The Kung Fu Wizard of Oz Speaks in Korean

The Strange Pleasure of the Obscure Joke

One of the clichés about humor is that it works best as a com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence as the lev­el of mirth is raised by a shared under­stand­ing of a joke. A per­son alone may mere­ly smile or nod at a fun­ny com­ment heard on TV, but laugh out loud at the same joke in the com­pa­ny of peo­ple who are also express­ing their amuse­ment. In that sense, the prac­tice of main­stream humor, in standup com­e­dy or a sit­com, is a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly mid­dle­brow art. To cap­ture as sig­nif­i­cant part of the audi­ence as pos­si­ble, most jokes are designed to appeal to the world­view of the aver­age. Con­se­quent­ly, the butts of ridicule are often those of extra­or­di­nary stu­pid­i­ty as well as of intel­li­gence, the unusu­al­ly ugly as well as the beau­ti­ful, the very poor as well as the rich. By den­i­grat­ing them, medi­oc­rity is affirmed as nor­mal, sen­si­ble, and natural.

There is, how­ev­er, a pecu­liar type of humor that func­tions in exact­ly oppo­site way, name­ly it draw its pow­er to amuse from the exclu­siv­i­ty of the knowl­edge that is required to under­stand it. A joke that par­takes in that form of amuse­ment works because only a few peo­ple with the req­ui­site under­stand­ing can ‘get’ it. The term ‘inside joke’ is often used to describe this phe­nom­e­non, but that usu­al­ly refers to a com­ment that arous­es amuse­ment among those who shared a com­mon expe­ri­ence — for instance, the unusu­al nick­name of a per­son that is fun­ny only to those who have wit­nessed that per­son behave in a cer­tain way at an event. An inside joke may involve exclu­sive knowl­edge, but its exclu­siv­i­ty may have noth­ing to do with what makes it fun­ny. In fact, the nick­name might be just as fun­ny if every­one was brought ‘in’ on the joke by being told what that per­son did to earn that nick­name. The phe­nom­e­non I am inter­est­ed in here is based on exclu­siv­i­ty, or the plea­sure of the obscure. Unlike the inside joke, which can retain its pow­er to amuse even after it is no longer ‘inside,’ the obscure joke is one that works because it is fun­ny to the few, in direct con­trast to the nature of the main­stream joke. In oth­er words, its obscu­ri­ty lies at the essence of its humor­ous value.

I began think­ing about this sub­ject after I came across two rather obscure ref­er­ences in a sin­gle day. A few months ago, I was eat­ing lunch at the food court of the uni­ver­si­ty where I teach when I hap­pened to look up at a TV set on a wall that was play­ing music videos. My atten­tion was arrest­ed by images from, I found out lat­er, the video for ‘Calami­ty Song’ by the Decem­berists, a band that I had heard of but whose music I was not famil­iar with. As I watched a group of youths play­ing a very strange game of ten­nis, until they sud­den­ly went out of con­trol and attacked one anoth­er, I knew that the scene was in ref­er­ence to some­thing I had read about. Just before the video came to an end, it came to me. David Fos­ter Wal­lace, in his 1996 nov­el, Infi­nite Jest, spent many pages describ­ing in detail an elab­o­rate game played by the prodi­gies at a ten­nis acad­e­my. Because it had been over ten years since I had read it, I was rather sur­prised that I ‘got’ the ref­er­ence at all. The music video con­firmed it at the end by reveal­ing that it was inspired by the novel.

That evening, I returned home and watched the pilot episode of the Net­flix Orig­i­nal adap­ta­tion of Philip K. Dick’s clas­sic alter­nate his­to­ry nov­el The Man in the High Cas­tle (1962). In a scene that takes place in a din­er, which I do not believe occurs in the nov­el, a man makes a uni­corn origa­mi and puts it on the table. This one I ‘got’ imme­di­ate­ly. A uni­corn origa­mi is also made by a char­ac­ter in the film Blade Run­ner (1982) which is also based on a Philip K. Dick nov­el (Do Androids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep, 1968).

Nei­ther of these ref­er­ences were ‘jokes’ in the usu­al sense of the word, so it made me won­der why the feel­ing that was aroused by my under­stand­ing them was that of amuse­ment. The ten­nis game in the ‘Calami­ty Song’ and the appear­ance of the uni­corn origa­mi were not in them­selves humor­ous in nature, but there was some­thing def­i­nite­ly fun­ny about them. And it had to be about the fact that they both point­ed to exclu­sive knowledge.

