When Is a Joke Not a Joke?

  • By Joo Yong-joong from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    June 07, 2007 12:21

    Joo Yong-joong

    Humor has become a desirable quality in politics of late. Many politicians, including presidential contenders, want to be remembered as humorous individuals. They crack jokes during lectures, tell humorous anecdotes or deliver punch lines prepared by speechwriters who used to be writers for radio or TV. Some lawmakers have even founded a "Humor Forum" or "Humor Academy" and hosted several seminars on this topic, under the motto "Humor can revive the country." Politicians are making great efforts to catch up with this era of jocularity.

    But no matter how hard they try, politicians' humor is inferior to comedians'. Comedians have long since stopped making the audience split their sides by speaking ill of or disparaging others. Few people would be tickled.

    But many politicians' jokes target their rivals. The "jokes" exchanged between associates of Grand National Party presidential contenders Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, and between former Uri Party chairmen Chung Dong-young and Kim Geun-tae and Cheong Wa Dae officials are cases in point. Despite some wit, their jokes are sharp barbs directed at their opponents, a sort of verbal pushing off the precipice. The official campaign for the presidential election has not even started yet, so there is no telling how much more black humor will be swapped as GNP contenders start vetting each other's credentials in earnest and when the competition structure becomes clearer in the ruling camp. The closer they are to the election day, presumably, the sharper the barbs.

    In Japan's Diet during World War II, an opposition lawmaker picked a quarrel with foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka. The lawmaker said, "You have only one eye. Can you see the complicated international situation correctly?" Matsuoka said quietly, "Haven't you heard of the phrase, 'One can see it with an eye?'" When one of his political rivals criticized Abraham Lincoln, saying, "You have two faces." Lincoln asked if he had two faces, why would he use the ugly one. Matsuoka didn't say that it was discrimination against a handicapped person, nor did Lincoln say it was a personal attack: they shot back in a dignified manner. Korea needs more of that kind of humor.

    But it can't be produced overnight. The famous comedian Lee Sang-yong buys about 50 books every month. While reading them, he jots down dirty stories in his notebook with a red ball-point pen, weird ones with a blue pen, and funny ones with a black pen. He creates one such notebook every week. Another comedian, Kim Je-dong, reads newspapers of all stripes for 70 minutes every day and pastes clippings of editorials into a scrapbook, and writes down his own opinions on them. "Kim Je-dong's Analects" are the outcome of these efforts. Yoo Jae-suk, the comedian and TV presenter, never hurts or makes a butt of others with his humor. He makes his audience laugh by placing himself in an inferior position.

    There is nothing easier than the joke at someone else's expense. But it is either arrogance or misjudgment to think they can win voters' hearts with such cheap humor. The Chinese cultural critic Lin Yutang once said, "There is a charm in humor when it is elegant and implicit." Politicians should not try to win easy results with cheap shots.

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