Anyone who loves Korea's most popular comedy program, Smile People, knows comedian Lee Dong-yup. He was a hit on a program called "Seoul Trip," and the buzzword he made gave everyone a laugh. After Smile People ended, Lee continued his career without a break. He has constantly appeared on radio and television programs, giving people fun. This year, Lee is hosting a show on a comedy program called "Smile King." Let's hear Lee Dong-yeop’s story.
1. You have been loved by many people through Smile People. However, we couldn’t hear much news after the last episode. How have you been?
After marriage, I had three children, so I was busy with childcare. I'm resuming my broadcast as I've recently completed childcare. I'm currently the MC for the Trot Music Broadcasting, 'Kungkung Song Class' on YTN, and also the radio DJ. I'm doing a radio program with doctors called ‘Romantic Doctors' and a radio broadcast for soldiers. Recently, I started a new comedy program called ‘Smile King’.
2. We remember that you conducted various programs at Ubuntu Temple. Which of the various sections is more special and regretful?
3. As a comedian, who do you respect the most?
The person I respect the most is Lee Kyung-kyu. He has been working hard for a very long time, and he's brought up a lot of junior colleagues. I once worked with him. At that time, even though he tried to reach out and help me do my job, I was so immature that I tried to do it on my own, and it didn't work out. Unfortunately, I missed the chance to work, but I want to be a comedian who can train younger actors and run good programs like Lee Kyung-kyu.
4. Who was the most memorable fan or audience member you have met during your career?
My fans are always memorable. I've been meeting the fans that I've been with since I started the program in 2007. Many fans now have children and have become parents and sometimes I meet them. Then, it feels like a parent meeting. When I see the fans who are with me, I feel like I'm getting old with them and I feel really blessed.
5. We heard that you ran into opposition from your family because of your dream of becoming a comedian. We are sure you had a lot of trouble making your debut as a comedian without the help of your family. How did you overcome your family's opposition at that time, and how did you become a comedian later?
I studied mechanical engineering at Chung-Ang University, which is the opposite of the job of a comedian, so my family strongly opposed me being a comedian. If I had wanted to be a comedian from the start and if I saw it fit my aptitude, they would have helped me doing it. However, my parents worried a lot about me abandoning my schoolwork. Also, I had only one year left until I graduated from college after finishing my third year. But I decided to be a comedian. Then, after I choose to be, I almost broke up with my parents. Therefore, I became independent for the first time and started my own life in Seoul. Until then, I had my parents' support because I was a student. So, it was hard at first because there was no one who supported me, but as I appeared on TV, I realized that it was something I had to do by myself.
6. We think it's important to find fresh ideas since you have to perform new performances every week in the comedy program. Where do you usually get ideas?
Doing a program feels like taking the SAT once a week. I always do my best when I make gag stuff. If the audience doesn't laugh and the show doesn't get popular, then the program is gone. Actually, this is a painful story, but only when the stage is broadcasted do you receive any pay. No matter how much you have prepared for a year, if you don't go on air, you don't get paid. Sometimes people don't really feel how much stress a week is doing with their lives. That's why I compared it to the SAT. I take a test in front of the audience every week. To do that, I have to select a fun item. It was really hard when I was a rookie. It was hard to tell what was funny and what was not. But the fact that I've been a comedian for 10 years has helped me a lot with a lot of data. Now, I start with all the sketches from the time I'm planning a new section. And I decide in advance what kind of changes I'm going to make after a few sessions, and who I'm going to put in. When I was a rookie, I was just doing it every day with no plan, so I was so exhausted. And I could see that even the audience was bored. Therefore, now, I plan everything from start to finish. And there is no big problem now.
7. How can you cope with unexpected situations, such as forgetting your lines or facing expressionless audiences?
I always try to approach the next line on the assumption that the audience may not laugh. I prepare each line between laughing and not laughing. Because of this, I hear that I do a lot of ad-libs. When I'm on stage expecting that the audience might laugh, but they don't, I make another line on a whim to make people laugh in that situation. People see this and think I'm doing ad-libs, but it's actually one of the many cases where the ad-libs themselves are pre-arranged. I plan it like a mechanism.
8. We have heard that you graduated from the Mechanical Engineering Department of Chung-Ang University (CAU). Your major seems irrelevant to your career as a comedian. Are there any special reasons for choosing to be a comedian?
