I find myself wondering why overacting — vast, wailing reactions of protestation, incredibly fake outrage, and the like — is the norm in comedic “acting” in Korea.

(EDIT: Actually, it also seems the norm in movies, but in a different way: long brooding shots, action scenes five minutes too long, and hyperemotional crying is something we see both on TV melodrama and in films, but I’m particularly thinking of comedy at the moment.)

Or, rather, not “why” but “how it became the case that…” One example is the various gag TV shows like Uchassa and Gag Concert. These are, roughly speaking, the Korean equivalent of Saturday Night Live, except that they’re, well… more cartoon-like? For one thing, everyone, but especially the men, has a bizarre haircut. (Men with what can only be described as a short blunt-cut are often the stars of the comedic scene.) While I’m assured that the wordplay and such is actually quite brilliant, the whole performance strikes one who cannot follow the language quite well enough as, well… as the kind of thing aimed at children. And, indeed, the fact that these are precisely the kinds of shows that elementary schoolkids select as their favorites does little to dissuade me from the sense that the heights of Korean comedy are pretty, er, unsophisticated.

I’m not saying, “Why ain’t there a Korean Lenny Bruce?!?!?” (or Bill Hicks, or George Carlin). I think it’s pretty obvious that such a comedic tradition, if indeed one did exist before the dictatorships, would not have emerged unscathed. (I think any such critical, anti-authoritarian comedic tradition that might have existed in the Joseon era (say, of the sort we glimpsed in the meh-worthy film The King and the Clown) could well have survived Japanese rule, but not Park and Chun’s. I’m sure some nitbrain would call me a communist for saying so, but I don’t care. Fending off communism doesn’t necessitate — or excuse — completely destroying all freedom of thought and crushing diversity within your nation.)

Anyway, I’m posting this not to say that Korean comedy shows are all dumb. There have been films I’ve seen which had a hint of black humour of relatively noteworthy sophistication. (The President’s Last Bang was one, though even I was often perplexed at the idea it was comedy.)

I’m just wondering whether someone who is fluent in both Korean and English, and who is familiar with both these sorts of Korean comedy shows, and with good examples of Western comedy, can tell me whether I’m right in suspecting these shows are just silly, or missing something, or whether they’re essentially dumb, not no more dumb than, say SNL is these days. (Which is pretty dumb, but remember, SNL 20-30 years ago wasn’t so dumb at all. Or am I glorifying Eddie Murphy, Victoria Jackson, and the rest of that lot?)

Anyone? Insights?

6 thoughts on “OVER~~!

  1. Ah, if only I had the time to put together a coherent musing on this topic… but unfortunately I don’t. Sounds like something that could be discussed over beers, though.

  2. Just a quick word to mention that the traditional mask dance of Talchum, as seen in The King and the Clown, is still alive and has kept its undertones of criticizing the powerfuls.
    It could be interesting to see how true that is (and that was during the military dictatorship)…

  3. Jérôme,

    Hey, I’d surely love to see people gathering for Talchum performances in front of the Congress or Blue House when annoyed with the Powers that Be, but something tells me that while the critical undertones are still remembered, they’re not so, er, present.

    Which may be as it ought to be: after all, it’s often when the lower classes cannot speak out that they end up disguising their criticism in folk dances and songs and art. (Until they’re so annoyed they finally explode into peasant revolts.)

    In a sense, the Korean predilection for public protest is a positive thing.

    I’d be interested in knowing more about the status of Talchum during the dictatorships, since it (a) was anti-authoritarian, but (b) was a traditional Korean cultural object, and thus something useful and important enough to want to preserve.

    I’m actually just as curious to know what status the Talchum had during Japanese occupation, too. (And whether there’s a continuity to it, or whether it was suppressed, and if so, when it reemerged.)

    It should be obvious by now I know nothing about it, and not even where to start. And unfortunately I don’t know who to ask. Hmmm.

  4. Yeah, early-ish January will probably be feasible. Little or no chance of it happening before then.

    I may or may not be going somewhere for a few days at the beginning of the year, but I’ll let you know what’s up once the year-end dust clears.

    And to think I used to love this time of year when I was a kid…

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