Pioneering comedian Johnny Yune dies at 84: After finding success in the U.S., he brought a new form to Korea
“He was always humorous, even in his daily life,” veteran singer Cho Young-nam told the JoongAng Ilbo after hearing the news of Yune’s death. Cho was the co-M.C. of “The Johnny Yune Show,” which began in 1989.
Yune, whose Korean name was Yune Jong-seung, was born in 1936 in Eumseong County, North Chungcheong. He began his entertainment career in 1959 in Korea but flew to the United States to study vocal music at Wesleyan University on a Navy scholarship and then settled down there. His comedy career kicked off on the streets of New York City in 1964, where he mastered the art of stand-up at a cafe called Tel Aviv. He was loved by audiences for his quick wit, easygoing manner and ability to take sexist and racist remarks and flip them into jokes.
In 1989, he kicked off his career in Korea. When “The Johnny Yune Show” premiered on KBS, audiences unfamiliar with the light-hearted casual talk format found it refreshing. His jokes were beyond what Korean people thought they could see on television, which unfortunately proved to be detrimental, and the show was canceled just a year after it premiered, during the military dictatorship.
“There wasn’t freedom of expression, and television broadcasters had a lot of limitations,” he said during an appearance on KBS in 2011. “Even if we filmed like crazy, much of it would get edited out. I liked political and sexy jokes, but they were restricted a lot.”
According to Cho, Yune’s sense of humor was not just for show.
“His efforts went beyond the serious Korean atmosphere - it was revolutionary,” Cho said. “Unlike Korea, you can joke about anything in America. And he’s the person who imported that to Korea. I watched him by his side, and I was amazed at how he could humorously touch on social issues.”
Cho eventually hosted his own program, the “Cho Young Nam Show,” but he said that he could never match Yune.
“A talk show has to capture the everyday conversations that people have on camera. It was difficult to mimic his flirty, yet smooth lines.”
Later, Yune hosted more shows, such as SBS’s “Johnny Yune, Story Show,” iTV’s talk show “Johnny Yune’s What’s Up,” KBS’s “Comedy Club” and SBS Golf Channel’s “Johnny Yune’s Single.”
He was appointed an auditor for the Korea Tourism Organization in 2014 and served for two years.
He fell due to a brain bleed in 2016 and was treated for five months in Korea. He flew back to the United States to live with his ex-wife Julia Lee and undergo treatment there.
“I hope people remember me as someone who lived a happy, funny life,” he said during an appearance on TV Chosun in 2017. His body will be donated to the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, in accordance with his wishes.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]