“Laughing brings good fortune”, a Korean saying goes. Even in the direst of times, if you have something to laugh about, everything seems to be okay. Korea’s variety programs put this to heart as they offer laughter to viewers throughout the week, whether in the form of comedic sketches or in the antics of the cast in a non-scripted reality format.
The programs with the highest ratings rely heavily on the two top stars of Korean variety: the “Nation’s MC” Yoo Jaeseok (유재석) and his main rival, traditional-wrestler-turned-entertainer Kang Hodong (강호동). As there are no exclusivity contracts for performers between broadcasting networks, you see them a lot on Korean TV and they never disappoint.
Here is an introduction to the currently highest rating variety shows:
1 night, 2 days (1박 2일)
It hasn’t been long since Koreans worked a 5 day week. (There are still many companies and establishments that work 6 days and schools still have a 6 day week.) Consequently, when people would take a short holiday or break, they would usually leave on a trip that would last for 1 night and 2 days, which is the basic premise of the program.
The program stars Kang Hodong and other 5 members who travel around the country, introducing beautiful and memorable vacation spots, local delicacies and specialties. They participate in a series of games that determine the “haves” and the “have-nots” for the night; deciding who will have a delicious dinner or not, who will sleep in comfort and who will have to rough it out.
What’s interesting in this program, as with most of Korean variety shows, is that the staff (camera crew, production team, lighting staff, managers, stylists, everyone) is highly visible. There is no pretense that the cast are completely on their own while being filmed by an omnipresent being; the staff actively interact with the members, sometimes even competing against the cast. Guests occasionally show up for special episodes, whether celebrities or “regular” people, it’s always interesting to see how they deal with the “have and have-not” games and how surprised they are to discover that nothing is staged. The show is currently the highest rating variety program.
Broadcasts on KBS 2, Sundays at 5:00 pm
Infinite Challenge (무한도전)
I have already raved about this program while posting about their photo exhibit. (Read about it here.) The show is hosted by the most popular “Nation’s MC” Yoo Jaeseok and other 6 members, with the occasional guest. The members face different challenges in a series of episodes, from the ridiculous to the truly challenging, not only from a comedic point of view but also showcasing the determination and perseverance of the members.
The members have met many challenges during the years: a sports dance competition, an aerobics competition, learning how to bobsleigh to support the Korean national bobsleigh team, actually farming rice for an entire year. None of it is fake; they have legitimately participated in all the contests and have also suffered from various injuries and accidents. Despite their busy schedules, it is incredibly moving to see them put their all into the challenges they face, and the program has received countless accolades and broadcasting awards accordingly.
Broadcasts on MBC, Saturdays at 6:30 pm
Gag Concert (개그 콘서트)
Why does a concert only have to be about music? That’s what a veteran comedian and “gagman” (the more familiarly used Korean word) thought and thus this program was born. The first broadcast was a one-off special in 1999, but due to the enthusiastic response, settled as a regular program in 2000 and has been running ever since.
Because the whole program is comprised of various skits and gags with a lot of wordplay and “inside” humor, it is one of those programs that are difficult to understand unless you’re familiar with the latest trends, social issues, and speech mannerisms. It is also known as a program with which you can check the generation gap.
Broadcasts on KBS 2, Sundays at 9:05 pm
Quiz that changes the World (세상을 바꾸는 퀴즈, 세바퀴)
What is the most annoying behavior you witness in a supermarket? What sort of compliment would you like to hear the most? And what are other people’s opinions? This is the base concept of QcW, which quizzes its panel of celebrities on the most trivial, yet interesting points of everyday life. A survey is taken from the public and the panel has to guess what the most popular opinion is.
The panel members tell personal stories and anecdotes related to the question, and they’re often hilarious. Of course, the program is spiced with music and dance performances.
Broadcasts on MBC, Saturdays at 11:00 pm
Come to Play (놀러와)
One of the most long running variety shows still on today, Come to Play was first broadcast in 2004. The duo of Yoo Jaeseok and Kim Wonhee (who are good friends in real life) have held up the show through various format changes and is still going strong.
It is a late night talk show where several celebrity guests connected by a common theme “come to play” with the regular members. Some themes included “70s acoustic band members”, “outstanding supporting actors”, and “ballad singers”. Anecdotes are shared in the studio and afterwards, they enter a cozy small room set complete with snacks and beverages and talk freely, as if they were actually invited to a friend’s house to play. And you feel like as if you’re there to play with them as well.
