaining, it was repetitious and only captured my attention to a limited extent. ‘Banzai’, however, was hilariously wacky and imaginative – it always found new ways to amuse or stun me. It had a formula, sure, but its creators had plenty of ideas to stir the pot up.

I loved it and I showed it to all my friends. I even tried to find it on home video. Since it was never released, I ended up buying the DVD board game instead, which featured many of the competitions from the first and second seasons of the show. Since the show remains elusive (only a “best of” was produced), I’ve had to turn to the interwebs to find it.

I was fortunate enough to track down the original UK version – which, unlike the U.S. version, retains its original celebrity guests and is uncensored (many of the original challenges are too much for North American television – in fact, I was surprised by what they got away with in the UK). This is certainly not family-friendly fare.

…but I suppose that this is part of its charm.

Here are the highlights of each episode:

Episode 1

  • The Old Lady Wheelchair Chicken Challenge: the show had two old ladies charge at each other in their motorized wheelchairs to see who would chicken out. Obviously, they weren’t going very fast, so this looked absolutely ridiculous – until they crashed! Insane! Thankfully neither got hurt. But, wow… these seniors weren’t one bit chicken…
  • The Wheel of Misfortune: two guys are sitting face-to-face with a rotating wheel between them. In the wheel are lodged six umbrellas, one of which is spring-loaded. They had to take turns picking an umbrella, aiming it at their own face and pressing the button in the hope that the spring wasn’t activated. It was so cretinous, I couldn’t stop chuckling.
  • The Banzai Falling Booth Big Bet: Featuring Peter Davidson, of ‘Dr. Who’ fame, he was posed the question of which of three other Dr. Whos he would “have bottom sex”  with. We had to guess which would be his pick. It’s dumb, I know, but I was surprised that he would play along. So it stuck in my mind. I mean… this is DOCTOR WHO for god’s sake!!!

Episode 2

  • Men of Fire – War of Water: Two firemen, dressed in all their gear, were pointed at each other with hoses and had to fire water at each other until one of them fell down. It’s simple, but I just loved the sight of this (aside from water waste, mind you). And it made me wonder just how much water pressure there was in these hoses. Could I withstand it?
  • The Old Lady Fish Challenge: Can this senior citizen down a whole mug of beer before Fish (of Marillion fame) starts singing his song? It was such a one-sided win that they actually had a rematch: Could the old lady make it up the stairs with her automatic chairlift before he started singing? Weirdly, they picked a song with a super long intro to it. Hmmm…
  • Squirrel Fishing: Three “scientists” climbed up trees with fishing rods and, using nuts as bait, tried to get squirrels to grab hold of their fishing lines and let themselves get pulled off the ground. I loved this just because it was fun to see how persistent those squirrels could be.

Episode 3

  • The Lying Breast Puzzle: Guess which of the five women has had a breast operation? They did it in two parts, with the narrator claiming that he couldn’t think clearly the first time around. When they came back they actually showed them topless. It still astounds me that this plays on TV in the UK. And I was surprised by the answer, truth be told.

(For the record, it’s an equal exploitation show: they showed a man’s penis in the first episode, in a similar contest. It just wasn’t a highlight for me)

  • The Vertically-Challenged Vertical Challenge: Two men of short stature were asked to climb a really tall man. The first one to make it to the top and plant his flag in the man’s foam hat won. It was an amusing sight to see someone get climbed like a mountain. It almost looked like fun, actually.
  • Mr. Shake-Hands Man: I don’t know who the celebrity was (the name was totally unclear due to the narrator’s accent), but she was absolutely lovely. And she weaseled her way out of his grip pretty quickly. Hah!

As a side-note, The Lying Lady Puzzle, the opening challenge of this episode, was the only challenge I was familiar with thus far – but it wasn’t featured in the same episode as the one I had seen in the past.

Episode 4

  • The Blessed Bucket of Bibles Bet: A Rabbi is tasked with holding two buckets filled with sacred texts at the ends of his arms for as as long as possible. I was surprised but how much stamina the guy had. Plus which is just a silly concept. Who thinks these up?
  • The Drink of the Goths: Three Goth guys (in full gear and make-up), drink alcohol – two of them drink regular lager and one of them drinks Snakebite. Then an old lady comes by and is tasked in figuring out which one drank the Snakebite by kissing each one first. It was already a strange contrast, but watching her consider each was pretty amusing.
  • Mr. Shake-Hands Man: He was so successful in getting Donna Air to shake hands that they did two parts to it. No joke! She just kept shaking his hands until some handlers/security came by to put an end to it. Ridiculous!

Episode 5

  • The Floating Lady Fire Arm Flutter: For this challenge, they tied five inflatable sex dolls to balloons and tasked a gorgeous sharpshooter to shoot them down. The trick: she was only given five shots. We had to guess how many she’d get. I was impressed with her skill – she proved that she was more than just a pretty thing. Nice.
  • An Interesting Penalty Shootout Conundrum: A one-legged soccer kicker is pitted against a one-armed goaltender in a best-out-of-three challenge. Which one will win? Honestly, I couldn’t even imagine a one-legged person kicking a ball (it’s really not intuitive) and it was rather impressive to see that he could do it as well as he did. Cool.
  • Shaun Ryder Coke Conundrum: The frontman for The Happy Mondays and Black Grape is well known for his debauchery and massive drug consumption, so the title alone is a stunner. What they did was to sit him on a see-saw and Mr. Banzai put cans of Coca Cola on the other end. We had to guess how cans Ryder weighed. Silly as heck, but fun.

