Where “Matrix Ping Pong” Came From

Japan’s Meme-Making TV Show

You remember that “Matrix Ping Pong” video? It was a viral video that made the rounds maybe 15 years ago, but occasionally pops up again. It was a creative bit of stagecraft that showed a ping pong game mixed with Matrix-style bullet time. To remind you, it looks like this:

It combined elements of Black Theater Puppetry and simple special effects where part of the charm is seeing how it’s done.

When I saw it, I enjoyed it but I gave no real thought to where it came from. I just accepted that it was from some Japanese TV show. They have weird stuff on TV in Japan, right?.

A few years later, I saw another funny video from Japanese TV:

I recently learned that these are actually from the same show, a Japanese semi-annual variety show called Kasou Taishou, known in English as Masquerade.

On the show, amateur performers come up with these fun little skits that last just a minute or two.

It turns out that there’s a YouTube channel with a huge archive of performances from Masquerade. Here are some more examples of what you can find there:

A short billiards demonstration

Basketball

Graffiti comes to life

A dancing/singing frog

You get the idea.

The TV show Masquerade was featured in the music video for the song “Flamboyant” by the Pet Shop Boys. It tells the story of an office worker who dreams of being on the show and features clips from a lot of performances. There’s never a bad time to listen to Pet Shop Boys, so check it out:

These routines remind me of the Swiss theater troupe called Mummenschanz that used to show up on TV in the 70s and 80s on shows like The Muppet Show and The Tonight Show. As a kid I found them very disturbing, especially their Pipe Creature which still kind of gives me nightmares. Oh, and the toilet paper heads. Scary stuff for a little kid.

Here’s a video with highlights from 50 years of their repertoire. See if you remember any of these routines:

And while we’re talking about 1970s mimes, we can’t overlook Shields and Yarnell, a married mime couple that was everywhere. Remember them? Their specialty was moving like robots:

This was incredibly popular stuff. Lorene Yarnell has a special place in nerd culture as the performer inside the Joan Rivers-voiced robot Dot Matrix in the movie Spaceballs.

Dot Matrix, Spaceballs | Geek culture, Animated gif, Animation

So who is your favorite mime? Is that a thing? Having a favorite mime?

I met someone once who definitely had a favorite mime. In my work as a video producer I sometimes go to people’s homes to do interviews. A couple years ago I walked into the living room of a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist to find a giant framed poster of Marcel Marceau hanging above the couch. Actually, it was so big that part of it had to extend behind the couch. It was the kind of thing that I was sure must have a story, especially as I noticed a lot of other Marcel Marceau memorabilia around the house. So I asked: What’s with the giant Marcel Marceau poster?

It turned out that the journalist’s wife was a bit obsessed with Marcel Marceau. She told me that she saw him perform many times over decades, and used to wait for him at the stage door after his performances to meet him, as people sometimes do. Eventually, he began to recognize her. One time, at the stage door after a show, she invited him to a dinner party she was having the following night. And to her delight, he showed up! And then they became friends. He gifted her the poster as a token of their friendship. She got teary-eyed as she told me this story and remembered her friend Marcel.

It’s possible I messed up some details of that story. But that’s the gist of it as I remember it.

And that’s it for another newsletter!

Before I go, I would like to acknowledge that after years of me silently screaming inside my own head about it, Substack has finally made it so quotation marks in the title of a newsletter get curly quotes automatically.

Thanks, whoever at Substack was responsible for this change. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

See everyone next time! I hope you go down some mime-related YouTube rabbit holes in the meantime.

David

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