Until the third year of university, I had been thinking of employment. I did dream of becoming a comedian, but I knew that realizing it would be difficult. Naturally, I came to think about employment and went to job fairs with my friends. CAU alumni who had already been employed visited the fairs and provided us useful advice and personal consultations. For one, I consulted one alumnus who was a Samsung employee at the time and asked him about the company. According to the senior, he liked his workplace because he earned a high salary. Hearing that, I wanted to apply to the company, and my GPA seemed enough to get through. As I heard more about his story, however, I changed my mind. As an employee, he started his day by studying, went to work, dined with his colleagues and ended the day by studying again. Studying was necessary for promotion. Even though he tried so hard, it was a shock that he could get fired in his 40s. He spent almost 20 years of his life studying for employment and at the same time, there was a high probability that he would not even be employed for 10 years despite the effort. The story itself was a warning trigger and allowed me to reflect on what I had truly enjoyed during my lifetime. I had participated in the ‘Young-Juk Theatre’. I felt alive when I performed. In the case of the Engineering Department at the time, students had to take four exams a semester. Basically, every semester was meant for continuation of examinations. It was stressful to study mathematics and economics all the time. Performing in Young-Juk Theatre’, therefore, relieved the stress for me since I got to watch audiences smile during my performances. Through self-reflection, I realized that I did not have a chance to spend time for myself only. Imagining myself being employed like others, I could easily picture the repetition of the same routine, the same life as before. Since employment in the past was not as difficult as it is at present, taking time off from school was not usual. However, I wanted to give myself one year, just as a challenge to find what I was really looking for. Even if I failed, I was convinced that looking for employment a year later would not be damaging to my prospects. This is how I decided to pursue my dream as a comedian. When I considered what would be my strongest point, providing humor and making people laugh—I had confidence in doing so and this is why I choose this career path.
9. What are some merits of being a comedian?
‘No time restraints.’ That would definitely be the most attractive point of having this job. As I mentioned before, I felt typical employment was depressing because employees did not have much spare time to be free. Waking up in six o’clock in the morning and having to work until 12 AM—time flew, and corporate culture has changed a lot nowadays. But at the time, keeping labor rights had not been as critical as now. What I am trying to say is that employment phases at the time meant overworking. You had to reap more than what you get paid. Logically, I did not want to be attached to the workplace almost the whole day. On the other hand, being a comedian is interesting in that I can have my opinion in what I want to do, and all my experiences could be used for building up jokes. If a comedian does not have original ideas for humor, he or she would have less opportunity to appear on TV. That is, to continue the job, a comedian must have creative ideas for humor—this personally is attractive to me since being a comedian allows you to express your thoughts freely.
10. Have there been any difficult moments working as a comedian for such a long time? If so, we would like to know how you overcame hardships.
My career path was not easy even at the starting point. In university, awkward vocal mimicry and the least humor worked out well. However, in this career field, everyone was humorous. I felt that I did not have much talent. The frustration at that time...I felt that my life had been ruined because I broke off relations with my parents and I even took some time off from university. I was not even in my early 20s anymore. I was 25 years old when I am trying out. Being a 25-year-old at the time was very different from being a 25-year-old right now. To understand what I mean, imagine that I was treated like a 35-year-old in the present. It was typical to marry when you were about 26 or 27 years old at the time. Kim Sam-Soon, who was called “the old maid” by the public, was 29 to 30 years at the time. In contrast to the past, when a comedian had to retire in their mid-30s, it has become typical to start the career as a comedian in your 30s. What I am trying to say is that, I was late for trying out considering the standard age at the time. “Old” age and the fact that I did not seem to have enough talent. These all made me to think that I might have ruined my life by taking a risk for once in my life. However, I could not run away from what I encountered. I have lived my life so fully from that moment on. I can even say that I have put out more effort than when I was preparing for the College Scholastic Ability Test (SAT).
Telling jokes is not something like mathematics. Since I was an engineering student, I was used to answering questions which only had definite answers and logic. If I had been a Liberal Arts major, dealing with something metaphysical might have been less difficult. Everything had been explainable for me. Even physical movement could be modified mathematically. But at all the sudden, I had to develop skills for telling jokes and this did not have a definite formula. I asked how I could tell good jokes and the answer was “Just to do it well.” An engineering student just could not do “well” from the beginning since being a comedian required a whole different way of thinking and learning. Then, I came up with a solution of watching the work of other comedians, as much as I could. The problem with this solution was that it took too much time. One episode of a comedy shows runs for an hour. I had to watch about 500 episodes in a short time. In one day, you could watch 24 episodes at maximum. At the time, wireless was not as stable as now so loading the shows were difficult as well. While watching the shows, I even had to dictate some lines for learning. When dictating funny parts, I had to go through repetitions of stopping and rewinding the scenes. The whole process of learning from others required time. Yet, the learning process could not be done by others. I had to lessen sleeping hours for this. There was one thing that helped me being an Engineering student. I easily got to notice that jokes are not random but have some kinds of patterns. If I had seen only one or two episodes, I would not have realized that there are certain patterns in making jokes. By watching so many programs, I could build up a database. In other words, I formulized the ways of making jokes. I believe that there are no other comedians who create and use formulization of telling jokes.
