More on Humor: A Western Theoretical Take on Korean Humor

SmileyRegular readers know that I have puzzled over the lack of translated Korean humor in the past, attempting to determine what the reasons for it might be (as in here where I talk about examples of it and here where I discuss why it might be difficult to translate).

The one thing I have not discussed, because it turns to tend into a thicket of accusations of orientalization and cultural imperialism, is whether or not there is a “different” Korean sense of humor (“The Korean sense of humor is often very direct”) or, as some posit it, (NOTE- LINK ROT, OR A NOTEABLE LACK OF SENSE OF HUMOR HAS TAKEN THIS LINK DOWN) a lack of sense of humor based on Korean cultural constructs. Obviously, this kind of claim is just as fraught with danger as the claim that Koreans are culturally incapable on taking criticism (or giving it properly) based on the Confucian nature of Korean society (an issue Ask A Korean takes on here).

And yet, there clearly are cultural differences, from the reaction to parody and satire (see the official reaction to 나는꼼수다 for one example) to the rather obvious implications of social structure and self-conception differences that are largely accepted by sociologists (These two graphics from Chinese-born German designer Yang Liu):

The Importance of Being Me

How We Live Today

So, if we carefully step a toe into this minefield, what better way to deflect any possible criticism than to examine the stances others have taken?^^

The first cut is by R. H. Blyth who, perhaps unfortunately, begins by titling his rather hefty work, “Oriental Humor.” A secondary problem is that in a book addressing China, Korea, and Japan (you know, the “Orient!”), Korea gets fewer than 40 pages in a book that nearly stretches to 400.

Early evidence, perhaps, that the Koreans just aren’t that funny? (I keeed, I keeeeed!)

Actually, Blyth apologizes for the paucity of his Korean coverage, a paucity that seems odd when in the introduction he reveals that he lived in Korea for 14 years.

Blyth begins by discussing the Korean character, an approach that might seem a bit exceptionalist except, well, that Koreans themselves insist on this character exceptionalism (han, nunchi, kibun, homogeniety, etc.) so it seems like a good place to start. Blyth, in general, identifies cultural characteristics in terms of opposites, and for Korea he identifies these as vehemence and placidity, which seems like a reasonable take on a self-described “tin pot” culture. This plays out as humor that

lies in the collision between the violence of their desires and the cold, immovable facts of life. The Koreans are hardly capable of the loftiest, philosophical, super-natural humour; where they score is in their feelings of the common life of men and women and tigers and dogs and bed-bugs. (166)

This certainly seems accurate from the translated side of the literature, although that doesn’t prove much; certainly the lofty and super-natural would be much harder to to translate than the more prosaic humor of bedpans upended on heads. And yet, Blyth notes, even that kind of humor is oddly missing. Blyth mentions the extreme structure of Korean society, from the effects of social inflexibility to the extremely mannered nature of the language. In Korean humour this apparently did not result in the kind of humor in which circumstances are reversed, or the mighty are brought to a fall. This does not mean that coarseness is absent, in fact Blythe claims that most humorous proverbs in Korea have come from China and been made more prosaic and earthly by the Korean. Unfortunately, Blyth intentionally excludes the most “outspoken” of the proverbs, so it is difficult to judge his claim. This claim pops up again when Blyth moves to Korean short stories, with Blyth claiming, a great many Korean stories, and some of the best, are not printable..”(183) One or two stories related to sex pass through Blyth’s internal censor, and they are amusing.

Blyth makes several other claims I will pass over quickly

  • The stupidity of women is more interesting (to men) thatn the folly of men and thus there are more stories focused on the folly of men than on that of women.
  • Koreans have an inordinate interest in defecation.
  • Many stories focus on fanciful explanations of common things, such as the story of why men have two testicles (basically, an amusing metaphor that argues it is one testicle for each hand of a human)
  • Koreans are (were, as I type this) extremely interested in vermin (the actual bugs, not the idea)
  • There are many stories of clever children.

And with that, Blyth leaves Korean humor.

I should note that Blyth has a habit of saying the most alarming things in a deadpan fashion: “The Koreans, like the Japanese, cannot or rather will not think”; “There is no Korean, as there is no Japanese philosophy.”

This tendency makes it easier, for a skeptical reader, to believe that Blyth is looking at “Oriental” humour through his own particular and Orientalist take on the cultures.