Broadcasts on MBC, Mondays at 11:15 pm
Golden Fishery’s “Knee Guru” (황금어장 “무릎팍 도사”)
Dosa (도사), which was interpreted as ‘guru’, is actually the eastern equivalent of a wizard. Although not necessarily a worker of magic, a dosa is able to walk on clouds for example, by working with the natural forces of the world but most of all, a dosa is clairvoyant, as s/he is in sync with the elements. The term has been abused greatly in modern times and most fortune tellers will call themselves dosa of some sort.
Kang Hodong is the “Knee Guru”, the catchphrase being that he will solve all your problems before “your knees touch the ground”; it is customary to kneel in a big bow when you seek advice from an elder. The Knee Guru listens to a celebrity guest’s problems and gives out advice on how to solve them. His hilarious sidekicks offer comic relief although it is listening to the life stories of the guests that is most interesting. The show has invited not only celebrities from the entertainment industry but also prominent figures from various aspects of society.
Broadcasts on MBC, Wednesdays at 11:05 pm
Happy Together (해피투게더)
Happy Together started in 2001 and was a huge hit from the beginning with interesting segments like “Tray Noraebang” (쟁반 노래방) where the cast had to correctly sing a song from start to finish without forgetting the lyrics. Most of the songs were the complete verses of children’s songs that most of the grownup cast had forgotten and whenever they made a mistake a huge aluminum tray would come down on their heads with a big clang.
The main MCs changed over the years and the current cast settled in 2007 with the new format called “sauna talk”, as the show takes place in an actual bathhouse. The cast is dressed in standard bathhouse garb, with main MC Yoo Jaeseok in a funny wig as well. Guests participate in small talk while playing games along the way. As everything happens in a small space, the atmosphere is casual and friendly.
Broadcasts on KBS 2, Thursdays at 11:05 pm
Running Man (런닝맨)
Actually, that title should be plural. 7 members leaded by the Nation’s MC Yoo Jaeseok (yes, again!) play an upgraded version of hide-and-go-seek as they try to carry out various missions while running away from the seeker, who is either one of the regular cast or an invited guest.
All take place at a famous landmark, mostly after its closing hours so not only is it interesting to watch the members and guests trying to outsmart one another; it’s also interesting to see the many landmarks after hours. These days the program has ventured outdoors to a larger scale and has even gone overseas to Thailand for a special episode.
What’s most interesting and funny to watch is the interaction between the members themselves. With a combination of comedians, singers, and actors, they all are close as a group of friends. The only female member Song Jihyo, who is an actress, brings on an extremely nonchalant approach (she is often without a trace of makeup) that is quite refreshing to see.
Broadcasts on SBS, Sundays at 5:00 pm
Strong Heart (강심장)
Koreans aren’t afraid to cry. We wear our emotions on our sleeve; whether you’re young or old, man or woman. We cry when extremely sad, in moments of great happiness, when emotions are just too strong to be expressed otherwise. What’s interesting is that even in the most lighthearted comedy or variety shows (and not to mention radio programs), you’ll see not only the guests but also the hosts shedding tears.
Hosted by Kang Hodong and Lee Seung Gi (who both are members of the 1 night, 2 days team), Strong Heart invites a large group of celebrities and encourages them to “battle” one another in a series of real life anecdotes, and then awarding the winner chosen by the studio audience with a “Strong Heart” trophy. The anecdotes range from the funny and bizarre to the moving and heartwarming. The talk is spiced with impromptu dancing and divertissements from the guests. The diversity in background and age of the celebrity guests is especially impressive.
Broadcasts on SBS, Tuesdays at 11:15 pm
We got Married (우리 결혼했어요)
Celebrities getting married on TV? For real? When the program started in 2008, that was what people were most interested in. It turned out that the couples were in a faux-marriage, doing “couple-like” things in front of the cameras without doing anything similar to a “real” marriage. Actually, it was more like watching a show about guidelines on “how to act like a perfectly adorable couple” but surprisingly, it was a smash success.
Although the couples have changed over the years, the contents haven’t changed much. With the exception of real life dating celebrity couple Hwang Jung Eum and Kim Yong Jun who have retired from the show, the main interest seems to lie in trying to decipher whether the make-believe couples are really interested in each other or not. Ratings are steady thanks to the continuous casting of K-pop idols, and you have to admit, fake or not, the couples really are adorable to watch.
Being Korea (and because the couples aren’t real), don’t expect any “racy” moments; no one has even really kissed.
Broadcasts on MBC, Saturdays at 5:15 pm
Besides the shows with the top ratings, some other notables are: Star King (스타킹), To be a man: 101 things to do before you die (남자의 자격), Radio Star (라디오 스타), and Go Dream Team 2 (출발 드림팀 2).
*Editor’s note : See the 2013 updated version here -> http://blog.korea.net/?p=4201