Sketch comedies are back, with more bite

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Sketch comedies are back, with more bite

Kim Mi-hyun, 36, once hated talking about politics in public. In fact, she was rather indifferent to political issues. For Kim, election days were extra days off that allowed her to curl up with her favorite Japanese manga.

But then she started listening to “Naneun Ggomsuda” or “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep,” the controversial podcast that has caused a national sensation for its sharp satire of politics and the government, and she found herself wanting to know more.

“At first I thought it was a noisy and distracting program because the hosts kept talking as if nobody was listening to them,” said Kim, who works at a tax accounting firm in Gyeonggi. “But I was drawn into it because they talked about episodes behind the scenes of political issues that are not addressed by major broadcasters.”

The podcast, launched last April, is a talk show in which four liberals, including a former lawmaker and a foul-mouthed Internet celebrity, satirize and poke fun at the Lee Myung-bak administration and the ruling party. As a testament to its popularity, each episode of the program has been downloaded as many as 2 million times.

Although Jung Bong-ju, one of the podcast hosts, was sentenced to a year in jail late last month for spreading rumors about President Lee’s connection with a stock fraud case, the huge success of “Naneun Ggomsuda” has blurred the line between politics and everyday life for people like Kim.

“They talk about politics, but still it’s more entertaining than any other variety show out there,” Kim said. “I don’t believe everything they say, but it does get me thinking about the issues.”

She says it has also changed the way she thinks about the upcoming general and presidential elections.

“I’ll definitely find out more about the candidates and will pick the most eligible one regardless of his or her party affiliation,” she said.

The podcast has also given credence to existing satirical sketch comedies while inspiring new shows. There are about a dozen such shows now airing on broadcast and cable networks featuring satirical content.

Sketch comedies have been around for decades in Korea, even under the military regime in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But because of the turmoil the country experienced in its transition to democracy, the shows from that era dealt with big, ideological issues as opposed to the more everyday subjects the shows focus on now, according to Seo Su-min, a producer of “Gag Concert,” a popular KBS show. Then they fell out of favor and virtually disappeared.

“I feel like the sketch comedies of the ‘80s were more intense than they are now, though they kind of faded in the 2000s,” Seo said.

But now, as dissatisfaction with the government and income inequality grows, sketch comedies have reemerged as an outlet for the public’s anger.

“Gag Concert” is the most popular show of its kind, with the highest viewership in its time slot. The show’s two most popular skits, “Praying Mantis Kindergarten” and “Emergency Countermeasures Committee” pull no punches in poking fun at current events and the authorities.

“Praying Mantis Kindergarten” features a gang of kindergarteners and their teachers, with all smiling and talking in a high-pitched sing-song as they poke fun at the issues of the day.

In a sketch that aired last October, gag man Choi Hyo-jong played a vocational counselor who advised his students on how to become a member of the National Assembly.

“It’s very easy. During the campaign, all you have to do is just make one visit to an outdoor market, shake hands with a grandma and eat a bowl of soup there, although you normally don’t,” Choi said with his signature wide open eyes and exaggerated fake smile. “When making pledges, you just have to say you will build a bridge or open a subway station. Do you think that’s too much? It’s okay. You’re just mouthing empty words.”

The skit was popular with audiences but got Choi into trouble with Representative Kang Yong-seok, who sued him for defaming lawmakers en masse.

Kang, the lawmaker who was kicked out of the Grand National Party after he was convicted of defaming an entire profession for telling a group of student anchorwomen that they should provide sexual favors to advance their careers, eventually dropped the suit, but not before he had managed to shift the public eye away from his own legal troubles.

Another “Gag Concert” skit, “Emergency Countermeasures Committee,” lambastes bureaucracy with a cast of buffoonish officials who, faced with emergency situations, make outlandish excuses to avoid responsibility.

In one sketch, the officials get word that a bomb is going to explode at a major public event in one minute, but the officials are in no hurry to defuse it. They first make a fuss about the ceremonies, including a salute to the national flag, a special performance by taekwondo athletes and a greeting from the president, who always makes an appearance in the sketch. They talk about the situation, and what they might do, but nothing ever gets done and the ceremonies go on as the clock winds down.

Shows like “Gag Concert” have set the stage for a new crop of sketch comedies. Capitalizing on the boom, “Saturday Night Live Korea” was launched last month on cable channel tvN. The show, which aired through Jan. 21, was modeled after the popular U.S. series and was written and directed by renowned filmmaker Jang Jin.

“What differentiates SNL Korea from other sketch comedies is it is sharper and more bitter,” Jang, who started out as a comedy show writer, told reporters last November when the Korean version of the show was unveiled to the press.

“SNL Korea” also had the distinction of mentioning the names of politicians and other prominent figures - unlike other shows that only use initials or don’t mention names at all, primarily because of Korea’s strict defamation law.

“[Representative] Kang Yong-seok sued a comedian, but I’m not an employee of tvN, which means I don’t care if I’m sued,” Jang said at the time. “I’m ready to be kicked out with grace [if somebody sues me].”

A second season is planned for later this year.

Experts say that the rise of satirical comedies reveals a majority of Koreans are displeased with their government.

“The advent of satire is a telltale sign that people think their concerns are not properly understood by the government,” said Shin Yule, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Myeongji University. “That’s why I like to say that ‘Naneun Ggomsuda’ is a deformed creature produced by the Lee Myung-bak administration.”

Another expert sees the popularity of satire as a way-out for a depressed and enraged public.

“It is a sign that there is accumulated anger within society,” said Shin Kyung-ah, professor of sociology at Hallym University in Chuncheon, Gangwon.

“They want to share their complaints about politicians with others but they can’t find a place to vent their anger,” Shin said. “That’s where satirical comedies come in. Satire is one way for people to address unpleasant feelings about life and society.”

The events of the last year have certainly provided comedy writers with a gold mine of material. Skyrocketing college tuitions, high unemployment rates, the high cost of housing rentals, rising consumer prices and increasing household debt were just a few of the major issues that the shows tackled.

According to a study by Statistics Korea that was conducted last year, 45 percent of Koreans put themselves in the lower-class bracket, an increase of 2.9 percent from 2009. Of those surveyed, 58.7 percent said they didn’t think their status would improve even if they worked throughout their lives.

Amid these feelings of desperation, young people especially have used the shows as a way to take ownership of the political and social issues that the shows address.

“With these shows, young people no longer think of politics as something negative or difficult,” Shin said. “At this point, these shows seem to function as an ideal medium for introducing people to politics.”

Jang of “Saturday Night Live Korea” says he has a strong belief in the power of satirical comedy to alert people to issues behind the news that they might not otherwise question, as well as the power of the “SNL effect.”

“If the public is not aware of the wrongdoing committed by its political leaders, satire can raise awareness about such issues,” Jang said during a recent phone interview. “If corruption is not covered by the mainstream media, satirical comedies should do the work. It will also give politicians a chance to think about their mistakes.

“The show also exerts a strong influence on politics, and there is even a book in the U.S. describing the link between ‘Saturday Night Live’ and its impact on politicians’ wins and losses in elections,” Jang said. “That’s why I believe satirical comedies can change society for the better.”


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