Is it Possible to Be Funny in North Korea?

Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.

Michealangelo Matos is a music critic who specializes in the modern history of EDM, from the 90s rave thing to now where it’s weird DJs you’ve never heard of who have 18 million twitter followers and go to Ibiza all the time. Recently I heard an NPR interview with him where he is talking about, really, what IS EDM? Is it a genre? Well no, he says. It’s really more of a format.

This was a pretty astute observation (I think the host actually said it and Matos agreed), that can be applied to lots of things. Comedy, for example, is way more a format than it is a genre. Or really, to me, it’s more like a mood or a vibe. Like I always say, there are way funnier jokes in Miller’s Crossing or Raging Bull than there are in [looks up a totally random comedy move that happens to be out right now] Central Intelligence.

Which brings me to North Korea. I saw a really cool video this weekend about North Korea – it was one of those long videos that you have to watch in a big dark room with a bunch of other fans of the same content and instead of clicking the video, you pay someone else to go in another room and click it for you. Here’s a shorter version:

There is one scene in this in which we see a large group of maybe 100 North Korean adults doing calisthenics, in some kind of public square, first thing on this horrible grey damp morning, and they are singing a government-mandated song about how it’s February and they love February. February!!!! That moment, I realized, was probably the most depressing thing that was happening on Earth at that specific moment in time. Probably the most depressing thing happening in the entire universe, now that I’m thinking about it.

From then on I started watching this movie by trying to notice any sense of fun or playfulness or self-expression or irony or anything. I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that there was very little. North Korean citizens participate in culture, sure, in the form of dance classes meant to reinforce that famous North Korean dance style we all know and love to know and love. Or some singing at some of these huge presentations the government has all the time. Or an old military veteran who it seems basically travels from school to school telling bored kids these stories about how they kicked Japan’s and America’s asses in the Korean War. Or there’s even this government consultant/director for the movie (or the movie within the movie, as it were) who is directing a family in what they should say for the foreign cameras. Curb Your Enthusiasm-style, pitching jokes, trying to work with the “actors” to get some good light energy going. Weirdly they didn’t have too many notes for him.

But anyways, that’s kind of the joke of the movie, that the North Korean government gave them a script and they are shooting it. Which of course starts out really funny, with camera moves from sleeping school kids up to the government-mandated Kim Il-Sung/Kim Jong-Un portraits on the wall. And leaving in the stuff where the government director yells “action!” before a line of people starts boarding a bus. It’s kind of silly and ironic! But by the end it’s just incredibly depressing that everyone in this country is just dead inside and going through the motions.

In such a country, is it even possible to be funny?? Or if someone started being funny suddenly, would it be like a whole other emotional language that North Koreans just aren’t formatted for? After so many decades of being at this terrible summer camp of a country, is that just a color they can’t see?

So I started watching all the publicly available footage of North Korea, scanning for clues. The natural starting point would be the VICE documentary about Dennis Rodman going there. (There are some other VICE ones, but they are mostly Shane Smith in South Korea asking people how hard it is to get over the border to the north.)

Here’s a short clip of the Rodman visit from a British news show:

And here is the full Rodman documentary, which has led me to conclude that no, this visit was not funny. The idea of Dennis Rodman is funny, but the idea of North Korea is so unfunny that it cancels it out. The dynamic between Rodman and Kim Jong-Un isn’t really even that funny because he seems to really like him and neither of them is in on the joke at all.

Then of course there’s the James Franco movie about North Korea that everyone got mad at. That doesn’t count because it’s a fictional movie, so it’s all fake. Not the real deal.

The idea of this movie is pretty funny to me because North Korea got really mad about it and it’s funny to see them get mad about a stupid movie. But it’s not really the real North Korea, so not really within the purview of this project…

Is this VICE thing titled “North Korean Labor Camps” funny? I am not going to watch it, but can safely assume it’s not that funny.

There’s also a really good book about North Korea, The Impossible State by Victor Cha. This has some funny stuff in it, like how North Korean kids learn math by doing problems like “X kills 100 American soldiers, Y kills 150 American soldiers. How many more American soldiers…” That would definitely be pretty funny if that was a sketch and you were at like irony level 4 maybe. But North Korea is at like irony level -1 maayyybe. So it’s definitely really unfunny. Same with the stuff about how Kim Jong-Un says he got 15 holes in one in a row or whatever.

The most heartening video I could find is probably this, from National Geographic. It’s in the certain sub-genre of North Korea travel documentaries that focuses on “the daily lives of regular North Koreans”:

These folks seem pretty laid back and chill. They go to an amusement park at one point, and are laughing and seem to be genuinely chilling. Whereas the February morning calisthenics were probably the most depressing thing I can imagine, a trip to an old North Korean amusement park might be the strangest. Not bad, just very weird. Because there is kind of a chill vibe, which would probably be good for making jokes in. Of course nothing really funny happens, but…it could happen.

And so, I have concluded that, yes, it is possible to be funny in North Korea. It seems that we do not yet have conclusive proof of a specific instance, but this highly scientific investigation has shown that it is more likely than not that something funny has happened there…or might even be happening right now, who knows?

But for now, at least based on the official YouTube record, this is the funniest North Korea thing that we’ve been able to capture on film:

Is it Possible to Be Funny in North Korea?