A sad farewell to the king of satire

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A sad farewell to the king of satire

Comedian Kim Hyung-kon, whose biting satire of snobby authoritarian figures first appeared in the late 1980s as Korea’s dictatorship waned, died last Saturday at age 46, just weeks before he was scheduled to perform a comeback show at Carnegie Hall in New York.
The cause of death is unknown, but is suspected to be a heart attack, precipitated by a rigorous diet and exercise program Mr. Kim forced upon himself recently. Three years ago he dropped from a bulky 120 kilograms (264 pounds) to 90 kilograms. Mr. Kim was found dead in the bathroom of a health spa last Saturday.
At his funeral Monday, friends were in tears, shaking their heads in disbelief at the news of his sudden death. “Just two months ago, he came to me and announced he had thought up a new routine,” said Kim Su-cheol, a close friend and a rock singer.
Regarded as one of Korea’s greatest comic stars, the television, film and theater actor was often called an “idea bank” by fellow comedians.
He subscribed to 10 newspapers, which he mined for social issues to put in his routines, and carried a notebook with him wherever he went, friends said.
He was best known for parodying the rich and snobby. One of his hit shows was “Chairman, Our Chairman,” in which he played the bossy, obnoxious head of a company who thrived on the flattery of his subordinates. The show, poking fun at authoritarianism and stuck-up rich people, was hailed by the public and sparked several popular catch phrases such as “It should be done well,” and “[No wonder] It was never done well.”
In another evening routine called “Taengja Says,” he played a quasi-Confucian figure who taught Chinese classics in the olden times. He made jokes out of traditional cliches and classic idiomatic phrases, while poking fun at the ruling class.
Such pioneering performances shocked viewers, who were used to TV programs riddled with slapstick humor.
When he appeared on the scene in 1987, few comedians had dared take on ― however obliquely ― the Chun Doo Hwan dictatorship (1981-88), which prohibited performers from commenting on the government.
In one case, an actor named Park Yong-sik, whose bald head and rounded features closely resembled President Chun, was abruptly kicked out of the entertainment business by an “invisible hand.”
But Mr. Kim somehow got around these pressures and boldly used politicians and social issues as material in his routines.
“He felt free to do the type of comedy he always dreamed of,” noted friend and fellow comedian Lee Yong-sik. “He will be greatly missed.”
Despite Korea’s transition to democracy in 1988, its politicians have remained a rich lode of material.
“There should be a law prohibiting politicians from appearing on television late at night,” Mr. Kim quipped recently. “They are giving people nightmares and killing them.” He insisted people had the right to enjoy good humor before going to sleep. “Only comedy shows should be aired after 10 p.m.,” he advised.
He also criticized recent comedy trends in Korea, pointing out that society seemed to have slid back to old-style slapstick again. He called this “brutal,” saying there was no longer room for jokes that carried meaning.


by Lee Min-a
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