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Infi­nite Jest has not only been laud­ed as a mod­ern clas­sic but it is thought to be a noto­ri­ous dif­fi­cult nov­el to read (though I have always sus­pect­ed that those who describe it as ‘dif­fi­cult’ have nev­er actu­al­ly read it or fin­ished it, since I found it to be quite read­able, just very long at over 1000 pages). So the obscu­ri­ty of the ref­er­ence in the video for ‘Calami­ty Song’ lies in the fact that it can only be under­stood by those who man­aged to get through the tome. And the exclu­siv­i­ty of that com­pa­ny is at the heart of the plea­sure of ‘get­ting it.’ It is also iron­ic that the nov­el is thought to be a favorite among ‘hip­sters,’ a vague­ly con­temp­tu­ous term that point to the urban young who indulge in a cul­ture of eccen­tric­i­ty that, in direct oppo­si­tion to main­stream cul­ture, val­ue the eso­teric and the obscure. And the Decem­berists have some­times been den­i­grat­ed as a hip­ster band.

The uni­corn origa­mi speaks to read­ers of sci­ence fic­tion, but more specif­i­cal­ly to the fans of the works of Philip K. Dick and the film adap­ta­tions of his sto­ries. The Man in the High Cas­tle and Do Androids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep are regard­ed by many as Dick’s best nov­els. And Blade Run­ner has been a peren­ni­al favorite with enthu­si­asts of sci­ence fic­tion cin­e­ma. The appear­ance of the uni­corn origa­mi, there­fore, is a form of in-group sig­nal­ing, among those who are cog­nizant of PKD lore in both lit­er­a­ture and film.

To reit­er­ate, even though these ref­er­ences were not meant to be jokes as such, they arouse amuse­ment on the part of the per­son who ‘get’ them pre­cise­ly because of their obscu­ri­ty. It is a plea­sure that comes from both being in on a secret as well as being part of an exclu­sive group that pos­sess­es knowl­edge that most do not. In that sense, that pecu­liar joy of get­ting the obscure ref­er­ence comes from the simul­ta­ne­ous desire to be excep­tion­al and to belong to an imag­ined com­mu­ni­ty of the exceptional.

* * *

This is my favorite obscure joke from Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, one that has brought me an acute sense of plea­sure not only as a film buff, but also as a cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an and a Kore­an immi­grant to the Unit­ed States.

The 1977 com­e­dy film Ken­tucky Fried Movie, direct­ed by John Lan­dis, con­sists of a series of sketch­es par­o­dy­ing dif­fer­ent movie gen­res. Its cen­ter­piece and the longest episode is enti­tled ‘A Fist­ful of Yen,’ a take­off of the suc­cess­ful Bruce Lee film Enter the Drag­on (1973), about a mar­tial artist named Loo (Evan Kim) who is sent on an espi­onage mis­sion into the lair of the evil Dr. Klahn (Bong Soo Han). Some of the humor is fair­ly basic (like the names of the three hench­men Well Hung, Long Wang, and Enor­mous Gen­i­tals), but because most of the jokes are direct ref­er­ences to spe­cif­ic scenes in Enter the Drag­on, only those famil­iar with the Bruce Lee movie could real­ly ‘get it.’ For instance, in Enter the Drag­on, the vil­lain Han (Shih Kien) reveals a pri­vate prison on his island where he keeps drug addicts who are described as “human refuse” who “do not know where they are and do not care.” In ‘A Fist­ful of Yen’ Klahn describes his pris­on­ers in exact­ly the same words, but then he also presents sep­a­rate prison cells where he also keeps those “who do not know where they are but DO care,” and those “who DO know where they are but do not care.” Also, while Han has a pros­thet­ic hand which he replaces with blades before he fights his final duel with the Bruce Lee char­ac­ter, Klahn is shown using an elec­tric tooth­brush and a hairdry­er attach­ment to groom himself.

The ‘Fist­ful of Yen’ episode ends in a hilar­i­ous­ly absur­dist man­ner that shifts the par­o­dy to anoth­er movie. In the final fight, Loo kills the vil­lain Klahn by throw­ing water on him, which inex­plic­a­bly makes him melt. This ref­er­ence to the demise of the Wicked Witch from The Wiz­ard of Oz (Klahn also cries out “I am melt­ing!” as he dies) is car­ried even fur­ther when Loo real­izes that what he real­ly wants now is to go home. He is told that all he has to do is tap his shoes togeth­er three times and say “There’s no place like home.” The scene then turns black and white, and Loo, dressed up as Judy Gar­land play­ing Dorothy, finds him­self in bed at his aunt’s home in Kansas and real­izes that the whole thing was a dream. This bit of silli­ness is actu­al­ly rev­e­la­to­ry in the sense that it points to a sim­i­lar theme in The Wiz­ard of Oz and Enter the Drag­on. Both Bruce Lee and Dorothy go on a per­ilous jour­ney to the realm of a mys­te­ri­ous man of great pow­er, meet­ing com­pan­ions along the way (in the case of Enter the Drag­on, the Cau­casian mar­tial artist played by John Sax­on and the African-Amer­i­can mar­tial artist played by Jim Kel­ly) who become his allies. Just as Dorothy ulti­mate­ly expos­es the Wiz­ard as a fraud who uses visu­al trick­ery to cre­ate the appear­ance of pow­er, Lee over­comes Han’s trick­ery in the maze of mir­rors and defeats him. That makes Han and Klahn the kung fu Wiz­ards of the mar­tial art Oz.

