How to Make People Laugh in Korea

It’s kind of popular these days on the peninsula to be a comedian. While this is noticeable if you turn on the television, you do need to leave your home and find a venue in which comedians are doing their bestestest to force giggles and titters, with the occasional guffaw. Comedy is the in thing in terms of entertainment. Of course, like all performance types, it helps if you are actually good at it.

While I’m not the kind to point the finger with snide remarks on ability and taste, I do think that standards should be put in place, not necessarily by the venue but certainly by the spectator. Some will probably think I’m a snob. Why shouldn’t someone be able to get up on stage, challenge their inner-demons, and become the talent they have always harboured deep inside? Yes. Why shouldn’t they? Or, in fact the statement should really be how could they not?

The stage in Korea is an amazing space for discovering your talents. I would encourage anyone who believes they might be good at something on stage to get up on the stage and do it. Find out out for yourself, don’t wait to find out what could have been. If it doesn’t work the first time, it will work at some stage. I would always encourage anyone to go on the stage to release any anxiety about what is the point of anything, because once the crowd responds, answers are definitely a lot clearer.

While I’m at it,  let me set the record straight first. I am not a comedian. I do not aspire to be a comedian. It has been remarked that I am witty/funny/mad (in a good way). But, I have never intentionally stood on the stage to tell jokes and encourage people to enjoy the sound of my voice coupled with anecdotes and whatever else it is that causes a chortle,at least not as my main objective. I am a writer. I am a writer that really found my place on the stage. If it wasn’t for the stage I wouldn’t be a writer today. That is who I am.

In  terms of comedic expertise I suppose I have about as much as the next punter standing next to me in the same comedy venue. I’ve seen plenty of comedy on television, good and bad. I’ve gone to a few comedy clubs in my time. I’ve been to open mikes in Korea where comedians have come on stage and practised their jokes with the crowd with limited and considerable success. I have, based on these qualifications, the same amount of experience as anyone else to voice my criticisms about the standard and content of humour which I am about to dissect, such is the beauty of the internet that allows me to go about this.

I have beef with a category of humour in Korea. It’s not the annoying slapstick gag shows, it’s not the canned laughter when someone gets kimchi on their chin on another variety show, it’s not the funny dancing or celebrity whose jokes I don’t understand; in fact these things don’t bother me at all even though I watch/see them every day. Where my beef lies is with what I shall term English teacher humour. Yes, we have all heard it, seen it, and possibly repeated a few of the jokes. Maybe my little rant here is built on years of watching English teacher humour so I can now critique it with venom. Or maybe, all along I’ve known that, in all fairness, IT IS JUST NOT FUNNY.

There are many avenues that I can start from. But I will start from the famous dongshim.

A dongshim, for those of you that don’t know, is when a person creates a gun shape with their two hands (you know the kind when you’re playing cops and robbers or whatever and you’re in a shootout, and you’ve got to hold your gun with two hands so that the ricochet doesn’t effect your aim too much?), and then you scamper behind someone and proceed to inject your pistol up the arsehole (not always exposed) of an unsuspecting individual.


Caution! Arse injecting ahead!


This has happened to me. The first few times I was a little shocked but at the same time I wasn’t surprised it happened as I knew it was coming having heard the explanation from a few old hands in the trade. In all honesty, the kids who did it too me always did it kind of like a gesture of affection. We’d be having a laugh in class, joking around, maybe a little boisterous, and then as if it were the only obvious the realistic direction to take the hilarity, one of the endearing six year olds in my responsibility would run behind  me and stick his fingers in my arsehole.

Haha? Eh… where I come from, and I believe this is not limited to an Irish phenomenon, when a person, regardless of age, sticks their finger up your arsehole they usually expect something a little more than tug on the cheek and to be refferred to as a scallywag. I know that when people mention the word dongshim, there is always a little chortle (and some clown at the back always gives a yelp or whoohoo), but this doesn’t mean it’s funny, let alone acceptable.