Episode 6

  • The Seven Sins of Deadliness: Peter Davidson returns to show off his thespian abilities. Mr. Cheeky Chappie shows him a card with a one of the seven deadly sins written on it, and Davidson has to express it with his face only. Which is it? Envy, Avarice or Wrath? I liked this because it was such an unusual challenge, much more playful and less sensationalistic than many of the others.
  • Rubbish Clown – Rubbish Creature: This one was my favourites because it took the piss out of clowns. The narrator said that clowns are people who aren’t funny but wear silly make-up in the hope that people won’t notice how unfunny they are. Then they got a clown to make a balloon animal, saying that clowns are even more useless at that than at being funny. Guess which animal he made…
  • The Goat Wee Wager: This was weird. Mr. Cheeky Chappie is shown collecting urine in a mug from a goat. Then two men are tasked with balancing a mug of “urine” (who knows, really) on their heads for as long as possible. Who will be the winner? They were both so good that they eventually handicapped them by having them stand on one leg.

Episode 7

  • The Gimp Water Sports Battle: Two gimps are asked to slide down a waterslide each in turn. The challenge: guess which one will barrel down the fastest. This was just strange, not because of the challenge but because it was weird to see two gimps slide down a waterslide; it was so discrepant. I already find gimps odd, so the two together was quite the sight for me.
  • The Short Sighted Song Shouting Tournament: Two far-sighted people are given “celebrity” prescription glasses that aren’t their own prescription and are tasked to shout out the name of a song that has been printed on a card as it moves towards them. The first person to do it, wins. Wow… these two were really blind: it wasn’t until the card was about a meter away until they could read it.
  • Egg Smash Roulette: The members from pop duo Go West participated in a challenge that is similar to The Wheel of Misfortune (episode 1). This time, however, they had six eggs instead of six umbrellas, five of which were hard boiled, and had to take turns picking one out and smashing it on their foreheads. What was impressive is that the sixth egg was the plain egg, and the loser, knowing he was stuck with it, did the honourable thing and went ahead anyway. I’m impressed. But which one was it? Peter or Richard? (for the record, the outtakes show him bursting out after holding his grim face for the show – it wasn’t as humiliating as that, after all)

Episode 8

  • The Persistent Adrian Nuls (title unconfirmed): This man, whatever his name is, will be given a penny for every second that he can parlay his way into delaying a public transit bus. I loved this because it was all about his wit.
  • The Chesney Choon Challenge: Chesney Hawkes is listening to metal on his walkman. Three metalheads take turns sitting next to him on a park bench and try to guess what he’s listening to. Which one will get it?
  • The Stupid Dog Sausage Challenge: A hungry dog has a cone put on his neck and has to find his way to some sausage that’s hidden inside a big box. There are four windows and all of them have a different geometrical shape. Only one of them is round. How long will it take the dog to figure out the puzzle and get to the sausage?

‘Banzai’ is silly and playful, poking fun at competitive TV shows by doing instant replays in slow-motion and layering on verbal abuse by the commentators.  Each episode also ended with a short preview of the next one as well as some outtakes during the credits. I rather enjoyed that touch because it loosened up an otherwise very tight programme.

Watching it now, what I found amazing was the abundance of classic ’70s rock numbers (Rush shows up a lot), as well as then-modern pop/dance music that made it onto the soundtrack. How could they afford all of that musical content? In the US, this would have busted the show’s budget. Unsurprisingly, most of them are not on the soundtrack CD.

But I must admit that it would have been way more enjoyable if I knew who most of the celebrities were. It’s only funny when one understands how discrepant it is to see them in this light. Without a grasp of who they are, they’re merely strangers like any other – so those segments lose their punch. Clearly FOX did the right thing by substituting the celebrities for the US version.

Still, it was fun anyway, if slightly muted, and my only real concerns is that some of the challenges can be irresponsible. For example:

The Small Animal Balloon Lift Gamble (Episode  1): This consisted of putting a chicken in a harness and trying to make it airborne with the aid of balloons. The problem is that, once the so-called scientists put enough balloons for it to take off, there’s no indication of what happened to the poor thing – now that it was floating about unfettered.

The Dog Toilet Torment Challenge (Episode 3): The point of this challenge was to send three dogs out in a park and guess which one would do its duty first. I mean, as amusingly offbeat as it might be, the thought of a dog squatting is unsavoury to say the least. And I couldn’t believe that they would show that on TV! Thankfully the winner only took a leak. Phew!

The Old Lady Tower of Egg Torment (Episode 6): A middle-aged Asian woman is throwing eggs out of her apartment window. Will she hit her targets? Honestly, there’s no sense of whether she’s aiming for real bystanders or not. If she is, I think this is inappropriate because these people are getting egged. Last thing you want is to plant this stupid seed in a moronic viewer’s head.

The Battle of the Dishonourable Motor Car Celebrity Bandits (Episode 7): This one is really bad because the challenge consists of two guys picking and stealing cars in a large outdoor parking lot. It is claimed that these are real thieves (so their faces are covered). If it is, this is a really dumb thing to do. Illegal, probably, too.  Which leads me to imagine that this must be a set-up. I hope so.

I guess all this pales in comparison to the dubious nature of shows like ‘Jackass’, but it still nags at me. What can I say? Call me Mr. Uptight if you must. I just think that it’s possible to push boundaries, to be funny, and still be responsible about it, to consider the consequences of one’s actions. But I guess it’s a fine line and not everyone will agree on where it’s drawn.

Having said this, I really enjoyed watching this full season of ‘Banzai’. It’s absolutely mindless, but it has a few clever moments. The best scenario would be to watch it with a few others to get more of a kick out of it. Turning it into a betting game could be a gas, provided that the bets are as silly as the show itself (i.e. not money). In that light, it could be the bestest betting show ever!

Dates of viewing: May 15-19, 2014

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