North Korea Is the Worst Place in the World To Be a Standup Comic

"If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy," she said and laughs.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un decides when it's okay to laugh. (Reuters)

When it's not threatening nuclear war, the repressive hermit kingdom of North Korea is a bountiful provider of absurdist comic fodder. But it turns out to be a terrible place to tell jokes for a living.

According to a report by Radio Free Asia, the well-known North Korean comedienne Lee Choon Hong, "known for satirizing aspects of North Korean society by mimicking voices," made what a source described as a "slip of the tongue" on a "sensitive issue" while performing for workers at a government work site. As a punishment, she was immediately sentenced to perform hard labor at the Jikdong Youth Coal Mine.

While we don't know exactly what Lee's offending joke might have been, we do know a bit about what North Koreans find humorous -- both in private, via the dark jokes shared by defectors, and in public, where they are virtually commanded to laugh at the world's most horrifically unfunny sketch comedy show. The long-running program is called "It's So Funny," though the South Koreans who are paid to monitor the broadcasts say it's anything but. A Reuters report from 2010 has these details about a featured skit in an episode that was all about beans:

It opened with the man soldier saying to the woman soldier he feels better and looks more handsome because he has been taking medicine made from beans. "If we soldiers see beans, we become happy," he said and laughs. "If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy," she said and laughs.

Reuters noted, by the way, that the bean episode of "It's So Funny" didn't contain a single fart joke.

Presented by

Adam Pasick is the senior Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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