If a six year old injects both forefingers and middle fingers up your arse, how can you laugh? There is nothing funny about a child sticking their finger in your arsehole. In fact, I find nothing remotely humorous about anything being playfully injected up my hole, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. So why do so many people insist on trying to make it sound funny? This should be the life changing event it sounds like. But, go to a waeg comedy event and there is no doubt that some comedian has this in their armoury. It’s not funny, never has been, never will be. When people start cracking funny jokes about Auscwhitz and Srebrenicia, then maybe I’ll allow another attempt at dongshim humour.

It’s true to say that many of the descriptions or anecdotes told by comedians fall under the category of it’s funny because it’s true. In fact, I love this category. But only when it’s funny. It is important that we understand the concept of funny. Not everything we laugh at is funny, not everything I laugh at is funny to everyone else, not everything I don’t laugh at isn’t funny. We all have different standards. However, it should be clarified what we can term as humour and what we can term as cute, or accidental, or idiotic. I suppose, if you word anything correctly you can make it sound funny and then some things are just funny. Let’s also not forget the concept of confusing funny with disturbing i.e. dongshim.

Of all the good comedy I’ve seen, and I haven’t seen a huge amount but I’ve seen a good bit, no comedian has ever started a joke or anecdote talking about their job and expecting everyone in the audience to understand what they’re talking about. So why should I be automatically be expected to understand the ins and outs of the daily life of a kindergarten teacher in Korea? In addition, why is your job funnier than mine? Also, why should  I give a fuck?

Yeah, I know talking about it makes you feel better, believe me I know, I’ve been there, I have earned those stripes. But wouldn’t it be better to save your hilarities for the staffroom? Or possibly start a blog. That way, people enjoying the beers can avoid listening to you or can promptly change the page as the case may be. Take this example as a perfect case of why I should not care or laugh about your life battling against the inconformity of an English only kindergarten in Korea.

Inallandanyways, back to my lament. So we’re sitting there, smiling politely at the jokes, not wishing too hard for a joke about ajummas or drinking too much soju to break the monotony, when up jumps a vociferous comedian, a lady – although this is incidental – who proceeds to go about her routine.

I can’t remember her exact words, but the point of her story was that little six-year old Andy or Danny or James, or whatever bastardised name has been forced upon him by the school (his parents or grand parents seemingly being not good enough to make this decision for him), was asked to spell ‘cotton candy’, which is candy floss for those of you who don’t know what it is. Little stereotyped English name, who obviously spotted the ideal opportunity for some mischief and to cause a stir, wrote down ‘cunt and candy’.

Haha? …Eh well yeah I suppose, but more titter + smirk + sigh = moving pleasantly onward. I’ve heard plenty of jokes like this, and none of them are funny. Why? Sure you can laugh at it but how is it funny (or completely shocking ) that a kid, who obviously has no concept of what a cunt is let alone the majority of the English language, wrote down phonetically what he heard ‘cuntancandy’. Perhaps he heard the ‘an’ bit and assumed it meant ‘and’. Smart kid.

In this case, it’s not necessary to make a photocopy and bring it into the bar to show everyone to prove the hilarity of your anecdote, nor is it necessary to even tell the people who have come to listen to jokes. A kid misspelling like that is cute, not funny. Cute. As in, awww look at his little nose and dimples, and he still can’t speak Korean properly, let alone English, but he actually spelled an offensive word (to some). How cute. Awww. Glad he is still learning.

The fact that he spelled cunt and not cont or kont is convenient. Sure enough you can laugh and explain that this is not what you said. Now maybe if you asked to kid to spell ‘apple’ and he turned around and wrote ‘pussy flaps and cream’ that would be worth a moment. To further my point, could you imagine if I pile of accountants piled into an open-mike comedy night and started telling jokes about miscalculating a hedge fund? Painful isn’t it? Well, that’s how it feels; a fucking ledger mistake.

Harsh? Hardly.

