First published on Oct 24, 2013.
They are no K-pop stars, but the cast of the Korean game show Running Man attract throngs of fans whenever they are in Singapore.Just how did a variety show become such a big deal? Even at its peak, the popular American game show The Amazing Race did not attract such passionate fans when it was filmed here in 2009,Local fans and TV experts say they love Running Man because of its unpredictability, celebrity star power, cast chemistry and comedy.
There are 168 Running Man episodes to date, but the show still manages to keep on surprising them, say fans.
Every new episode features new challenges, new rules and new team formations, making it a very unpredictable show. The show is also filmed in many different locations, whether it be a single shopping mall or across an entire city.
Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun of Nanyang Technological University’s division of broadcast and cinema studies at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information says that a major reason for the success of the show is its “creative use of otherwise nondescript public and commercial spaces, turning these into refreshingly energetic spaces of play”.
He adds: “Running Man is about taking audiences to the various corners of not only South Korea, but the region as well. In the rather fast-paced urban societies in Asia, the show helps to provide release from the daily tensions that such streets and buildings are associated with.”
Running Man’s cast members also often change the rules as they see fit in order to sneakily win the games. There are also many instances where they have to interact with different celebrity guests as well as spectators, so viewers never know what to expect.
Ms Susanne Low, 33, who works in travel sales, has been watching the show since its inception in 2010, after a Korean friend recommended it to her. She says: “Some episodes are obviously better than others, but at least, you always see something new and different. Even when a similar game is played, there are new rules. It’s never just a plain copy of an older episode.”
In an interview with Life! last December, Running Man production director Cho Hyo Jin, 39, was quoted as saying: “Fans are quite critical. If we do something that’s slightly similar, we get abrasive comments.”
All the Running Man fans Life! spoke to say they like the show because it is “so funny”.
Every scenario that the cast get into can be turned into something fun to watch, and the often slapstick humour – such as someone slipping all over the place or eating something in a messy, rowdy fashion – translates well beyond Korean-speaking audiences.
Part-time ITE student Muhammad Bashah Khan Surattee, 21, says: “I have been a fan since the first episode. Every cast member is always so funny, which makes the show very entertaining.”
Fellow fan Jinnie Lim, 25, says that watching Running Man is a “great destressing activity”.
The finance undergraduate adds: “Whenever I get stressed while studying for exams, I will watch an episode. Everyone is so silly and goofy, so you don’t have to think very hard.”
The Straits Times Life!’s Asian TV reviewer Foong Woei Wan says that “the genius of Running Man is that it isn’t a variety show – it’s a comedy”.
She explains: “It’s a comedy and they’re all comedians. Haha and Gary are naturals, and look at how hard Lee Kwang Soo works to make a silly situation even sillier, to find the comedy and work it. He has to be bumbling and pathetic and funny. Goofy physical humour like that just transcends subtitles.”
NTU’s assistant professor Liew points out that part of the the comedy comes from the fact that most of the cast members are not particularly good-looking, so they have nothing to lose by making themselves look silly.
He says: “Unlike the younger K-pop group members who seem to be more pressured to keep their composure, it is their un-remarkability that frees the hosts of Running Man from any restraint, so they can roll around the floor and wrestle with one another like children.”
A huge draw for Running Man is the fact that it frequently features top celebrities as guest players of the games, whether they are stars from the movie, music or sports arenas.
Past celebrity guests include hip-hop couple Yoon Mi Rae and Tiger JK, singer-actor Lee Seung Gi, actress Han Hye Jin, and members from K-pop groups such as BigBang, 2PM and Infinite.
As these celebrities interact with the show’s main cast and try to win the challenges, their spontaneous reactions are sometimes surprising and often very funny and entertaining to watch.
Sometimes, Running Man hooks new fans based on star power alone.
Secondary 3 student Chin Li Qi, 15, admits that she started following Running Man only last year, after catching the episode featuring popular K-pop group Girls’ Generation.
“I am a big fan of Girls’ Generation and wanted to see how they performed at the challenges, so I caught that episode. But after that, I realised that the cast members of the show are all so funny, so I started catching up on all the other episodes on the Internet. I’ve watched them all now.”
She is now “so obsessed” with the show that she even started a fan group here known as @–RunningManSG, which has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter and over 1,000 on Instagram. She posts regular updates on the show and its members.
She hopes to see YouTube sensation and singer Psy on the show. “I think that will be a lot of fun. Running Man member Yoo Jae Suk was featured in the Gangnam Style video (as the yellow-suited man in the fast car), so it might be fun if Psy goes on Running Man too.”
Even the episodes without any big-name celebrity guests make for compelling viewing, mostly due to the “amazing chemistry” between the cast, say fans.
Accountant Luanna Chen, 29, loves that the camaraderie between the members is “very convincing”. She adds: “They feel like a real family. It helps that they are so different from one another, so they can all play up their different personalities and respond to the challenges in unique ways. If everyone had the same personality, then it wouldn’t be so fun to watch them.”
Secondary 4 student Aeriqah Azmi, 16, especially enjoys watching the supposedly romantic chemistry between cast members Gary and Song Ji Hyo. The duo, called the Monday Couple, are often teased by their colleagues for being attracted to each other.
Says Aeriqah: “From being awkward with each other, the two grew closer and the chemistry they have on the show is strong. Also, they make an incredible team and their personalities complement each other well.” Gary has a down-to-earth vibe, while Song is assertive. Both, however, are known for their often blank and clueless facial expressions.
To indulge her fandom for the pair, Aeriqah founded and regularly contributes to an online fanbase known as @mondayxcouple, which has close to 11,000 followers on Twitter and more than 13,500 followers on Instagram. On the accounts, she posts news updates and photos of the couple.
Office administration assistant Jaslyn Liew, 27, says she “cannot imagine” the show’s permanent cast being replaced with anyone else. “After three years, you really love them and want to see more of their interactions with one another. Even though Jong Kook wins many of the missions, there is no jealousy in the rest of the members. They all look like close friends and watching them together just makes you feel really happy.
“I also watch many other Korean variety shows including Barefoot Friends and 2 Days 1 Night, but the chemistry of those cast members is not as strong as that in Running Man.”