2013

A Uniquely Korean Creation – Muhan Dojeon and the Real Variety Show

As the ‘Korean Wave’ of popular entertainment continues to spread globally, the vanguard has undoubtedly been comprised of Korea’s pop music and film industries. While each of these boast their own merits, neither have their origins within Korea itself – girl groups and dramatic films have existed globally for a long time. One export that is gaining increasing attention however, has its roots firmly planted within the country itself. This is the reality-variety television show, pioneered and best exemplified by the long running Muhan Dojeon, or Infinite Challenge.

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Standard variety shows have been around for centuries in one form or another, but have largely disappeared in recent decades. A notable exception has been in East Asia, primarily Korea and Japan, where they continued to attract regular viewing audiences. Typically, a traditional show of this nature features a cast of comedians that perform comedic skits, witty banter, or engage in silly tasks in a controlled environment.

When the show debuted in 2005, Muhan Dojeon was not much different (the first episode featured the hosts in a tug of war against a bull, for example.) The show underwent several format changes that fell within variety show conventions, but failed to gain much attention until May of 2006, when a young director named Kim Tae-Ho was given the reigns. The changes he made would propel Muhan Dojeon to the top of the ratings, and revolutionize the Korean variety show in the process.

The cast of Muhan Dojeon
The cast of Muhan Dojeon

What director Kim did was to greatly limit scripting in the program, instead focusing on putting the cast into real-world environments to compete in ‘challenges’ that were often futile, ridiculous, or intensely time consuming. Instead of typical wacky comedy, the focus became the individual personalities of the cast members as they struggled to deal with the challenges at hand, and each other in the process. These challenges typically fall into two general categories. The first is short term challenges, such as racing across Seoul using only public transportation, or engaging in a race across the city to capture a briefcase with all of the members holiday bonus money in it. The other type is the long-term challenge, which can take months to film. Examples of these include training to become competitive bobsledders, growing a rice crop, and training as professional wrestlers. Director Kim also pioneered the practice of using onscreen captions to provide a running commentary from the staff point of view, something that has been copied by nearly all Korean variety shows since.

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The primary allure of Muhan Dojeon, however, has always been the cast members themselves. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce them.

Yoo Jae Suk

yoo_jaesuk

Profession: Comedian, TV Host/MC

Nicknames: Grasshopper, First in Command, Yoo-hyuk, Playboy Yoo

Member since: Series debut

The primary host of the show, Yoo Jae-Suk is widely considered to be the preeminent face of Korean television, and is known as Korea’s ‘national MC’ due to his wide appeal as the host of many popular programs. Yoo is both extremely versatile and enormously talented, both of which are often put to the test as host of Muhan Dojeon. Yoo Jae Suk is able to not only be funny himself, but make others around him funny as well, and is able to play both the straight man and the fool. As host, he needs to direct verbal traffic between the members, and keep the show on topic and flowing.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: While Yoo’s position requires him to be the most flexible in terms of character, he generally plays as a straight man that is regularly flustered or baffled by the other member’s actions. Yoo Jae Suk also tends to take the challenges relatively seriously, usually trying to keep the focus on the weekly theme as much as possible. That being said, he still maintains a sharp comedic wit, particularly where wordplay or ego-jabbing insults are concerned.

Park Myung Soo

myungsoo

Profession: Comedian

Nicknames: Dad, the Devil’s Son, Worthless brother, Huge Star, the Great Park (self appointed)

Member since: October 2005 (but regular guest beforehand)

The oldest member of the cast, Park Myung Soo is a veteran of the Korean comedy world. Likely the most gifted of the cast in terms of comedy, Park is known for his expertly timed ad-libs and pratfalls, and strong sense of character.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: Basically, Park Myung Soo is a stereotypical ahjussi character : grumpy, greedy, cheap, and in denial about his weaknesses. He is often mocked for his feeble, elderly appearance and shameless attempts at self promotion. He’s also known to be somewhat disruptive to the show, as his frequent desire to end filming early has at times led to him sabotaging challenges or otherwise messing up the plans of others. Furthermore, he is quick to anger and regularly berates his juniors using harsh language that would likely get any other comedian in trouble.

Jung Hyung Don

hyungdon

Profession: Comedian

Nicknames: Fatty. Doni, Crazy Presence

Member since: Series debut

A comedian by trade, for years Hyung Don was the most overlooked and least popular member of the Muhan Dojeon cast. During this time he was notable for two things : being good at everything (ie challenges) except being funny, and making others feel uncomfortable around him. Recently, however, he has changed his character and his popularity has skyrocketed to the point where he may now be second only to Yoo Jae Suk.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: Jung Hyung Don struggled to create a memorable persona for years, often coming across as an awkward and whiny fat guy. However the past few years, he has begun to move into a more defined persona based on being a bit of a low-brow yet arrogant everyman that exudes outrageous self confidence in his own personal charms and tastes.

Noh Hong Chul

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Profession: Entrepreneur

Nicknames: Quick mouth, Big jaw, The Swindler, Korean psycho, Lucky guy

Member since: Series debut

Noh Hong Chul comes from a much less traditional background than the others, as he was initially a businessman that owned travel and online shopping businesses. He first gained fame as the host of a small local TV show where he conducted street interviews while highlighting interesting businesses within Seoul. He is known for his extremely high-energy, manic personality, OCD tendencies (including an overpowering obsession with chocolate), and outlandish fashion sense.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: Hong Chul is very excitable, and known for his wild eyed, rapid-fire, heavily lisped speech, which is often mocked by the others. On challenges, however, he is most known for being a consumate con artist, able to lie convincingly and weave elaborate ruses in order to gain what he wants. In the past he was also known as the most popular member with the ladies, although this has somewhat diminished in recent years as he’s gotten older (and fatter).