Still, Blyth does present an interesting take on Korean humor, and one that I will shortly contrast with a more native take on the same issues from Humor in Korean Literature from the Korean Culture Series I.

Finally, I leave with a quote from Bruce Fulton (from the Seattle Times), that explains one of the additional institutional problems with the translation of Korean Humor

Korean writers are expected to be “cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” Bruce says. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.”



17 thoughts on “More on Humor: A Western Theoretical Take on Korean Humor

  1. My observations of Korean humour were sullied by turning on my TV and seeing those awful, awful shows where nothing is considered funny unless accompanied by a ridiculous noise and some flashing lights. But then again, a Korean person could point out numerous equally dumb Western shows.

    In terms of my friends and acquaintances, they were certainly less frequent with the jokes than their Western counterparts, but the humour was usually similar, only without the vulgarity. Maybe it’s to do with the language, or them saying what they expected a foreigner to find funny. My last boss had spent a couple of years in America and was a really funny guy, always cracking jokes in both languages.

    Then again, the best -and most common- joke I heard in Korea was, “Your face was ‘made in China’!”

  2. I’ll watch Gag Concert in my second language before watching SNL in my native language. Gag Concert is incredibly funny.

  3. On the point:

    “if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.”

    that is an issue that faces all literateurs.

    Comedy writers in the UK, US, France, Germany are always viewed as ‘low-brow” while dramatic writers are viewed as “high-brow” or “more serious”

    However, that has not deterred comedy writers.

    Moreover, comedy writing is often more lucrative.

    People want escapism, and comedy provides that in ways that a tragedy never can.

    Surely, average ROK adults like to laugh more than they like to cry?

    And, if so, then writing comedy has to be more marketable than a tragedy.

    Years ago, I lived with a DPRK roommate, and he loved to laugh and tell jokes. Usually on earthy themes, but still jokes.

  4. David.. I would think that would sting more if it were “your face is made in Gangnam” (or Apgujeong)^^

    Charles .. the chick lit here is derivative and relatively non-sexualized and would not do well in translation..

  5. I think sense of humor and comedy are quite different, although they do inform each other. Comedy in the UK and the US is different, for example, but this is largely to do with cultural differences — US shows have longer seasons, far more writers and more restrictions on content, for example.
    And context. A lot of British comedy is about class, so the same thing might not work in the context of the US where the class system is different. Stewart Lee points out here ( that when Joe Pasquale stealing someone else’s joke it ceased to work. He and Eddie Izzard have also said that doing shows in German is difficult because the grammar changes the word order and so a lot of the jokes simply don’t work. I think both these factors would be quite relevant to Korea.
    It seems to me that there are two main strands that are very common in Korea — slapstick and people arguing. Doing things shambolicly is one specific form of slapstick that seems to do very well.
    One thing I have noticed is a tendency (at least in films and comedy) to switch genres rather suddenly. Films like “Nabi” switch between serious violence and slapstick. I’ve seen one comedy film in which a woman is beaten so badly she miscarries.
    High Kick’s second series (the only one I watched a lot of) never got so dark, but would veer between slapstick and serious social issues with a good dose of heavy sentimentalism laid on. It also has a tragic ending. That would be exceptional in the West, but it seems almost the norm here. Perhaps this is because of what Bruce Fulton was talking about with seriousness.
    Koreans can do quite off-beat stuff, like “Ha Ha Ha” and “Chaw,” but examples seem few and far between.

  6. “I’ve seen one comedy film in which a woman is beaten so badly she miscarries.”


    That is comedy in Korea?

    If ROK comedy consists of torture, dismemberment or misogyny, then it will not be viewed as funny elsewhere.

    I saw in Morocco a comedy act in which a man swung a cat by its tail into a wall, knocking it unconscious.

    That did not strike me as actually at all funny either.

    It does though say something rather damning about ROK culture.

  7. Oh no, you misunderstand me. It wasn’t supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be tragic and disturbing, but it was IN a comedy movie.
    It’s not normal in the West to see scenes of disturbing violence like that in the middle of a comedy. There is violence, obviously. People die sometimes, for example, but the tragedy of death is not usually dwelt on, nor its grim and dismal reality.

