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2024 SPRING

Online Comedy Takes Center Stage

When the curtain closed on TV comedy sketch shows, Korean comedians migrated to new media platforms. New, cutting-edge formats are now the mainstream, and through the worldwide reach of the internet they are able to reach global audiences.
Singer Jeon So-mi, far right, banters with The Psick Show hosts Jung Jae-hyun

Singer Jeon So-mi, far right, banters with The Psick Show hosts Jung Jae-hyung, Kim Min-su, and Lee Yong-ju (from left to right). Their YouTube channel Psick University has subscribers around the world.
ⓒ META COMEDY


To Lee Yong-ju, he and his two partners, Kim Min-su and Jung Jae-hyung, are not just longtime comedians; they are groundbreaking artists. “I see a connection between comedy and art, as both fields share numerous similarities. With time, new voices emerge. We are to the comedy genre what artists like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne were to the impressionist era.”

Lee, Kim, and Jung — Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne, respectively, in Lee’s analogy — are the creators of the YouTube channel Psick University. Comparing their stature to that of the renowned 19th century painters fits the comedians’ boisterous shtick. But there is no doubt they too are innovators; they have reinvented Korean comedy.


DAWN OF A NEW ERA

Before the rise of the internet, families gathered in front of their television sets every weekend night. Sketch shows such as Gag Concert, People Looking for a Laugh, and Gag Night dominated a golden age of broadcast TV comedy. But during the 2000s and 2010s, these shows lost their charm one after another. The decline culminated in June 2020 when Gag Concert, the last survivor, signed off.

Freed from rigid formulas of TV producers and programmers, comedians drifted to YouTube, where they could experiment with fewer constraints. While traditional TV comedy was confined to production stages, internet media platforms allow for modest studio set-ups and spontaneous entertainment in different locales. Gag Concert unexpectedly made a comeback in November 2023, but it remains to be seen if it can once again attract viewers in an environment that has drastically changed since the show’s heyday.

Psick University (pisik is an onomatopoeia for a giggle) is at the forefront of a new era. Initially, Lee, Kim, and Jung uploaded content that satirized the life of college students, exploring topics such as break-ups and final exams. However, the channel soon morphed into a contemporary style of sketch comedy. The trio’s breakout came in November 2022. Surprised by the high number of foreign viewers, the Psick University founders decided to a show geared to international audiences. In THE TALK, the comedians pretended to be global celebrities guests on a TV talk show. Adding an international touch, the interviews were primarily done in English by a foreign host.

The comedy trio exuded a confidence reminiscent of seasoned guests on Western talk shows. Their flamboyant style, audacious claim of being the “world’s best comedy group,” and deadpan sincerity expressed in intermittent bursts of Korean and broken English effortlessly gained more attention at home and abroad.

Beneath the comedic exterior laid a significant move — a hat thrown into the ring. THE TALK ambitiously aimed to generate a fresh wave of comedy in a format that blended spontaneity, charm, and a dash of delightful awkwardness. Soon THE TALK transformed into The Psick Show, with Lee, Kim, and Jung featuring as interviewers. As the free-wheeling show’s popularity soared, Korean and international stars began to appear, often becoming good-natured foils for the comedians’ antics and exaggeration.

The 80s Are Here depicts

The 80s Are Here depicts former college acquaintances now navigating life in their thirties. Viewers easily relate to the show’s presentation of everyday challenges.
ⓒ META COMEDY

Hansarang Hiking Club

Humor and gentle stereotyping have led to high viewership of Psick University’s Hansarang Hiking Club. The episodes highlight behavior and details commonly observed among ajeossi, or middle-aged men.
ⓒ META COMEDY

TAKING THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Psick University has amassed nearly 3 million subscribers. The channel is behind hit shows like Hansarang Hiking Club, The 80s Are Back, and Online Date. Another popular channel, Shortbox, is the creative force behind Long-term Relationships, a sketch comedy series known for its hyper-realistic style.

A notable collaboration between comedians Kwak Beom and Lee Chang-ho resulted in the creation of Bbangsongguk. Their innovative YouTube channel presented the duo Mad Monster, consisting of TAN and J.HO, by using an app to distort their faces. The production not only introduced alternative virtual characters but also gave rise to a distinct genre known as “worlds.” This immersion in virtual comedic realms, which captivated fans with imaginative settings, was then successfully monetized, not just through ad revenue sharing but also by selling merchandise featuring Mad Monster characters. By moving to an expansive platform like YouTube, Korean sketch comedy has found renewed vitality through novel subject matter and innovative styles.

YouTube channels with distinct brand identities have even joined forces under a single commercial enterprise, Meta Comedy Inc. Their consolidation into a cohesive entity aims to facilitate practical business ventures.

Any question that online comedy has a seat at the table of Korea’s entertainment establishment was dispelled last year, when The Psick Show was named the Best Entertainment Program in the TV category of the Baeksang Arts Awards. It was the first time that an online show was recognized by the prestigious awards, which honor excellence in film, TV, and theater in Korea.

“To be honest, we thought it was great that Baeksang was trying to transform itself by nominating us,” said Jung. “We were grateful just for the chance to attend the award ceremony.”

Mad Monster

Mock K-pop duo Mad Monster is the key element generating viewership for the YouTube channel Bbansongguk. It features comedians Kwak Beom (left) and Lee Chang-ho whose fake looks are d by filters in a camera app.
ⓒ META COMEDY

INTERNATIONAL APPEAL?

Can Korean comedy go even further and achieve global acclaim like K-pop and K-drama? Slapstick comedy, such as the performances of Charlie Chaplin or the iconic British sitcom Mr. Bean, has timeless, universal appeal. Comedic dialogue, on the other hand, is trickier because of differences in culture, history, and language. And yet, that has not stopped The Psick Show from standing out. Its appeal stems from the hosts’ broken English and over-the-top personas, as they engage with Korean stars such as RM from BTS and other global celebrities who play along with the hyperbole and silliness.

When movie actor Chris Pratt, one of the stars of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, and James Gunn, its director, came onto the show, they asked the hosts, “You guys are world famous, right?” and joked that being invited was the highlight of their life. French science fiction writer Bernard Werber, author of Empire of the Ants and The Day of the Ants, was asked to predict the future of “stock market ants,” a whimsical reference to individual investors in Korea.

Andre Rush, a former White House chef, military veteran, and host of the reality cooking show Kitchen Commando on YouTube, pretended to be a soldier being bullied in the Korean army and then a bullying U.S. officer. Walter Hong, a stand-up comedian from the United States, playfully chastised his hosts’ linguistic ability, declaring, “Your guys’s English sucks.” The putdown evolved into a delightful linguistic play as Yongju Lee humorously rendered “introduction” as “cow dog,” echoing the phonetics of the Korean word “sogae.” Hong then continued the word play with “cow crab,” which is pronounced the same way in Korean. Their clever banter effectively bridged the gap between Korean and English, showing how linguistic stumbles can help Korean comedy reach global audiences.



Jung Duk-hyun Pop culture critic

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