Friday, July 08, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 33: Humour/Humor, Satire and Ire

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


In retrospect, I can’t quite believe I got to make some of these points on the radio. I love humour - I'd much rather be watching an episode of Blackadder, Community, Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory or Better Off Ted [which inexplicably nobody watched] than Saw 6. In fact I consider my life to be one long extended joke. So I wanted to talk about the subject of humour, but I also thought it would be nice if the next generation of Koreans that largely make up the Busan eFM audience could learn to lighten up. They won't of course, life in Korea is often an extremely serious, depressing and stressful experience, and anything I say on air is a drop in the ocean - an ocean in which everyone has long since drowned. But you know what? Never give up. Never surrender.


Last week I talked about how the Expat Internet is hell. But foreigners can be funny too, and not just in a strange way. This week I’m covering expat humour in Korea.

What's so funny anyway?

Humour is a very funny thing. What one person finds amusing, another may not. Between foreigners, there’s a difference between British and American humour for example – even the words are spelt differently. I feel that British humour is more deadpan, darker, sometimes meaner, and more surreal. I think American humour is different, but still funny.

Babopalooza in Busan

I think there’s a huge difference between Korean humour and Western humour though. My first experience of this here came in the form of an expat comedy called ‘Babopalooza’ here in Busan back in 2006. It became quite a big issue in the foreign community.

This is my understanding of it: essentially a group put on a theatre performance which made fun of life in Korea. The targets for the humour were Koreans and Western foreigners. But one of the potential dangers with cultural comedy, especially here I think, is that Koreans only see Koreans being made fun of. In fact one of the co-writers actually said the ‘babo’ in Babopalooza were the foreigners. Anyway, apparently the police or immigration officials came to watch, and allegedly the upshot of it all was that people lost their jobs and had to leave Korea, while others had problems with visa renewals. So really, it was a comedy with a sad ending.

Babopalooza happened six weeks after I came to Korea for the first time. I appreciate that public comedy performances are really tough to pull off, but the reaction to the show made me think that however nicely people were treating me, beneath the surface this country might not be a very friendly place.

I’ve seen Korean performers on TV putting on ‘black faces’ [or masks] and pretending to be black or Africans. I guess that’s – apparently – OK here [it’s not], but you can’t do that in England because it would be racist. By our standards, that’s quite nasty – not funny at all – but it’s acceptable here, whereas Babopalooza was unacceptable.

So these examples made me think that Koreans can make fun of foreigners, but foreigners making fun of Koreans is unacceptable. I’m afraid that doesn’t create a good image of Korea or Koreans [some foreigners also lean towards the view that foreigners in Korea should keep their mouths shut and just do their jobs].

Anyway, while I gather there was a lot of creative energy here in Busan before Babopalooza, after what happened – for a while – foreigners were afraid to do any public performances. Busan wants to have art and culture to create a multicultural city, but it makes me think that what they want is the Korean version of multiculturalism, where everyone thinks like a Korean. [Bazinga!]

The Line

I don’t think Babopalooza went too far, but I’m not going to pretend that other expats haven’t crossed the line. Last year a foreigner started a blog [Blackout Korea] which others perhaps contributed to as well, that consisted of pictures of drunk, unconscious Koreans. I can see how that might seem funny for a couple of moments, but beyond that I don’t find it funny – instead it’s a rather sad reflection on all the pressures in Korean society which causes this.

Some drugs (like alcohol) [Korea likes to think of itself as ‘drug-free’ but that depends on your definition] are OK in moderation, but this kind of drug abuse seems a big problem in Korea, just like it is in my country – and it’s not funny there either. But obviously some foreigners found it funny, and this shows that the problem with humour is that it can easily be one-sided and insensitive, and that ultimately it can easily slip into racism. It doesn’t have to be like that though because I think there are better and genuinely funny blogs written by foreigners in Korea.

Humorous Expat Blogs... Or What Amuses Me

I’ll tell you how I feel about expat blogs here. There are the big name bloggers which everyone reads, and they’re churning out entries for their audience, but some of the lesser known blogs here such as Expat Hell and The Supplanter feature – to my mind – excellent writing which really attracts me, and they contain a lot of self-deprecating humour. I feel I make fun of myself quite often in my blog so I suppose I appreciate that style.

But then some of the expat blogs are written explicitly not as personal experiences of life in Korea, but more for the purpose of satire, which I find especially interesting.


The satirical blogs are different to the other expat blogs, which tend to cover daily life. Wikipedia defines satire as a format in which “vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.”

