Comedy pioneer remains focused on giving back
The fact that there were no other women doing her job didn’t deter Lee Sung-mi when she debuted as a comedian 40 years ago.
After a 40-year career, Lee Sung-mi hopes to help boost new talent
“I had no time to be lonely. There were comedians all around me who wanted me to do well and find a place as a female comedian in an age when we were sparse,” Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, last month.
Marking her 40th anniversary as a comedian, Lee spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo about the highs and lows of her 61 years — of being raised by stepmothers, having a child out of wedlock, falling in love again, raising three children, being diagnosed with cancer and sponsoring over 40 children abroad — and how she was able to find humor in it all.
Lee made her debut in 1980, when she got a job at Tongyang Broadcasting Company (TBC), which existed from 1964 to 1980. TBC was Korea’s first private broadcasting company, and it was operated by the JoongAng Ilbo. It merged with KBS in 1980.
“That was the second year TBC conducted a round of auditions and interviews to recruit comedians,” Lee recalled. “In the first year, the company recruited comedians like Seo Sae-won and Eom Yong-soo. The second year’s class was made up of me, Jang Doo-seok, Kim Hyung-gon, Lee Ha-won, Cho Jung-hyun and Kim Eun-woo.”
She was the only woman, making her the first female comedian to be recruited by a local television network.
“Things really took off when I was in my 20s,” Lee said. “While I may have been one of few female comedians at the time, I had great colleagues like Lee Hong-ryul, Lim Ha-ryong, Joo Byung-jin and Jeon Yoo-seong, who were doing great as comedians, ready to help me grow.”
It is something that Lee is hoping to do more herself, now that she is considered a veteran comedian.
“Comedy programs have changed over the years, and there are actually less opportunities for younger comedians to thrive today,” Lee said. “I know that I couldn’t have survived some of my darkest hours in life without the help of more experienced comedians. Because I have been on the receiving end before, I want to give back to the next generation.”
When Lee speaks of her darkest hours in life, which she has done before during interviews, she alludes to several moments in her life.
Lee had her first child out of wedlock in 1989. It was a year after she had tried to end her life when her father, who was 61 years old at the time, “strongly opposed her plan to get married,” according to an article published in the Dong-A Ilbo on April 11, 1988.
At the time, Lee was dating a singer named Kim Hak-rae.
The marriage never came to be. But Lee gave birth the next year to her first child. She married her current husband Cho Dae-won in 1993. Cho was a reporter at the time, and the two met during an interview.
Today, Lee is the mother of three children.
But outside of Korea, Lee has 41 more children who call her mother.
“I started sponsoring children because I was looking for something good to do in the world,” Lee recalled. Lee sponsors the children through Compassion International.
She went to see some of them in the Philippines last year, which was also the year that she turned 60, an age that calls for grand birthday celebrations in Korea, if one keeps to the traditional practice that has been around for several generations.
“They surprised me by baking a cake and singing a song for me,” she said. “The joy I experienced as I stood there surrounded by these children, I cannot describe it. I knew that I had made a good decision when I decided to sponsor them before my life here ends.”
Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. She has since then undergone multiple surgeries and therapies.
“My first thoughts when I was diagnosed were my children,” she said. “I had lost my [first step-] mother to cancer when I was 12. I knew what that experience was like, and I didn’t want my own children to have to go through the same thing.”
Lee was raised by three stepmothers. Her first stepmother passed away when she was 12 due to uterine cancer. Lee still keeps her pearl necklace, which she brought to the interview, and she considers it her most treasured belonging.
“I still miss her,” Lee said. “Our time here on earth is limited, and there’s just not enough time to love.”
With the time granted to her from here onward, Lee said she wants to be useful for the next generation of comedians.
“I’m trying to invent opportunities for young and budding comedians,” she said. “You’ve got to keep trying. If you are alive today, that’s reason enough to keep plugging through.”
BY KANG HYE-RAN, ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
40년차 개그우먼 이성미, 필리핀서 환갑잔치상 받은 사연
“1980년에 TBC 공채 2기로 데뷔했으니 올해가 만 40년이네요. 1기에 서세원·엄용수 선배님이 계셨고, 2기 동기가 장두석, 고 김형곤, 이하원, 조정현, 김은우 등등이죠. 코미디언 중에 여자 선배들이 더러 있었지만, 공채 개그우먼은 방송사 통틀어서 제가 1호예요.”
