On December 16, 2006, an eye-catching comedy skit in which the performers sang edited adult-rated lyrics was broadcasted late night on a televistion channel in the U.S.: “A gift real special, so take off the top. Take a look inside. It's my dick in a box...” Viewers in Korea who watched this clip without any prior knowledge of the show might have been shocked and wondered how such language can be aired on public TV. What is more surprising is that Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg, famous performers in the U.S., were the ones who were singing this preposterous song. They did so while dancing with a small box covering their lower region to imply that they actually had their mentioned body parts in the box.
The name of the television program is Saturday Night Live(SNL), which is currently in its 38th season. The show was first aired on October 11, 1975 and includes comedy sketches that have been called crude, offensive, and vulgar, to name a few, by a myriad of critics over the years. The program pokes fun at various aspects of culture and politics in the U.S. by satirizing the characteristics of the things they attack. SNL was recently introduced in Korea and soon became popularly known as SNL Korea. One of the reasons for the growing interest in the show is because there had previously never been any programs that so blatantly satirize Korean politics or culture as SNL Korea does.
There is also I am a Ggomsu, an Internet podcast program which had strongly criticized the political landscape and prominent figures in 2011 to 2012. As a result, the number of political programs like SNL Korea has been increasing more than ever in Korea. This indicates how Korea’s political culture, especially in mass media, is changing.
History Makes Cultural Differences
Satire has been an effective and influential way to criticize high society individuals by people from all walks of life. Don Quixote, for example, is a novel which exposes the hypocrisy of the upper class in the Middle Ages by presenting an insane character who imitates absurd customs and traditions of the knight class.
Such methods are still valid today. In U.S., satire is commonly used in the media and even in casual conversations. In fact, news satire has been prevalent on television programs in the U.S. since the 1960s. Today, comedians such as American Stephen Colbert are known for their biting wit and intelligence. In fact at an official dinner, Colbert ridiculed former U.S. President George W. Bush who was seated next to the comedian. Among other things, Colbert mentioned the former president’s approval rating saying that he needn’t be discouraged about how low it was, standing at 32 percent[President Bush’s approval rating at that time] because it meant that metaphorically, the glass wasn’t half empty but just two-thirds empty. Such a direct remark would never be allowed in Korea, considering the prevailing conservative atmosphere.
Experts say the differences in satire culture can be explained in terms of the existence of democracy. Ryoo Woong-jae, a Professor in the Major in Journalism and Mass Communication at Hanyang University said, “Western countries fought for liberty for ages. They attained democracy faster than the existing Eastern countries which had had a very strict hierarchical structure.” He added, “For hundreds of years, Western countries fiercely fought for their values of democracy and gradually attained their right to voice their opinions. However, it was not until the 1980s that real democracy was realized in Korea. As a result, people in Korea relatively had a little chance to recognize their right to their own voice.”
Is It Satire or Mere Mockery?
People are affected by various environmental factors surrounding them and those elements often determine their behavior patterns. Such set behavior patterns are called “habitus”. Even though “habitus” exists, those who are unaccustomed to exercising their right to free speech, like Koreans, may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with political satire and thus easily offended.
There are still many people who regard political satire as negative despite the recent rise in public awareness and interest in politics. A Hanyangian who wanted to remain anonymous said, “I have come to believe that political satire programs represent mere mockery, and not real satire, especially after I watched the skit Yeouido Teletubbies on SNL Korea. Although politicians sometimes disappoint us, they are the ones who represent us and our society. I think these days the excessive mocking of politicians and even the president is not a good thing.”
Moreover, many are concerned that political satire programs are biased and reflect only the perspectives of the producers. According to a survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal(The HJ)’s survey, 22.7 percent of the respondents who thought negatively about political satire programs answered that they thought those shows merely reflect the views of the producers. Accordingly, the contents of such programs often appeared to be too partial to some people.
The Catalyst Which Makes People Become More Involved
On the other hand, there is a larger number of people who view political satire programs as positive. According to The HJ’s survey, 52.2 percent of the respondents answered that they thought positively about news satire.
In one Yeouido Teletubbies episode, the character MB, who represents the former President, Lee Myung-bak, drinks from a cup of green liquid named “green tide latte” and immediately spits out the contents. “Green tide latte” is a combination of the words, “green tea latte” and “green tide”. MB’s reaction was meant to mock one of former President Lee’s biggest projects, The Four Rivers Project, which has resulted in the development of high concentrations of algae in some of the affected rivers.
For proponents, satire represents what ordinary people really want to talk about and daringly brings to the forefront some sensitive issues which are hard air through regular public TV programs. Ahn Sang-hwi, Chief Producer of SNL Korea, stated that, “SNL Korea acts as an outlet for people helping them to resolve their dissatisfaction with society. By ridiculing the image of famous figures, audiences are greatly entertained.”
News satire can also be helpful to those who have been reluctant to consider political issues before because they thought the topics to be too complicated and difficult to understand. Producers in news satire programs translate formal contexts into easy to understand and funny forms so that anyone can follow along. As a result, younger viewers and those who are generally indifferent toward politics can become more interested in current issues by watching news satire programs. According to an Ohio State University report in 2008, 60 percent of young voters used fake news shows as a source of information to learn about current political events and prominent public figures.
News Satire as a Method to Express Ideas
The increased number of political satire programs in Korea indicates that the demand of such mediums where a person can express such thoughts publically is widening. However, conservative attitudes toward satirizing politics still abound. On May 4, 2013, SNL Korea called Byeon Hui-jae, a Representative of Media Watch, “the weird” in the skit, The good, the bad, and the weird where three characters who match each word, are selected weekly. Byeon immediately sued SNL Korea on May 5, 2013 for slander. Consequently, the SNL program changed the skit name from The good, the bad, and the weird to Good guy, bad guy, and weird guy, reducing the degree of intensity. This incident suggests that Korean society is not prepared to accept satire openly.
Satirizing is one method which people in this day and age can use as a way of expressing their opinions. In response to the positive trend of growing acceptance of political satire more people in Korea should try to accept this medium as an entertaining and informative way of conveying thoughts and ideas.