Comedy shows surge in ratings as people seek a chuckle

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Comedy shows surge in ratings as people seek a chuckle

Maybe the public just needs a good laugh because the hottest Korean TV shows now are mostly comedies.
“Utchatsa” (“People Seeking Laughter” in English) on SBS-TV has especially been the talk of the town, along with KBS-TV’s “Gag Concert.” MBC-TV is busy keeping track with the others in promoting comedy shows such as “Laugh and You’ll Be Lucky.” After Wednesday nights when “Utchatsa” is aired, people impersonate their favorite comedians and repeat their lines. Comedians who started as unknowns now have grown into big stars, such as “Lee Mario” and “Man-sama.”
Off TV, however, comedians on the shows weren’t laughing. Stars of “Utchatsa” held a press conference on May 11, saying they have been abused by what they described as “slavery contracts.” Park Seung-dae, the head of their agency, Smile Mania, denied the comedians’ accusation, but the issue rose.
The audience ratings for “Utchatsa” ― a sure fire mainstay of SBS-TV, capturing about 30 percent of all viewers in that time slot ― recorded a slippage to less than 20 percent. MBC-TV even allocated its social debate show “100 Minutes’ Debate” to the issue yesterday. This fracas, however, was settled last Thursday when Mr. Park and the comedians held another press conference to say they’ve reconciled.
After all these odds, there is still no argument that comedy is big now. Comedy shows had long been well received on the TV scene in Korea, but the genre suffered a downhill slide in the 1990s. Now, it’s experiencing a new renaissance.
“Comedy has positioned itself in the pop culture mainstream,” says Seo Su-min, a TV producer at KBS-TV.
And it’s not just television that’s smitten with comedy. Five out of the 10 most popular movies in the country were comedies in the second week of last month, according an online ticketing Web site. Go to Daehangno in northeastern Seoul and you’ll find would-be Lee Marios vying for attention.
The neighborhood is famed for theaters that stage plays, yet live comedy shows have retained their popularity. Comedian-only talent agencies are the behind-the-scenes nurturers of new and established talent.
The stage shows serve as good auditions for whether a comedian can make it big. The audiences often include TV producers and writers who work undercover to scout talent for their shows. Big stars like Lee Mario and “Man-sama” performed on stages in Daehangno for years before they made it on TV.
Today’s such star-wannabes include Lee Yong-jin, 21, Nam Myeong-geun, 21, and Lee Jin-ho, 20. These three young men are more than willing to burn the midnight oil for a laugh.
As best friends, these young men concur tongue-in-cheek that comedy is no joke. Tears and sweat are the main elements of laughter, they say. But comedy is truly a classless art: You don’t need to be a graduate of a prestigious university or born with a silver spoon. You just have to be funny.
The three aspirants say they may have been bad students at school, but at least on the stage, they have all the confidence to be second to nobody.
Last fall, the three joined comedian Park Seung-dae’s talent agency, Smile Mania, and since then they’ve kept their noses to the grindstone, from cleaning up the theater to brainstorming. The three young men start their daily routines at 1 p.m. and end at 5 a.m.
The feedback they get usually, however, is nothing but a yell from agency head Mr. Park such as “Hey, you guys think that’s funny? No way.”
Always thirsty for ideas, the wannabe star comedians rake their brains and take ideas from anywhere ― from folk tales to newspaper articles to TV dramas to pop songs to textbooks. The three learn several newspaper editorials by heart to enhance their memorization power and be tuned into current social issues.
Sometimes they take a surprise quiz test to check if everyone’s doing their job right. Ideas for segments then get battered around and suffer harsh criticism among the group, then the members start to rehearse for the daily evening shows. They do not hesitate to be cruel in giving criticism to each other. “That line won’t work. No way. Cut that out,” they say to each other. Performances from Wednesdays through Fridays are free to check the reaction and to get feedback from as big an audience as possible.
Around 7 p.m., the rookies hit the streets to attract an audience. Sometimes they show part of their gigs or make funny faces. One evening, they attracted 70 passers-by to buy tickets, but they’ve performed in front of as few as two viewers.
At 8 p.m., it’s showtime. For the next hour, they pour out their best. But they do not want their parents to find the theater. “To my parents’ eyes, this whole thing would look like wasting our time and energy, which is not true,” one said.
On a recent night, however, luck finally found the three rookie comedians. Among the show’s audience was Lee Chang-tae, 43, the chief producer for “Utchatsa” on SBS-TV. After the show ended, Mr. Lee murmured, “That looks promising,” regarding a rookie’s segment.
After later presenting their segments before the TV producers and other production staff, the rookies succeeded in making a long-awaited debut. The pick-up, however, does not necessarily lead to a debut on TV. Even after the shooting of the show, segments are edited out of the final version of the show.
“Every week, about 20 segments are shot, and only 15 out of them are chosen to be on air,” says Lee Min-ho, producer of MBC-TV’s “Laugh and You’ll Be Lucky.”
“Comedy shows these days seem to be pretty hot, so many young people jump on the bandwagon, following the glamour of the show biz,” says Kim Tae-hwan, 22, who has just started to make a name on television after two years of working in the theater. “The truth of the matter is, however, there’s no glamour on the back stage. If what you’re looking for is glamour and money, you’re soon out.”
Park Seung-dae, the chief of the Smile Mania agency, echoes the sentiment by saying, “You must cry 10 times to make people laugh one time.”
It seems, however, that such hard effort pays off. Some comedians have reached stardom, and Mr. Park’s agency, to which 80 percent of the “Utchatsa” comedians belong, recorded total sales of 1.7 billion won ($1.7 million) this year, according to Mr. Park.
About 1.4 billion won of sales came from performances touring around the country, followed by 200 million won from commercials and others, Mr. Park said.
Joo Chul-hwan, a TV-producer-cum-journalism-professor at Ewha Womans University, does not consider this renaissance of the comedy genre as some passing fad. “Gag will keep its position in the mainstream, contributing to fattening up the pop culture scene of Korea,” Mr. Joo said.

by Lee Ji-young, Chun Su-jin
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