  8. It still strikes me that if in a comedy film there are such disturbing and tragic elements, then either the film is not truly a comedy, or that there is a schizophrenic quality to ROK comedy.

    In the West, for example, children’s culture powerfully affects comedy, and indeed many prominent comedies are tied to children’s works.

    There is of course, also adult comedy, often focusing obviously on the scatological, sexual, blasphemous or violent, but the goal is to be light-hearted.

    If ROK literature — popular literature — has no light-heartedness, and is all focused on death, pain, and suffering, then that to says something damning about its culture.

    Chinese, for example, are replete with light-hearted works, whether in China, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.

    Japan has light-hearted works of literature as well.

    If ROK culture has no lightness, that would seem to be evidence of a terrible cultural poverty in a country with no explanation for such poverty.

    One might understand why DPRK literature would be grim – life is not so separated from death in DPRK.

    But I recall from my DPRK roommate that DPRK literature (like that of most Communist dictatorships) had a distinct emphasis on comedy when not extolling heroic soldiers/workers/peasants/etc.

    ROK is extremely wealthy, and with a tremendous cultural vibrancy that extends back for thousands of years.

    What could be the reasons for such a grim literature?

  9. Well, I can’t really offer much to this thread. However, I have read some Korean stories I thought were hilarious, For example, there are lines from Lee Oisu that I think are hilarious. I guess I would associate Lee Oisu’s humor with British humor. His humor involves understatement. In fact, he writes long combinations of double negatives. The humor is really difficult to render in English, as it is hard to construct a long tortured sentence replete with many negatives, of the Douglas Adams kind —
    “She was the least remarkably unintelligent person I had the profound lack of pleasure of avoiding meeting.” (probably sic!)
    In 언젠가는 다시 만나리, a short story from the 1970s, the reticent chain-smoking narrator’s observations are put forth in this way. And yes, I laughed out loud. Part of the humor is picturing such a self-effacing minimalist stringing his doleful thoughts together. The sentence I recall in particular did involve going to a urinal.

  10. sorry, perhaps the Douglas Adams quote goes: “She was the least unintelligent person I had the profound lack of pleasure of being unable to avoid meeting”

    Neither here nor there

  11. Please delete my posts above. I haven’t fact-checked them and I don’t want them to be published. Thank you.

  12. Carrie,
    Glad I saw them before they were deleted (assuming they will be). I really liked the non-fact-checked quotation. Even if only roughly accurate, it makes me want want to read the story.

  13. reminds me of a favorite of mine:

    When I was walking up the stairs
    I met a man who wasn’t there
    He wasn’t there again today
    Oh how I wish he’d go away.

    But I don’t agree Western comedy always has a light hearted goal. Johnny Vegas had a show that was ultimately tragic. Four Lions is light hearted in places but has a very sobering ending. Man Bites Dog is a comedy that works by using sharp dialogue and black humour to make you laugh before horrifying you with what you just laughed at. But these movies have the same kind of audience as Hong Sang-soo — it’s not mainstream — and the darker areas fit into the comedy as a cogent whole.

  14. For the ones who are shocked to hear there is violence in Korean humor (and possibly think western humor is less insane) – take a good look at Tom and Jerry. Lots of violence. And it’s even for children and it’s not even considered as dark humor.

    The humor that I’m seeing in Korea does not contain much violence, but I agree they have a very unique skill to efficiently combine humor with tragedy, making the consumer laugh when they’re supposed to laugh and cry when they should cry. Take a look at Welcome to Dongmakgol.

    Gag Concert is a nice stand-up commedians’ show, which shows really various kinds of humor and jokes. Really various. Some are just not funny to me, some are nice and entertaining, but none is so extreme.

    So, what I’ve noticed is they basically like to make fun of the “litte big” defects of regular people, the stereotypes, the media, some social and political issue and the actual happenings (ex.: the Apple vs. Samsung conflict). They also like jokes about toilette and farting, but that’s mostly amongst friends, rather than the media.

  15. LOL… I’ll take your Tom and Jerry and raise you Itchy and Scratchy!

    I will take a look at Welcome to Dongmakgol – I’ve visited the site on which it was shot (ironic word), but have not seen it.

    Gag Concert (which I must say I largely don’t understand) appears to me incredibly stupid, but then so does most TV, as I am an insufferable snob!^^

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