Thursday, March 20, 2014

not pushing the envelope?

The Korean sense of humor is remarkably simple, chaste, straightforward, and above all, safe. Very little Korean humor would qualify as black comedy, for example: "The War of the Roses" (Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito) would never have worked—could never have been made—in Korea. Peninsular sarcasm exists, to some extent, but it's usually loudly telegraphed and almost never driven home with the sneering precision found in the best forms of British humor. Subtlety may or may not exist in Korean humor; I haven't checked into the matter very deeply, but I'm not hopeful. When I think of Korean comedy, adjectives like loud, blaring, and obvious pop into my head.

Korean humor seems largely based on scenarios and dialogue that have evolved little beyond Punch and Judy—people verbally bonking* each other on the head. Topics for such humor normally arise from the natural rivalries we associate with class and region: it's great sport to mock the rich for their clueless buffoonery or to make fun of people's local accents. Koreans have a long history of resistance against and satirization of the yangban, the nobles, which makes Koreans today very aware of class-based inequality (a state of affairs also driven home whenever they watch TV dramas portraying the troubled lives of the super-rich). And these are mountain people: the history of the country is a history of isolated valley communities that developed fierce local loyalties and bonds of trust; these days, where a politician comes from has much to do with his or her future political prospects.

I imagine that Korean humor also contains its dirty, sexual, and/or taboo side, but I'm not linguistically adept enough to have discovered it. If you asked me for a list of dirty jokes told to me by Koreans, I don't think I could cite a single one. Many of my Korean relatives are Christian, with all the verbal prudery that that implies; my non-Christian relatives, meanwhile, have never struck me as the dirty-joke type. This was far different from my experience in France and Switzerland. In both countries, I engaged in the age-old ritual of the joke exchange: I found myself in a certain mood, alongside my French or Swiss "brother," and one of us would start telling a joke, which prompted the other to tell a joke, and so on, until the mood passed. No such thing has ever happened in all my years of living in Korea.

Yesterday, I discussed the word "sacrilege" with my pronunciation students, giving them the example of a crazed man who throws a bucket of red paint all over a statue of the Blessed Virgin. After that explanation, I asked the class about sacrilegious humor: does Korea have the equivalent of a Bill Maher, who recently called God a "psychotic mass murderer"? The students looked at each other, shrugged, looked back at me, and shook their heads no. No such irreverent comedians exist in Korea.

It's quite a thought, really. I'm so used to irreverent humor in the West (Claude Serre's hilarious cartoons about Jesus come to mind) that its absence, in a place like Korea, comes almost as a shock. Koreans go through the day blissfully unaware that this lack even exists: it's a culturally self-imposed limitation, or a blind spot, the awareness of which might prove interesting to Koreans themselves, once they started thinking about it.

So now I'm curious about dirty jokes and irreverent humor in the Land of the Morning Calm. I want to ask my intermediate class to write out one naughty joke per person on pieces of paper, then hand the jokes in to me without signing any names. I want the worst, nastiest jokes the kids can think of, and I might consider letting them use their cell-phone dictionaries (which I never allow) as aids to get the slang right.

*Sorry, British readers. "Bonking" means something more innocent in American English than it does in the Queen's. Sort of like "fanny."


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