Jung Joon Ha

jung-joon-ha

Profession: Comedian

Nicknames: the God of Eating, Fat fatty, Stupid brother, Jjully Jjang,

Member since: March 2006

A late bloomer of a comedian, Jung Joon Ha toiled in relative obscurity until finally getting noticed in the early-mid 2000s after almost a decade in the business. He is famous for his eating ability, large size, and dopey persona. Beyond this, he is actually a very talented comedian, especially where body gags and costume acting are concerned – he is by far the most hilarious member in drag.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: Joon Ha is essentially a traditional ‘babo’ (fool) character, well-meaning and kindly but mentally lacking. He often fails to grasp situations until the moment has passed,and often approaches challenges with a sort of child-like enthusiasm. This often leads to his being easily and repeatedly tricked by other members (particularly by Hong Chul) due to his naive and trusting nature. He is also the most sensitive of the members, often getting flustered or upset when barbs are thrown his way – which only encourages the others to tease him more.

HaHa (Ha Dong Hoon)

haha

Profession: Singer (technically)

Nicknames: Shorty, Haroro, the Kid

Member since: December 2005 (but missed two years due to military service)

Ha Ha debuted as a singer in a failed boy band, then moved into sitcom acting and finally variety programming. He is also a permanent cast member (along with Yoo Jae Suk) on rival network SBS’s top variety show, ‘Running Man”, and as such his stature in the entertainment world is quite high. The fact that Ha Ha is not really a trained musician, actor, or comedian yet has achieved success in each of these fields is quite impressive in itself.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: HaHa’s character is a bit elusive, and perhaps somewhat inconsistent. Generally speaking, he often portrays an over the top, exaggeratedly childish character. In the past, this was usually of the cheesily ‘cute’ variety, but in more recent years has become increasingly of the ‘annoying brat/pest’ type. At other times, however, HaHa tends to drop this act and becomes a sort of bitter wisecracking type. Furthermore, he is sometimes accused of saving his best work for his other show (Running Man), although this is likely due to the fact that Running Man is much more heavily scripted than Muhan Dojeon and thus more comfortable for a non-comedian like HaHa to perform on.

Gil

gil-31

Profession: Singer

Nicknames: Baldy, Fatty fat fatty, honey pot, Gilmeo

Member since: April 2009

As one half of popular hip-hop duo Leessang, Gil entered Muhan Dojeon at its peak of popularity, while having no experience whatsoever in comedy or television. Unsurprisingly, he struggles to keep up with the others on most occasions, and as a result he often finishes last in cast member popularity polls and the like.

Character on Muhan Dojeon: In addition to being the regular butt of bald jokes, fat jokes, and personal hygiene jokes, Gil is perhaps most notable for trying way too hard to be funny despite his obvious limits. While this type of character is actually a fairly standard traditional comic persona in many Asian countries, sadly, in Gil’s case his failures seem to be 100% authentic. He is often chided by the other members for overreaching himself, leading to large proportions of his scenes being edited out – which once prompted Yoo Jae Suk to dub this phenomenon a  ‘Gilmeo’, the personalized version of a cameo appearance. Despite this, Gil has shown some aptitude for physical comedy, and has improved to a point where the more senior members can usually get a decent performance out of him.

Currently, Muhan Dojeon is wrapping up their biennial musical duet festival, where the members compete by partnering with a musical act to compose, record, and perform an original song. The most recent  challenge has actually caused a bit of controversy in some circles, as the show’s popularity has led the Korean music charts to be overrun with the songs from the contest. In an environment where TV networks are by no means hesitant to cancel underperforming programs, the fact that Muhan Dojeon remains massively popular,  fresh and innovative eight years after debuting speaks volumes to its inherent quality. Indeed, the genius of Muhan Dojeon is  fully Korean in creation, and as such should merit a special place as the “Korean wave” continues to spread globally.

For those interested in checking out Muhan Dojeon, some good early starting points are:

– The ‘highway song festivals’, held every two years where the members team up with Korean musical acts.

– The yearly calendar model specials, where the members compete in a series of authentic modelling shoots

– Escape with the Money Bag (Episodes 110-112) The members must race through a series of checkpoints while fighting over a briefcase full of money, with the winner receiving the full amount in the end.

– Personality and IQ test (Episode 143). The members are tricked into taking personality and IQ tests, and their results are revealed on national television.

–  Yes or No special (Episodes 149-150). The members have to answer Yes or No before seeing the question, and then reap the benefits or suffer the consequences once its revealed.

– Tail-grabbing race (Episodes 169-170). In an episode that inspired a series on another network, the members race across Seoul to complete tasks while attempting to eliminate each other.

– Quarreling brothers (Episodes 187-188). In the middle of the night, each member is given a bag of trash and told to leave it at the home of the co-member who was most disappointing in the previous year. Chaos ensues.

– Gil’s Crime (Episodes 193-194). After Gil objects to Jae Suk publicly mentioning an embarrassing pee-related incident, the members stage an elaborate trial to determine his guilt or innocence.

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