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Political satire strikes back ahead of election

S. Korea entertains new form of political satire through 'SNL Korea Reboot' aired via streaming service under more relaxed rules

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : April 8, 2024 - 15:44

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Kim Min-kyo (right) impersonates President Yoon Suk Yeol in a political sketch on a Kim Min-kyo (right) impersonates President Yoon Suk Yeol in a political sketch on a "Saturday Night Live Korea" episode on March 2. (Coupang Play)

Watching "Saturday Night Live Korea" on his laptop with a bowl of popcorn is how 33-year-old office worker Im Tae-ho unwinds after work.

"I love that political satire sketches on 'SNL Korea' have returned stronger than ever this season," Im told The Korea Herald.

"I feel like 'SNL Korea' is the only comedy show that dares to poke fun at politicians so brazenly in Korea. It's the only show that does political satire the right way," he added.

Over the past 20 years or so, political sketches poking fun at high-profile politicians had become scarce in South Korea.

The former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations’ moves between the late 2000s and mid-2010s to create a blacklist of entertainers and artists critical of the government had worked as a major risk producers of such content faced throughout this near decade.

When then-President Moon Jae-in was in office from May 2017 to May 2022, critics pointed to a rise in "fandom politics," in which fans of Moon and other high-profile politicians would harass the creators of such satirical portrayals by filing complaints and sending them hate messages, as a major hurdle.

But ahead of this year's April 10 legislative election, such made-for-television political satire has returned with a full force on "SNL Korea." The show is a licensed adaptation of the iconic US late-night show and is currently the only made-for-television comedy show with political sketches featuring hard-hitting parodies of Korean politicians.

New era of satire

The first episode of "SNL Korea Reboot" season 5, which aired March 2, shocked and delighted viewers by kicking off with a sketch that parodied an incident involving President Yoon Suk Yeol in February.

The sketch, released through local streaming service Coupang Play on March 2, was based on when a graduate of the prestigious Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology was forcibly muzzled and physically removed by bodyguards while shouting at Yoon to protest the government's move to cut the country's research and development budget.

It showed Yoon, portrayed by comedian Kim Min-kyo, smiling as bodyguards muzzled a member of the presidential office who failed to sing in harmony during a choir practice. "Let go of me! I have the right to ad lib!" screamed actor-comedian Kwon Hyuk-soo as he was being taken away.

While this may seem like a run-of-the-mill political sketch, it has actually taken more than a decade for "SNL Korea" to run such content freely.

"Compared to when SNL Korea was first aired in 2011 (and prior to its 2021 "reboot" on Coupang Play), politicians' and audiences' perspective of political satire has changed," cultural commentator Jung Duk-hyun said in a Monday phone interview.

"Since 'SNL Korea' has relocated its platform to streaming service Coupang Play, it has gained more creative room to express its ideas," he added, pointing to the program's move over to the streaming service in 2021, following a four-year break after airing on local cable channel tvN from December 2011 to November 2017. Under South Korean law, content produced by "SNL Korea" is supervised and rated by the Korea Media Rating Board, which puts the show under relatively relaxed rules compared to those under the Korea Communications Commission.

Ahn Young-mi (left) interviews Jung Sung-ho, impersonating People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon, on a Ahn Young-mi (left) interviews Jung Sung-ho, impersonating People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon, on a "Saturday Night Live Korea" episode released on March 9. (Coupang Play)

It hasn't been long since Korean politicians began to embrace political satire, but this new attitude reflects a big change, according to Jung.

"It's like how the original 'SNL' in the US was able to grow because of the US politicians' respect of freedom of speech and embrace of satire. More politicians here are also adopting a flexible attitude toward such content and have been starring in 'SNL Korea' as themselves," he explained.

When asked about whether there was a creative turning point for "SNL Korea Reboot" regarding its political sketches, the show's production company, Coupang Play said "'SNL Korea' is a comedy show -- please understand that we cannot provide further comment on the production details of the show."

End of censorship?

In modern Korean history, political satire began airing on television after the end of military rule in 1988. Popular comedy programs such as SBS' "People Looking for a Laugh" and KBS' "Gag Concert" have aired satirical sketches, but the original "SNL Korea," which was first introduced in late 2011 through cable network tvN, took it to the next level.

Soon after it was aired, a sketch comparing the 2012 presidential election candidates to “Teletubbies” -- brightly colored characters in a famous British children’s television series of the same name -- went viral.

Jung Sung-ho (left) and Kim Min-gyo impersonate former President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Seo-won, then known as Choi Soon-sil, respectively, on a Jung Sung-ho (left) and Kim Min-gyo impersonate former President Park Geun-hye and her friend Choi Seo-won, then known as Choi Soon-sil, respectively, on a "Saturday Night Live Korea" episode released on Nov. 18, 2017. (tvN)

The sketch titled “Yeouido Teletubbies,” in which comedians each took on the roles of the then-candidates based in Korea’s political center, Yeouido district, in western Seoul, shocked audiences who had never experienced such bold political satire on television. Comedian and actor Kim Seuk-gi tackled the role of the now-impeached former President Park Geun-hye. Park, who was the candidate of the then-main conservative Saenuri Party, was portrayed by Kim as a deranged version of the beloved Teletubby, “Po,” named “Tto.”

Kim’s “Tto” would be polite most of the time, but would start using swear words if provoked.

"Yeouido Teletubbies," cemented "SNL Korea"'s reputation as one of the top comedy programs here, and became one of the cornerstones of what the show would eventually become.

"Yeouido Teletubbies," however, was abruptly scrapped in early 2013, following the Saenuri Party's protest against what they claimed was a "misguided" portrayal of Park. The audience and fans suspected political involvement, but the producers didn't provide any explanation at the time.

In late 2016, People Power Party Rep. Ha Tae-keung, who was a member of the Saenuri Party, claimed that Park had taken an issue with the comedy show's satirical portrayal of her and put pressure on tvN's parent company and conglomerate CJ Group.

This claim was soon followed by a confession by CJ Group Chair Sohn Kyung-shik during a National Assembly hearing that a member of the presidential office at the time delivered Park's message requesting CJ Group Vice Chair Lee Mie-kyung to step down for producing "anti-government" content.

Prior to her impeachment in March 2017, Park reportedly denied to prosecutors during a probe into her abuses of power that she had allegedly pressured the conglomerate to scrap the sketch because of its satirical portrayal of her.

Some four years later, in his 2021 appearance on SNL Korea Reboot, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was a presidential candidate at the time, was asked by comedian Joo Hyun-young if he would “help SNL Korea freely carry out its political satire sketches.”

Comedian Kwon Hyuk-soo impersonates Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung in an 'SNL Korea Reboot' episode aired in December 2021. (Coupang Play) Comedian Kwon Hyuk-soo impersonates Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung in an 'SNL Korea Reboot' episode aired in December 2021. (Coupang Play)

To this, Yoon replied that it is “SNL’s right (to produce political satire)."

While it may have seen at the time that the Yoon administration was open to taking a more flexible stance toward political satire compared with previous administrations, critics have warned that the public must always stay wary.

In 2022, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism expressed regret and issued a warning to an organizer of a cartoon contest, after a satirical cartoon about Yoon drawn by a high school student went viral. The ministry, which had sponsored the Bucheon International Comics Festival, claimed that the organizer violated the terms of sponsorship, by not disqualifying works with sexually explicit, violent and political content.

"There is a more flexible attitude towards political satire, but we must continue to be wary to keep it this way," Jung stressed.