Before everyone hates me, I want to conclude with one more piece of critique. Unfortunately this will seem to be levelled at one particular person, but in fact it is again directed towards the culture of English teacher humour.

When I came back to Korea a almost a year ago I was pleased to see that there was a regular comic strip on life in Korea as a foreigner, and in particular an English teacher. I also noticed that it had been running regularly in a number of publications, including Groove, where I’ve also had material printed, the Korea Herald and a number of other websites detailing the ins and outs of life as a dirty blooded English teacher in Korea.This series of comics is of course ROKetship

For starters, let me just say well done to the lad for doing so well and getting put out there. It’s not hard to find publicity, and it seems that he worked hard to get the praise he achieved. This was definitely a market that needed to be explored, and it was one that he cornered quite successfully.

As many of comments noted on the website and elsewhere, the series has definitely shown what life is like in Korea. Sure, it has. But is it worth noting that these are all observations from years ago and that there’s nothing really new noted in these cartoons?

Personally, I didn’t find the humour in them that perceptive. It was pretty ordinary observations that I’ve been hearing since 2005. Also, the longer it seemed to run the less effort the cartoonist seemed to be putting into his drawings, just taking the easy way out and not really trying to find something witty to share with us. I found many of the cartoons a little elitist in the sense that they criticised Koreans for doing things the way they do. But most important, I thought it was a little tame but maybe that’s just a question of taste. Which is fine. Any artist is entitled to an opinion, as I am entitled to mine. These things, I honestly don’t care so much about.

Where I’m boiling over with rage is with the suggestions from a couple of avenues as to the quality of it.

I read a review (maybe it was 10 – where I’ve also had stuff printed) that implied that if I laughed so much then I was such and such a category of foreigner in Korea… which is proper bullshit. Perhaps because if I don’t have an imagination then I would fall into some of these categories. Who is it that decides how funny something is? Are we that starved of humour here in Korea that we have to roll over sides splitting with canned laughter at the first reasonable attempt to tell a few jokes about the lives of many waegs in Korea?

The second piece I have problems with is the May issue of Groove magazine. The author is listed as a ‘gamechanger’, which is what one would describe as a person who changes the role of play in a given situation. Yet, I struggle to understand the concept of changing the field of play only to allow it to revert back to the same situation it was in after leaving the country when you’ve essentially had your fill of what it is that made your ego so substantial in the first place. While I don’t doubt that this was the writer’s intention all the time, the media shouldn’t report on old news, such as the fact that this ‘gamechanger’ will pack up their pieces and cash in their chips not more than three months later.

To be honest, this is one thing that really pisses me off, and it is not the first time that I have encountered this phenomenon; someone comes here, takes up my time singing songs of greatness, and then packs up their bags leaves with the suggestion that their talents are far to great for Korea. The list of people who fit this category is long.

Regardless of where you are in the world and what you want to do, why do people just forget about Korea as soon as they get what they want from the community? I’ve seen so many people come for a year or two, get something done, but at the same time create something dear and loved by many of the people who live here, realise the self importance of themselves only to end it in a whole pile of ceremony, leaving the impression that they are going forever and that their departure should be mourned.

I’m usually happy when a person benefits from their time in South Korea, and Mr. Martin I’m happy for you too, as I don’t really like your ROKetship cartoon but I did enjoy your Rules of Engagement strip, at least from what I saw of it, I hope that you can go on to greater things and always look back on Korea as a place that really helped you, which I’m sure you will.

But for all of you funny, musical, literary people out there who leave Korea because your time is up – your time is up. Literally. Your own importance only ever goes as far as the nearest waegook who recognises you. Your experience here counts for nothing, nothing, unless you are willing to risk it all on the other side, rather than just slip back kindly into the world where people who worked hard all their life on the things you’ve always wanted to do, instead you were off working on your drinking problem in Korea. Believe me I know. I have the t-shirt.

I’m trying to lose the t-shirt though.

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