So people can find satire uncomfortable, and that was the problem with Babopalooza. In fact, the Wikipedia page on satire even mentions something that happened here in Korea to the foreign journalist Michael Breen, who wrote a satirical article in The Korea Times, which resulted in him being sued for $1 million by the chaebol he satirised [Samsung]. Mike Breen said the prosecutor in his case didn’t get his satirical article, telling him “It’s not funny if it’s not true.” [comment 24].

I gathered that apparently there’s no tradition of written satire in Korea, so writing satirical material can be a dangerous activity in Korea. And yet I think it’s important in today’s world because so many people are ignorant of the news. In fact, in America surveys show that presenters such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are the only way some people actually know what’s going on – even if it’s dressed up as satire.

The Yangpa, Dokdo Is Ours, and The Dokdo Times

I think the first satirical blog in Korea was The Yangpa, which presumably was inspired by the famous American satire site, The Onion. The Yangpa blog started before I came to Korea, and people talked about it back then but I must admit I rarely read it. The problem for me was highlighted by one early entry about a pop singer/actress who was guilty of plagiarism with her degree. When I first came here I didn’t understand enough about Korea to know who this was or why plagiarism was a good satirical subject, so the humour was lost on me. I think this illustrates why satire requires knowledge.

The Yangpa ended in 2008, then a site started called ‘Dokdo Is Ours’, and when the writer ended that last year, another new site started, this time called ‘The Dokdo Times’, which is essentially written in the style of a fake Korean newspaper. What I like about these sites is that they aren’t just aimed at satirising one group of people – but everyone, including foreigners. For example, the most popular ‘story’ on The Dokdo Times’ site is about a Korean woman who married a foreigner and then realised he’s actually an idiot. I think that’s something both Koreans and foreigners can relate to.

But What Do They Think?

I’m not sure what Koreans really make of this foreign humour. Despite what Mike Breen said about the prosecutor in his case, I believe from what I've read that some Koreans in Korea really find some of these satirical sites funny. [And at least one Korean comedian may be out there pushing the envelope as well]. They are a test of English as well – if you understand humour written in another language then you’ve really done well. Even when I’ve learnt Korean, I think it might still be some time before I understand Korean satire, assuming that exists.

‘Babopalooza’ was judged ‘not funny’ by the authorities, and sometimes Koreans get very angry at some foreign humour – either they don’t get it or the humour wasn’t funny in the first places and it just ended up being offensive. Comedy and satire can be very difficult things to pull off, especially in a foreign country.

Learning About Korea Through Humour

I’d say that I’m learning about Korea through humour. I read the Korean news but it’s easy to miss things or not really think about them deeply. For example, one of these recent satirical ‘news articles’ from The Dokdo Times detailed how people with three or more drunk driving convictions would be banned from working as bus and taxi drivers. It sounds like a joke but it’s actually really true, which to me is a serious issue which people should be thinking about more. Maybe if people did, the society we live in could become a better, more tolerant and less hypocritical place [or it might at least become safer].

Can Satire Change Attitudes in Korea?

I don’t know if satire can change attitudes in Korea though. Can anything change Korea? Recently I read that that Korea is the fifth ‘most socially tight’ country in the world [actually, the fifth among 33 countries surveyed, not that the Chosun Ilbo ever let a detail like that get in the way of a good headline], meaning there is a great deal of conformity here, and pressure to conform. Satire represents the opposite of conformity in many ways, because it points out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies in society. There’s nothing wrong with conforming if that’s what you want to do, but humour and satire are good ways of encouraging you to think for yourself too.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-06-08 @ ~19:30


Jake @ said...

I don't think that satire exists in Korea. I'm of the opinion that Korean gag shows and variety shows are only funny in Korea. For example, today I watched some gag-show where a camera crew was all standing around some dude's bed filming him as he slept, ticling him with feathers etc.. Flipped the channel after a few moments out of boredom. Flipped back more than 10 minutes later and the camera crew is still standing around this dude's bed, and the fake laughter audio track is playing over and over. I just don't get it. Never will.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I've just written a piece influenced by your post.

Anonymous said...

Referring to the gag shows, I actually think there is satire that exists. The popular gag show by KBS "Gag Concert" offer few corners like "Grasshopper Kindergarten--사마귀유치원" that satirize the "socially tight" country that Korea is. I also believe the show dedicated a whole episode to criticize a politician named Kang Yong Suk.

Mike said...

Yes, I'm aware of Gag Concert now from the controversy surrounding it late last year which was covered in the Korean news media. I look forward to the day I can understand it :-|

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