So to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the humor of ‘A Fist­ful of Yen,’ one has to be famil­iar with two oth­er movies, Enter the Drag­on and The Wiz­ard of Oz (also at least an aware­ness of the Spaghet­ti-West­ern movie title A Fist­ful of Dol­lars). Despite the require­ment of exter­nal knowl­edge, one might object that the episode’s jokes can hard­ly be regard­ed as ‘obscure’ since both films they ref­er­ence are high­ly pop­u­lar ones that are still regard­ed as clas­sics in their respec­tive gen­res. In oth­er words, too many peo­ple have seen those movies for the knowl­edge of their con­tents to be described as ‘exclu­sive’ and humor based on par­o­dy­ing them as ‘obscure.’ But a tru­ly obscure joke occurs unex­pect­ed­ly toward the begin­ning of the episode.

The vil­lain Klahn is played by Bong Soo Han (1933−2007), a Kore­an mar­tial artist and pop­u­lar­iz­er of hap­ki­do in the Unit­ed States. When Loo and oth­er vis­i­tors arrive at Klahn’s realm, they are wel­comed by the vil­lain who deliv­ers a bom­bas­tic speech which starts off in Eng­lish. As Loo then starts flirt­ing with the female guide, the speech switch­es to Kore­an as it becomes the back­ground noise to the ensu­ing com­ic scene. What Bong Soo Han says in Kore­an rough­ly trans­lates as fol­lows: “I was told to just say some­thing in Kore­an with­out being giv­en any real direc­tion. This is ridicu­lous. If there are any Kore­ans lis­ten­ing to this, they’ll think that I’ve lost my mind. But what can I do? I have to do what I’m told. So ridicu­lous. Work­ing on Amer­i­can films, this is hard­ly the first time some­thing like this has hap­pened. Any­way, for any Kore­ans who under­stand this, I deeply apol­o­gize for this farce.”

The fact that these lines were left untrans­lat­ed (i.e. no sub­ti­tles) leaves open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Bong Soo Han made the remarks on his own ini­tia­tive (though it would have been no less fun­ny if the direc­tor had told him to say those things in Kore­an), sole­ly for the enjoy­ment of those who under­stand Kore­an. That exclu­sive­ly is at the essence of what makes the com­ment so hilar­i­ous. To ful­ly appre­ci­ate the joke in the con­text of the entire episode, one has to be some­one who is not only famil­iar with Enter the Drag­on and The Wiz­ard of Oz but also a Kore­an speak­er who can com­pre­hend it in the con­text of the Amer­i­can brand of satir­i­cal humor. And that requires a tru­ly exclu­sive knowl­edge at the heart of the strange plea­sure of the obscure joke.


Min­soo Kang is a his­to­ri­an and a fic­tion writer. Due to his father’s occu­pa­tion as a diplo­mat for South Korea, Kang has lived in Korea, Aus­tria, New Zealand, Iran, Brunei, Ger­many, Unit­ed States, and oth­er places for short­er peri­ods. He served in the army of the Repub­lic of Korea and earned his Ph.D. in Euro­pean His­to­ry at UCLA, with a spe­cial­ty in the intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al his­to­ry of West­ern Europe in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies. He is cur­rent­ly an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the his­to­ry depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-St. Louis. He is the author of a book on the his­to­ry of automa­ta Sub­lime Dreams of Liv­ing Machines: The Automa­ton in the Euro­pean Imag­i­na­tion (Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011) and the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Of Tales and Enig­mas (Prime Books, 2007), and the trans­la­tor of the clas­sic Kore­an nov­el The Sto­ry of Hong Gildong (Pen­guin Clas­sics, 2016). His sto­ry ‘A Fear­ful Sym­me­try’ was includ­ed in the 2007 Year’s Best Fan­ta­sy and Hor­ror col­lec­tion. He has also pub­lished fic­tion in Lady Churchill’s Rose­bud Wrist­let, Aza­lea, and the anthol­o­gy Shang­hai Steam, and has fic­tion forth­com­ing in the Mag­a­zine of Fan­ta­sy & Sci­ence Fic­tion.