Dr. Nick Marx, assistant professor of Media Studies, finds comedy a unique and enriching way to engage with culture. On a recent two-week trip to Asia, Dr. Marx spent time in South Korea and Japan affirming the idea that comedy as it relates to public affairs is no laughing matter. Instead, it helps us cope with situations around us. We wanted to find out more about his experience so we asked Dr. Marx about his SNL Korea research and his presentation at the International Communication Association conference in Japan.
Tell us about the research you conducted on your trip to South Korea.
I conducted participant observation of a production day of Saturday Night Live Korea, that country’s adaptation of our long-running late-night sketch comedy program. I interviewed a couple of crew members over the course of the day, then returned to their production offices the following Monday to interview the show’s executive producer. This research is in support of my next book project, which will examine the production practices and aesthetics of international adaptations of American television programs.
What inspired you to pursue this type of research?
My research broadly examines comedic film, television, and web content, an area of media studies that’s long been ignored because we tend not to take comedy seriously. That began to change in the last decade, though, when comedies like The Daily Show became primary spots for Americans to work through contentious cultural and political issues. I noticed that comedy was playing a similar role for public discourse globally and was struck by the unusual success of SNL in South Korea. I’m also deeply familiar with the U.S. version of SNL, having watched it for as long as I can remember and publishing a co-edited book on it three years ago.
How did you feel receiving the College of Liberal Arts Faculty Development Award to aid in this endeavor?
I wouldn’t have been able to pursue such a complex and intensive project without the resources provided by the Faculty Development Fund Award. I consider myself very lucky to work in a department, college, and university that supports its faculty so generously to pursue their research interests.
What did participant observation of the SNL production look like for you?
I had the support and translation services of Communications Studies alumna Min Kim, whose benevolence and indefatigable enthusiasm can’t be overstated. We arrived at the studio early Saturday afternoon and chatted with some staffers, many of whom had studied or spent time in the U.S. and knew our SNL intimately. We sat in the audience and watched several rehearsals of the sketches that would be a part of the live broadcast that night, and I took copious notes on the show’s organizational structure and comedic process. We then watched the live broadcast as part of the studio audience, and I had the “honor” of being brought up on stage by the warm-up emcee to “host” before the actual show began–all in good fun at my expense, but a pretty big thrill to enter the stage through the same iconic door that I’ve been watching all my life.
How does the South Korean SNL compare to America’s version?
The format mimics the American version pretty closely, as its Korean production company has an official license for the show from Lorne Michaels and NBC. This means it uses the same title sequence, set, digital shorts, and “Weekend Update” formats, all adapted for the Korean context and sense of humor. The episode we saw was being hosted by Jonghyn, who is sort of like a Korean version Justin Timberlake, formerly of a boy band but now turning to a solo career. They put his musical number first in the show to appease his many fans that’d be tuning in for that reason, followed by alternating digital shorts and live sketches in the studio.
How does South Korean humor resemble or differ from American humor?
Generally speaking, this is one of the broader research questions I’m still looking into. What I can tell from my time at SNL Korea, though, is that political satire was not the focus of the show as much as it tends to be here. Most sketches were parodies of Korean soap operas, movies, and commercials, and there wasn’t much directly lampooning Korean politics like we might expect from American late night comedy shows.
What did you present at the International Communication Association Conference in Japan?
I presented a paper based on another production study I did with producers of The Onion‘s online video and audio content.
What kind of production study did you do with The Onion?
I spent some time at The Onion’s editorial offices (then in New York) interviewing staff about how they write/produce “new media” satire–web video, podcasts, and social media content. Then I followed along on a production week of their podcast, Onion Radio News, back in Madison, Wis., where I was a graduate student. This was back in 2008 when Twitter and YouTube were in their (relative) infancy, so lots of content creators were still figuring out what formats worked best and how to monetize them. The paper I presented at ICA was putting that work into historical context, considering how we might write a history of “new media” in much the same way we do with much older media such as film and television.
Why did you want to look at The Onion?
I wanted to look at The Onion because it’s long been in my blood–the paper started in Wisconsin, and I can remember picking it up every week and reading it as far back as middle school. It, more than perhaps any other movie or program, has had a very powerful effect in shaping my worldview on politics and culture. While many tend to see the sort of satire that the The Onion does as cynical and antisocial, I find that it intensely inflames my passion to think, talk about, and act on political issues. In other words, comedy makes me MORE engaged with the world around me, not less!
What it something that fascinated you on your trip or in your research?
I was ceaselessly fascinated by the aspects of American culture that your typical stranger-on-the-street would pick up on, from fashion to music to American colloquialisms. Of course, I greatly enjoyed walking around Seoul and Tokyo, and simply experiencing a completely different culture’s rhythms.
We bet authentic Korean and Japanese cuisines are something else. What was your favorite meal on your trip
I ate Korean barbecue every day I was there, and I think there’s a case to be made for that being the best, most adventurous cuisine in the world right now. But I actually think Japanese ramen was my favorite meal. The best places tended to have a line out the door, and when you get in, you huddle up to a counter crammed with dozens of other people and are expected to quickly slurp it down, not unlike eating a slice of New York pizza in a rush.