11. In spring, you started a YouTube channel called <Lee Dong-yeop Channel>. We are wondering why you started channeling YouTube. Also, could you explain both common features and different aspects between broadcasting on the YouTube channel and appearing on TV?
When I am on TV, there are producers who edit my performances suitable for televising. They know the points that people will laugh. Naturally, professionally edited materials get broadcasted and people usually respond well to them. On the other hand, I edit what I upload on YouTube. I imagine what people will laugh at. But my editing skill does not allow me to express what I have been thinking. As a result, the response was not good. Everyone has what they are good at and I realized that editing is difficult for me. I first thought easily about starting a YouTube channel, but this has not been easy as well. Now I am learning editing for development.
12. You uploaded many pictures of your children on SNS. Are there merits of being a father to your career and vice-versa?
I play well with my kids better than other dads. My kids just rush over to me and dance whenever I appear. Other parents around me are often awed by my children’s response. They ask me how my children could love me so much. It would not be just me who try to play with kids. The difference is that I play “well.” I use my humor when I am around my kids and that probably is the reason why my children love me a lot.
13. We are curious about how you spent your university years. Based upon the characteristics of your career, were you a student who made your friends laugh a lot when in college?
As I was an engineering student, my life goal used to be employment and I had to get good grades. When I entered CAU, IMF broke out in 1998 and the national economic depression had created the impression that you should be diligent. Many students gave up entering university even though they attained good test scores, because they did not have the money to pay for tuition. At that moment, I thought that Korea would collapse and drift away off the map. Now, I can laugh about it. It just was not a time to be relieved and be playful. One time, I performed on the campus festival’s stage for my department. Since I was an engineering student, I suspect that I had a different humor points compared to other people in general. What I remember, as a result, is that people were looking at my performance very strangely.
14. Are there any memorable classes or professors during your time at CAU?
I have a professor who officiated my wedding. His name is Shin Hyun-gyu and he is still there. When I kept dreaming of becoming a comedian, I wanted to learn how to speak well. It felt fun to speak. Naturally, I took classes related to speaking and I loved it. After people began to recognize me as a comedian, the professor started telling his students that he had taught me. As a surprise event, I visited him without telling him of my visit beforehand. During my visit, my junior who was taking the professor’s class told me that the professor had kept mentioning me during his classes. After all that, he has become a memorable professor, so I asked him to officiate my wedding.
15. If you could rewind your time, what is the thing that you want to do the most?
I would change my major from mechanical engineering to performance Theatre. If I had been able to enter the Department of Theatre, there would have been many seniors or juniors who would have helped me in this career field. Being the same CAU graduates yet having different majors did not help much. I felt a bit isolated. Not surprisingly, there are not many mechanical engineering majors who get to work in this field. Overall, I feel that I lacked the opportunity to pull the strings from the CAU network.
16. Are there any objectives in the future? We would like to know both your personal objective and career-wise objective.
Personally, I would wish happiness for my children. I have three children, one daughter and two sons, and I just hope that they grow up healthily. As a comedian, recognition seems important. However, as you get more well-known, the public requires you to have more responsibility and impose more strict obligations upon you. I feel a little scared at that. Nowadays, I am careful of what I am saying on the stage because my statements could be misinterpreted unlike what I intended. That is, speaking wrong could hurt someone unlike my intention. To conclude, I just hope that I can continue to be on stage as I have been. I do not crave for more.
17. This is the end of the interview. Please comment for the CAU readers!
As I have repeatedly stated, my career path is not related to my major. In the case that your major does not seem suitable, do not be depressed or frustrated. Try to find what you are good at. Also, I hope you to find what you enjoy without sleeping or being paid. “Don’t wake up at seventy years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail, and at least you gave it a shot. That’s echoed for me all through the last few years.” This statement by Josh Cooley, the actor, is what I heard when I was a university student, and it affected me to choose my career. You are young at the moment. There are opportunities. Please challenge yourself whenever. I would also advise you to change the way of thinking so that what may be defined as failures are not just failures but experiences. Please keep on challenging. Thank you.
A profession that gives happiness by making others laugh is a comedian. Also, the one who finds his own happiness in the laughter of others is a comedian. Lee Dong-yeup, a comedian himself, says he lacks talent. But everyone knows that he is definitely talented by the fact that he is one of the comedians representing South Korea. As Thomas Edison says, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” so there must be a lot of effort beneath his success. Since early August this year, Lee Dong-yeup has started a new corner in the gag program Smile-King. CAH will look forward to this new corner. It could be a starting point to make Korean gag community flourish again.
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