Live From Seoul, It’s Saturday Niiiiiiight!
On December 3, 2011, South Korea got its first taste of this famous sentence. With its affinity for broad physical comedy and variety shows, Korean television either seems like the perfect home for an SNL adaptation or an already saturated marketplace. Sketch variety shows like Gag Concert have long captured the hearts and laughs of Korean audiences, and the American version of SNL was relatively unknown in South Korea. Nonetheless, the cable network tvN licensed the franchise last year and commissioned eight episodes in collaboration with popular writer/director Jang Jin.
Bloggers speculated the show’s success would hinge on its ability to confront political topics head-on. If you are not fluent in K-Pop, then you may not know about the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family — a government arm notorious for imposing conservatism on the media and blacklisting songs and entertainment. Critics thought if SNLK could resist caving to MOGEF, it stood a fighting a chance.
However, it wasn’t just the potential for political satire that made SNLK a fairly unprecedented event. Celebrity hosts and musical guests are just as common as the aforementioned physical comedy/variety show combo, but the programs featuring the two formers are almost never live, and usually liberally edited before they air. The creators of SNLK promised to faithfully adhere to the American format, especially the live part. This was perceived as a risky endeavor for both talent and musical acts, but the show managed to book talent for all eight episodes.
There have been only a few international adaptations of Saturday Night Live, and the interpretations run the gamut. Spain’s version replicated actual sketches, like the infamous “More Cowbell” swapping in whatever the Spanish version of Blue Oyster Cult is. But this version aired on Thursday nights at 11:30, despite keeping the name Saturday Night Live. Japan premiered its own SNL last June, but ultimately abandoned many elements of the franchise, including a weekly schedule, rotating hosts, and a 90 minute format. Now it airs once a month, features permanent hosts and lasts for only 45 minutes.
In all 8 episodes of Season 1, SNLK appears to have pretty faithfully adhered to the American format as we know it, right down to the digital shorts, the live band, and the talent sign-off at the end.
In the opening credits, blink and you might think you’re watching American SNL.
Weekend Update, anchored by show creator Jang Jin, may look awfully familiar as well.
If you skip ahead to 10:50, you will see the addition of a weather girl who seems to be hugging herself so as to pump up her cleavage. A response, as the website Soompi points out, to “the recent controversy surrounding the outfit of female TV announcers.”
The digital shorts maintain the same absurdist spirit, but are not quite as slick in production value, and typically feature the celebrity host instead of a recurring cast member.
In the following digital short, a glamorous woman has her night ruined by the discovery of a hygienic oversight.
Where sound effects might be used for ironic comedy here, the slide whistles and bonks feel intentionally included for emphasis in an otherwise silent sketch.
As far as comedy tourism goes, the wonderful thing about physical comedy is it eliminates an immediate need for subtitles in your native language. For example, the digital short from episode 1 makes the digital short above look downright verbose.
If there’s one thing universally funny, it’s bathroom humor. Literally, in this case.
The physical comedy element also treaded some darker places, as evidenced in this sketch called “Magic Show.”
“How can you think of writing the real names of political parties? And who’s Myung Bak? Is he your friend? How can you write his name like this? … You’ll go to jail! You, me, everyone here! No one mention political parties from now on!”
“But Saturday Night Live originally has a strong focus on political and cultural parodies, so shouldn’t we also…”
“Do you want to get fired? If you want to write about that, wait until next year when the administration changes.”
“What if it doesn’t change?”
“Why shouldn’t it change? Then just wait five more years!”
Overall the critical response was fairly positive for the episode, and people agreed the show rose to the political and sociological challenge of maintaining its “edginess.” An Allkpop review marvels that “In a culture that seeks, more than almost any other country, to produce an image of ‘cleanliness,’ SNLK can look like a bit of an outlier — a show that lays bare all of its country’s problems, from political to cultural.”
Other than the pure novelty of it, SNLK was not set to make much of a splash stateside. The majority of the jokes are Korean-centric, as they should be for a sketch comedy show intended to satirize society. Few sketches from the American version really translate, as SNL Spain can attest to (it was canned pretty quickly). Then, they had to take the nosedive from edginess to over-the-edge.
Or at least over-the-edge as far as overseas audiences were concerned. Take a look at the sketch and see what doesn’t fit here.
If you said the overt blackface, you guessed correctly. Unsurprisingly, the Internet had some words about it, and understandably so. Though the sketch itself was not implicitly racist, the female performers were portraying the Dreamgirls, and blackface feels implicitly wrong.
It does raise the issue of cultural understanding, though. The moratorium on blackface in America is not necessarily a shared understanding around the world — regardless of whether or not it should be. The historical pain associated with this imagery is also uniquely American in a way it wouldn’t be in South Korea. Then again, Fred Armisen portrays Obama on a fairly regular basis, Jimmy Fallon donned blackface to play Chris Rock, and Billy Crystal elicited a hefty amount of groans when he showed off his Sammy Davis Jr. at the Oscars this year. Turns out, comedy is a weird grey area in all cultures. Discuss all ye commenters.
Despite a serious brush with poor taste, SNLK ended an overall critically successful first run this January, and were it not for the egregious blackface debacle, the odds would seem ever in their favor for a second season renewal.
SNLK may have benefitted from an audience pre-disposed to the variety format, and its ability to culturally adapt the franchise without completely abandoning the essence of the original. Co-opting recreation, for reinvention. It would be great to see an SNLK comedian make the crossover to SNL America — or any Asian comedian for that matter. Then we wouldn’t need white comedians to portray their race on the show.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.