Manzai usually involves two performers (manzaishi)--a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke)--trading jokes at great speed. Most of the jokes revolve around mutual misunderstandings, double-talk, puns and other verbal gags.
In 1933, Yoshimoto Kogyo, a large entertainment conglomerate based in Osaka, introduced Osaka-style manzai to Tokyo audiences, and coined the term "" (one of several ways of writing the word manzai in Japanese; see § Etymology below). In 2015, Matayoshi Naoki's manzai novel, Spark () won the Akutagawa Prize. A mini-series adaptation was released on Netflix in 2016.
Originally based around a festival to welcome the New Year, manzai traces its origins back to the Heian period. The two manzai performers came with messages from the gods and this was worked into a standup routine, with one performer showing some sort of opposition to the word of the other. This pattern still exists in the roles of the boke and the tsukkomi.
Continuing into the Edo period, the style focused increasingly on the humor aspects of stand-up, and various regions of Japan developed their own unique styles of manzai, such as Owari manzai (?), Mikawa manzai (?), and Yamato manzai (?). With the arrival of the Meiji Period, Osaka manzai (?) began changes that would see it surpass in popularity the styles of the former period, although at the time rakugo was still considered the more popular form of entertainment.
With the end of the Taish? period, Yoshimoto K?gy?--which itself was founded at the beginning of the era, in 1912--introduced a new style of manzai lacking much of the celebration that had accompanied it in the past. This new style proved successful and spread all over Japan, including Tokyo. Riding on the waves of new communication technology, manzai quickly spread through the mediums of stage, radio, and eventually, television, and video games.
The kanji for manzai have been written in various ways throughout the ages. It was originally written as (, lit. ten thousand years or banzai, meaning something like "long life"), using ? rather than the alternative form of the character, ?, and the simpler form ? for ? (which also can be used to write a word meaning 'talent, ability'). The arrival of Osaka manzai brought another character change, this time changing the first character to ?.
Similar in execution to the concepts of "funny man" and "straight man" in double act comedy (e.g. Abbott and Costello), these roles are a very important characteristic of manzai. Boke () comes from the verb bokeru (/) which carries the meaning of "senility" or "air headed-ness" and is reflected in the bokes tendency for misinterpretation and forgetfulness. The word tsukkomi (?) refers to the role the second comedian plays in "butting in" and correcting the bokes errors. In performances it is common for the tsukkomi to berate the boke and hit them on the head with a swift smack; one traditional manzai prop often used for this purpose is a pleated paper fan called a harisen (). Another traditional manzai prop is a small drum, usually carried (and used) by the boke. A Japanese bamboo and paper umbrella is another common prop. These props are usually used only during non-serious Manzai routines as traditional Manzai requires there to be no props in terms of routine and in competitions. The use of props would put the comedy act closer to a conte rather than manzai.
The tradition of tsukkomi and boke is often used in other Japanese comedy, although it may not be as obviously portrayed as it usually is in manzai.