희미한 잔주름만이 지난 세월을 느끼게 할 뿐, 카랑카랑한 목소리는 ‘딱따구리’로 불리던 시절 그대로다. 지난해 환갑이었다는 게 믿기지 않는다. 요즘이야 ‘밥블레스유’(올리브TV)처럼 ‘언니’들끼리 뭉친 프로그램도 흔하지만, 이성미(61)는 40년 전 없던 길을 내서 걸어온 개그우먼이다. 서울예대 방송연예과 시절, 동급생 김은우가 이성미의 ‘끼’를 알아보고 제안해 개그콘테스트에서 함께 대상을 탔다고 한다.
“여자는 저 하나였지만 외로운지도 몰랐어요. 이홍렬·임하룡·주병진·전유성 같은 선배들이 워낙 이뻐하고 챙겨주셨거든요. 20대 땐 날아다니다시피 일했죠.”
TBC를 시작으로 MBC·KBS가 잇따라 개그콘테스트를 도입하면서 기존 코미디와 다른, 톡톡 튀는 입담 위주 개그가 새 주류로 자리 잡았다. 특히 이성미는 대화의 흐름을 비트는 ‘반전’ 유머에 능했다. 한 중견 코미디작가는 “이성미는 SBS ‘코미디 전망대’ 같은 프로에서 촌철살인 코멘트로 흐름을 요리했다”고 돌아봤다. “대인관계가 좋고 센스가 뛰어나야 가능한 재주”란다.
자녀들 유학으로 7년(2002~2009) 공백을 뒀음에도, MC·패널로 왕성하게 활동하는 것도 이 덕분 아닐까. 40주년 행사 계획을 물었을 땐 손사래를 치며 “후배들에게 민폐”라고 했다. “선배가 될수록 지갑을 열고 입은 닫아야죠. 사실 캐나다 생활하고 돌아오니 방송에서 공개코미디 하려는 PD도 별로 없고 후배 개그맨들이 설 자리가 많지 않아요. 선배로서 해줄 게 없나 고민이에요.”
지난해 환갑 땐 국제어린이양육기구 ‘컴패션’의 필리핀 마닐라 어린이센터에 동료 연예인들과 3박4일 방문했다. 컴패션 후원은 2009년 가수 션을 따라 시작했다. 그의 후원 숫자 10분의 1만 하자고 한 게 어느새 41명까지 늘었다.
“생각지도 못했는데 아이들이 ‘해피 버스데이~’ 하면서 케이크를 들고 나타났어요. 죽기 전 한 일 중에 정말 잘했다는 생각이 들고…. 코로나19에 그 아이들이 무사한지 걱정돼요.”
전 세계 극빈 가정 어린이들에게 ‘또 하나의 엄마’가 돼주는 이유는 그 자신이 어려운 시절을 겪어서다. 홀아버지 슬하의 ‘소녀가장’으로 일하던 때도,1980년대 말 결혼이 불발되고 아들을 홀로 출산했을 때도 주변 도움으로 버틸 수 있었단다. “먹고 살려고 악착같이 일할 때 이끌어준 분들이 많았어요. 그때부터 생각했어요. 돌려줘야지. 더 어려운 다른 사람에게 나눠줘야지….”
위계가 엄격하고 ‘군기’ 세기로 유명한 개그맨들 안에서도 이성미는 ‘무서운 선배’로 소문난 편. 스스로는 “무섭다기보다 엄한 선배”라고 말했다.
“내가 그렇게 살아서였겠죠. 스스로 엄하지 않으면 해이해지기 쉬웠는데, 허투루 보낼 시간이 없었어요. 좀 떴다고 ‘먹고 놀자’ 했다가 스러진 사람들 많이 봤어요.”
암수술 등 위기를 겪고 60대가 되니 이제야 “지나온 세월이 감사하고 소중한 걸 알겠다”고 했다.
조만간 유튜브도 시작할 계획이다. 다만 “일없는 후배들에게 도움이 되는 방식”을 연구 중이라고. “우리 나이에도 새로운 걸 해야죠. 도전이 없는 것은 정신적으로 죽어가는 거예요. 도태되지 않도록, 건강한 경쟁을 계속해보겠습니다.”