Silly, but never stupid

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Silly, but never stupid

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Korea’s legendary fools: (from left) Bae Sam-ryong, Shim Hyong-rae and Lee Chang-hun

In Shakespeare’s plays, the fool is often the wisest person on stage, challenging the notions acted out by other characters.

The same could be said of one of Korea’s best known “fools,” the comedian Bae Sam-ryong, who died Feb. 23. He was 84.

One of the most talked-about celebrities of the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Bae’s fool, or babo in Korean, acted as a comfort to Korean society in that tumultuous era.

With his silly antics, Bae, like Charlie Chaplin, represented a person who was hopelessly incapable of adapting to a changing society, according to the linguist Choi Jeong-ho in his 2009 book “Remembering People.”

The laughs Bae drew served as a challenge to authority at the time, Choi writes.

Bae, a member of the first generation of Korea’s comedians, embraced this role.

“I always think about ways to portray a fool. In my act, I can make people [who lead difficult lives] feel better because they find comfort in me,” said Bae in an interview with a local broadcaster a couple of years ago.

In his heyday, the jokester’s Sunday gag show was a must-see, with his continuous trips and tumbles tickling audiences. A hot commodity for any network, Bae fielded offers - including several blank checks in 1973 - from several broadcasters.

“It was a great pleasure for me to gather with my neighbors in front of a black-and-white television set and watch Bae’s acting. He was the best,” said Park Jeong-seop, 57, a retiree who used to work at a publishing company. “I can’t think of any other comedian who was better than he was.”

President Lee Myung-bak counted himself among Bae’s fans. On the day after the funnyman’s death, the president sent a telegram of condolence, reading: “We lost a big star on the nation’s comedy scene. Bae spiced up our lives, giving us laughter and energy.”

Performing until the age of 76, Bae had a prolific career, although his name might be somewhat foreign to the younger generation.

In his final years, the humorist was bedridden after having collapsed in 2007. The day he died, the beloved jester was out of the spotlight, overshadowed by figure skater Kim Yu-na’s turn at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and the public’s changing taste in comedy.

“Korean comedy has evolved a lot. In the past, gag shows were like dramas. They had an introduction, plot turns and a conclusion. There, comedians played fools,” said Park Joong-min, a chief producer for “Gag Concert,” the country’s longest-running comedy program, marking its 11th anniversary this year. “But no one really laughs at fools anymore.”

However, Bae has left behind several fellow babo buddies. Through the ’90s, Shim Hyong-rae played the runny-nosed Young-gu, who sported a bald spot. Children of the ’80s considered Young-gu among their best friends. With the character, Shim was able to launch himself into a career in film.

After Young-gu, comedian Lee Chang-hun’s character Maeng-gu stole the show. Impressions of Maeng-gu’s shaky, nasal voice were widespread in the ’90s. At the time, the two surpassed even today’s idol groups such as Girls’ Generation and 2PM in popularity.

Neither Shim nor Lee play fools anymore, though. Shim became a director and is working on his new film, “The Dumb Mafia,” which will be released later this year in 3-D. Lee, on the other hand, worked in theater and is currently recovering from lung cancer surgery.


By Sung So-young [so@joongang.co.kr]
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