Twenty-something years ago, I was asked to go and do a gig in South Korea. Long, and very complicated story short, it turned out to be the single worst gig I've ever done, by a country mile, and involved contracts being torn up, agents jumping to their feet and threatening to fight me, serious injury due to negligence, the possibility of losing both a decent amount of money and my passport, and a scary van ride that we were convinced was going to end in the middle of nowhere next to a shallow grave rather than the promised airport. As you might imagine, for a long time, a gig in South Korea became short hand for a thing to run in the opposite direction from.
Not any more.
Last week, after a couple of decades and change, I returned to South Korea, to take my one man show to the Busan International Comedy Festival. I knew very little about the festival before I went, so had little idea what to expect. What I got was far and away one of the nicest gigs of my career.
Pusan is a beach city, and reminds me very much of Miami. Long sandy beaches curl themselves around Mandelbrot coastlines, bookended by the occasional sprouting of clumps of shimmering skyscraper hotel blocks. Miles of delicate white suspension bridges link the various parts of the sprawl, and gave us perfect postcard views of Haeundae, where we'd be living, as we drove into town from the airport, the warm breeze curing the film of stickyness that long-haul flights coat you with.
Every building in downtown Haeundae is covered with signs, neons, animated lightups, screens and pvc banners. The grey city blocks are made gaudy and beautiful by a different sign, for a different thing, in a different colour and font, on every floor. The blocks end up looking like stacks of old VHS cassettes labelled by different people at different times. "MEAT", "CHICKEN & BEER", "WHISKY, BEER & DRINK", "TOM & TOMS COFFEE", "SEXY LIFE"..
I check into my hotel, plug into the wifi, and am immediately greeted by a message from some old street performing pals. Daniel and Kim, "Street Circus", had seen that I'm also in Busan, as are they, and are asking where in town I'm staying. Turns out I'm staying two floors down from them in the exact same hotel, so next morning, we're all at breakfast, once again talking about how cool and random our lives are that the last time we saw each other was a year ago in Toronto, and here we are in South Korea, having had no idea that we'd be meeting. How lovely.
On this trip, I have a sidekick, the mighty Taz. The show I'm performing on this trip is a little more tech heavy than my usual stuff, so Taz is handling all my sound and lights, and is brilliant at it. It's also really nice to have someone to hang out with and share the ridiculousness of my job with. A witness. And if ever a gig would need someone to reassure me that, yes, this is really happening, then it'd be this one.
The first bit of performing I was down to do was a short spot in the opening night gala. I had been told that this was quite the event, but was fairly unprepared for what a huge affair it turned out to be. Two thousand people in the live audience, and the show was being being broadcast live on television. The first few rows of the audience filled with local celebrities, the casts of famous Korean TV shows, and important Korean politicians and leaders. It all started to get a bit giggly. I was lead into a holding area filled with the products of all the sponsors, and was immediately given a bottle of Coca-Cola. Great, I like Coke. Wait a second. This bottle of Coke had me on it. That's ridiculous. More giggling.
Then my name is called, and I'm pointed out to a stage, where I stand and strike a couple of casual poses while dozens and dozens of press photographers pepper me with flashguns, while my face is streamed live to the three giganto-tron screens that frame the stage, and beamed to millions of doubtless confused Korean homes. The stage manager waves me off the stage, and I walk down a gangway that cuts through the audience. A thousand people of each side of me hanging over the barrier for high-fives and selfies. I get halfway down before it hits me. This is as close as I'll ever get to feeling what a wrestler feels when they make their Wrestlemania entrance. I slow up. Start to work the crowd a little more. Play around some. Then I'm at the end of the walkway and I take my seat and await my turn to do my thing.
The next few days involved gala shows in a four thousand seater venue, along with lots of great Korean comedy acts. Always great to be able to watch a comedy act working in a language that you're completely in the dark with, and yet to be able to still genuinely laugh at their work. I had some lovely shows, quickly learning to modify my comedic rhythms slightly so that all the right moments fall into place and get the laughs they're supposed to. I must have been doing ok, because by my last show, they added a big gas jet pyro that went off on my final bow, right in front of me. Hilariously, they neglected to tell me about this, and so instead of a triumphant cool besuited guy taking his final bow, what they got was an English guy going "Hey.. Thank You, Thank You so WHOAAAAA okaaay". All good lolz until someone gets pyro'd through the roof.
Me, Taz, Dan and Kim went out for dinner together after the first night of shows and explored the town a little. We found ourselves in a long street full of fresh seafood. And by fresh, I mean eels, fish, crab, lobster etc all in big tanks waiting to be picked out, expertly hacked to pieces, flash-fried and presented on a polystyrene plate for your enjoyment. We also stumbled, along with a group of African American travellers, on a stall selling jet black eggs. Just normal looking eggs, but matt black. Curious. As Kim, and one of the guys tried them, his friend screwed up her face. "What's with the black eggs". Quick as a flash, I pitched in, "They're just eggs. Why you gotta be like that? Some of us don't see colour, y'know?", which received the greatest deadpan stare I've ever got, before she broke, grinned widely at me and chuckled hard. Phew.
We ended up eating at Mr.Jungs, what seemed to be a fairly traditional beer & fried stuff restaurant. It was great. Sweet potato cakes, spicy sweet cold noodles, thin crispy potato pancakes, lots of sauces and dips, and cheap cold beer. Contentment.
The next couple of days were spent shuttling around in a taxi, across those curving, gently arching bridges that link the districts, while the radio played fizzy, whip-tightly produced K-pop, making the whole thing feel like playing a level of the videogame "Outrun". We found some time to go shopping at some markets, where I picked up a pair of Barack Obama socks for Mrs.Ricardo, because why wouldn't you? And every night I had a performance of my one man show. I'd been, if not nervous, then at least conscious about working to an audience that spoke much less English than some of my usual crowds do, so I'd booked a rehearsal room for the week before I came, and worked long hard days to put together a low-language, high-skills version of the show, featuring routines choreographed to some lovely swing and jazz tracks. After the first night, I was thrilled that the work had seemed to pay off. Everything worked, and people seemed to love it. The cherry on the cake was the final night, where I had a nice big crowd full of students, young people, comedy people - all of whom were totally up for what I do. They were clapping and dancing around on my entrance music, and it just got better from there. So great a crowd were they, that I had to work hard to wipe the grin off my face, scared that I'd end up looking like an idiot, when I'm supposed to be looking all mean, moody and cool!
The last half of the trip, perhaps because they kept me super busy in the days, and happily drunk and fed in the evening, seemed to whip past, and before long - just as the jetlag was subsiding, it was time to come home and kickstart that biliousness all over again. Which brings me to now, waiting - as William Gibson writes in the wonderful "Pattern Recognition" - for my soul to catch up with me, after yesterdays full day of travel, and attempting to hammer out this blog post.
For twenty-odd years, South Korea stood, in our house, for "Worst gig ever", in one week, its been changed to "Best".
Took my camera, of course..
Want to see "Showman" live? Autumn tour dates ahoy:
Palace Theatre, Westcliff on Sea
Saturday October 10th- now on sale
The Quay Theatre, Sudbury
Saturday October 24th- now on sale
The Otley Courthouse Theatre, Otley
Tuesday October 27th- now on sale
The Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis
Thursday December 3 - now on sale
AGB Overpelt afdeling Palethe, Overpelt, Belgium
Friday December 4 - now on sale
CC de Werft, Geel, Belgium