You can be forgiven if stand up comedy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you hear South Korea. Hell, you can be forgiven if it doesn’t come to mind at all. But if you overlook Korea’s comedy scene then you’re overlooking the best one in Asia, according to Albert Escobedo, a stand up comedian who lived in Korea for four years and has been practicing stand up for eight.
Whether Korea has the best stand up scene in Asia, I can’t say, but I can say that in the nearly six years I was there, it grew significantly and developed a lot of new talent from all over the English speaking world along the way. This growth is in no small part due to Stand Up Seoul, a group formed by Brian Aylward and some other expats in Korea back in 2009 who were looking to do stand up in a country where the concept was all but unheard of. Before Stand Up Seoul, the best chance a person had to see or perform comedy involved going to an open mic for singers and poets and, in the words of several local comedians, “hijacking it.” As one might imagine, the reaction to such “hijackings” was mixed. People wanting to hear music weren’t always appreciative of the unsolicited music break. Regardless, Aylward and others carried on and eventually built a bit of a following and gained acceptance. They were eventually able to get a few establishments that catered to Westerners to regularly set aside nights specifically for comedy and, thus, Stand Up Seoul was born. And while Aylward returned to his native Canada several years ago to pursue his stand up career, the group he created continues to grow larger thanks to folks like Albert and Jeff Sinclair, among others.
The stand up scene in Korea is almost exclusively dependent on Westerners as Koreans make up a very small percentage of the crowd any given night. In fact, there have been many times where it seemed to me that the few Koreans who were in the crowd, if they were not on a date with a Westerner or watching a friend perform, appeared more than a bit confused as to what was going on in front of them. Many factors play into this starting with the normal lack of Koreans found in any given Western style bar in Korea to more substantial factors like the cultural differences in the sense of humor between the cultures. As Kay Kim, who might very well be the only non-Western born Korean stand up comic in Korea explains, “There is a language barrier. This can be seen in things like movies: funny lines in English speaking films are horribly translated into Korean and the jokes are entirely lost.” Kay also says that the idea of sarcasm and satire is almost nonexistent in Korean culture. Kay attributes Korea’s lack of this kind of humor to Koreans being “easily offended.” He says many things are taboo in Korean culture like political satire and making fun of authority. Instead, much of Korean humor is based off of gag comedy. When asked what he thinks it will take for Koreans to gain an appreciation of stand up, Kay simply said, “Dick jokes.”
Whether or not ‘dick jokes’ is the key to expanding stand up into the larger Korean society, the dynamics of stand up in Korea goes well beyond the newness of it and its Western only audiences, it involves the number of people doing it for the first time. While there are some stand up vets like Albert and Rob Fioretta who did stand up back in the states before coming to Korea, most are doing it for the first time. NetSideBar’s own Dan Wiberg is one such comedian who first took to the stage in Korea. When asked if he thought being in Korea contributed to him performing for the first time he said it played a huge role. “You come to a new country and almost feel like a new person. Nobody knows who you are, you really have nothing to prove to anyone.”Along with the uninhibited-ness and willingness to try new things that seems a natural part of most expat’s mindset, Korea also offers a ton of chances to get on stage. “There’s a lot more chances to get on stage here. Back in Philly, you’d go to an open mic and 50 guys would sign up, but they’d only take 20. Here everyone can get on stage and there’s a couple of open mics a week,” according to Rob. Rudy Tyburczy, another comic who got his start here and who is now one of the people running Stand Up Seoul, agrees. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get on stage here.” And Rudy, it should be said, might be the best testament to the comic incubator that is Korea. I was at his first ever stand up performance when Stand Up Seoul took over my local bar, Traveler’s Bar and Grill, down in Bundang for a night a few years back. To say he bombed would be kind, but he has since become a regular headliner and a guaranteed laugh with his seemingly unrehearsed, off-the-cuff style. Korea also seems to provide many of the comics, who are teachers by day, with lots of material. According to Dan, “…Korea is a lot different than the US in many, many ways. Add that to being a teacher here and there is plenty of material. It’s just trying to figure out how to make it funny on stage.”
Along with the now plentiful opportunities, easy to develop material and constant supply of new expats willing to give it a shot. Seoul has also been getting some fairly big name comics to come through like Tom Rhodes, Kyle Kinane and Glen Wool, just to name a few. The relatively nominal door charge at most Stand Up Seoul events is used to pay for these comics to come through. In the course of researching for this article, I was invited to one such performance featuring Baron Vaughn and Ben Kronberg, both of Comedy Central fame. The crowd of about 100 people, mostly expats, all of whom paid around 40-50 dollars a head to see these headliners, was excited and energized. Many arrived well-before the show started. They mingled in the friendly atmosphere of the fancy roof-top venue of the hotel that played host. Many knew each other, which is not surprising in Korea’s tight-nit expat community and a lot of the comics living in Korea were also on hand to watch their visiting colleagues.
While I’ve often been very impressed with the local talent in Korea, the visiting comics put on a hell of a show and made it clear just how talented a person has to be just to have a shot at making it in this field. While the two men took turns headlining during their several performances around Korea, on this particular night Baron led off with a 45 min routine that left me out of breath several times and that will cause me to never be unable to hear Lady Gaga’s song Paparazzi without bursting into laughter. Ben’s routine was clever and relied a lot on word play which sometimes took the crowd of English teachers an embarrassingly long time to get. However, the most impressive thing about both men, who had only been in the country for a couple of days, was how many observational jokes they had already made about Korea.
After the show, both men confirmed that traveling to Korea, a very different culture, had instantly gotten their creative juices flowing. Baron even said it made him want to travel more given how easily the ideas were coming. As the show ended, people were slow to leave and the visiting comics mingled with the appreciative crowd. While they had plenty of invites from audience members to hit the town and take in Seoul’s notoriously drunken night life, both men said they needed to get to bed. They still had two shows left with talk of a third being added to the schedule to finish out their weekend.
At one of the last Stand Up Seoul events I attended, I asked Albert to explain just why it is that he thinks Korea has the best stand up scene in Asia. “It’s simple. These guys are getting on the stage all the time and always working on their stuff. They’re coming up with new stuff all the time just to be bringing something fresh to the stage with all the shows we have. Hong Kong might have a bigger scene [in terms of the crowd size], but the guys there aren’t getting on stage as much as the guys here. Korea is making better comics.” Albert then double-downed on his statement and guaranteed that the next big comic to come out of Asia will come out of Korea. Honestly, given what I saw during my time there, this statement hardly seems like a bold prediction.
SideBar: Big thanks to Albert Escobedo, Dan Wiberg and all the other comics who helped me get this article together. Also, a special thanks to Peter Burns of Burns Photography for allowing us to use his pictures.