[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Psick Univ YouTube comedians discuss breaking the mold
The Baeksang Arts Awards is one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in Korea. Held by the JoongAng Group, it has honored excellence in film, television and theater in Korea since its inception in 1965. The 59th edition took place on April 28 in Incheon, with this year’s focus on works that received international acclaim thanks to online streaming platforms. In this interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily sits down with Baeksang award recipients to talk more about their wins, careers and plans for the future.
This year’s Baeksang Arts Awards undertook what may have been one of the biggest structural upsets for an event of its kind, giving the title of the Best Entertainment Show to a YouTube series instead of a television program.
The three winning creators of the “Psick Show” YouTube channel's series Psick Univ were just a few of the many who were shocked by the decision that night.
“Being really honest, we thought that it was great that Baeksang was trying to transform itself just by nominating us,” Jung Jae-hyung, one of the trio, said.
“The nomination itself meant that the awards were trying to expand its horizons to include new media, so we had no reason to think that we could win. We thought it would go to a larger entertainment show or something made by broadcasters like in the past. We were going to be grateful just for attending.”
Psick Univ started in April 2019 with three comedians — Jung along with Kim Min-su and Lee Yong-ju — who started their careers as comedians signed with KBS and SBS, major TV stations in Korea, and their comedy shows. Having debuted in the mid-2010s, the three entertainers witnessed the fast decline in the number of both TV viewers and comedy shows amid the exponential growth of similar content platforms online.
Their YouTube channel — spelled pisik in Korean for the onomatopoeia of a giggling sound — started with a namesake university-related content series, such as “How people handle break-ups in university,” “Freshmen in universities” or “Seven symptoms of exam period.”
Viewer reactions remained mediocre until October 2019, when they uploaded hidden camera footage of a young man eavesdropping on two of the Psick Univ crew pretending to be North Koreans trying to start a mukbang channel on YouTube. The video went viral with the two comedians’ spot-on portrayal of North Koreans and the innocent citizen trying to hold his laughter in while eating his ramyeon next to them at a convenience store.
Then last November came the first of the “Psick Show” series, where Psick Univ members shot themselves having an English interview with a fictional TV show, pretending to be world-class superstars. Long story short, viewers thought it was a blast.
“We didn’t fit into a box that was already created,” Lee said in English during the acceptance speech for the Baeksang award last April. “We made our game by ourselves. We are not going to stop taking risks or breaking barriers or challenging ourselves.”
The trio sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss its big win at the Baeksang awards, breaking the box and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Congratulations on your big win. What have you been up to since the awards ceremony?
A. Kim: It’s been the same for us — planning, shooting, editing and doing that all over again.
Jung: We’ve been congratulated by so many people afterward, and we’ve been on media programs like this one. It’s made my parents very proud.
Lee: My grandfather even called the Baeksang award “our family’s honor.” My grandparents raised me and they were so busy sharing my news to everyone that they didn’t call me until two days after the award ceremony. My family is even busier than I am.
How did you first feel when you found out that you had been nominated?
Jung: We honestly thought it was amazing that Baeksang Arts Awards would expand its horizons to new media faster than any other award ceremony in Korea. We didn’t think that we would win at all. As grateful as we were for the nomination, we thought the award would go to entertainment programs made by larger broadcasters like it had been the case in the past. We were just going to be happy with the fact that we attended.
But your speech seemed very well planned out. Did you prepare for it in advance?
Lee: We got together with the crew days before the award and discussed what would happen if — although it was a big if — we won. We wanted to prepare just in case because we thought it would be better to give a smooth performance rather than just improvise on the spot.
So what we planned for first was that Min-su would start with the “Psick Show” vibe and give a fancy acceptance speech [in English] as if we were at the Oscars or the Grammys. Then Jae-hyung would say thank you in Korean and I would finish by explaining a little about our philosophy in English, so that it looks cool.
But the moment we stepped on the stage, the prompter read, “Only one person speak, please.” And we thought, “We’re doomed.” Min-su had already started his speech, so me and Jae-hyung were giving all these signals to each other on what to do. We somehow agreed that I would just give a short speech after Min-su and then finish there. It was all done telepathically.
What did you mean by what you said during the speech, that you did not fit into a box?
Lee: It’s literally what I said. We all started out as comedians on television comedy shows, but none of us could fit in with the conventional system. We weren’t good enough and we failed to fit in, but we still wanted to be comedians. That’s why we took matters into our own hands.
Before Psick Univ, we met while planning a stand-up comedy show at a bar. We started out as a stand-up crew and then got on YouTube later. The only way we could continue as comedians was to make our own content because no one wanted us. We had no choice but to make our own program, but I guess having paved our own path for years has brought us here today.
We’ve thought about why people love us and how we were able to come to this honorable place. And we think it’s because we took on risks and new challenges, and people are inspired by us for doing that. The speech was meant to carry our journey and our will to continue taking risks like we always have.
How did you come up with “Psick Show”?
Lee: “Psick Show” really was done because we were forced to, in a way. Two years ago, we were chosen to make a video to introduce our channel for a YouTube Fan Fest held by YouTube among some channels in Korea. We were talking about what to make, and we decided it would be funny if we pretended that we were world-class stars in an interview with a foreign press, because foreigners won’t know who we are anyway. It then became a Podcast series and what it is today after a renewal.
Jung: It actually didn’t do that well at first. Our first podcast had guest [rapper] Los and it didn’t get the attention we had hoped for, despite it being quality content. The “Psick Show” you see now is the result of so many meetings and changes we’ve made since.
Are there any other guests in particular that you remember who were on the show?
Lee: We are grateful for all our guests. But we’re especially grateful for BTS’s RM, because his appearance led to the exponential growth of our channel. We should have mentioned his name in the speech, but we didn’t. I’d like to take the chance to do so here at least.
You have done a lot of different series for Psick Univ. Is there a favorite character among them?
Kim: The series and the character that we’re working on at the moment are always my favorite. Now, I’m having so much fun speaking in English.
Lee: We try not to look back on the characters we’ve done in the past. Sometimes — whether because we did a good job or purely out of luck — a character can do so well, but looking back at that character means that we end up copying ourselves, which results in similar content. So we always try to think about what we’re making right now and the content that we’ll be making in the future. We leave our past in the past and always imagine what we’ll do in the future. So my favorite is always the character I’m doing now or the one that I’ll be doing later.
How do you get inspired and how do you share the ideas to create your own content?
Jung: All three of us have different ways of observing people. For Yong-ju, he likes talking to people. If there’s a new artist, he’ll dive really deep into who they are and what their work is like. I tend to focus more on what happens between people rather than the people themselves. So we all see different things in the same situation and bring that to the table.
Lee: We share our ideas so much that our brains are in sync, like devices are these days. We always share any hint of a new idea that we have and then somebody else builds from that, and so on. We’ve been in the habit of doing this for so many years now, and so it’s like we’re having a meeting every single day of the year.
What plans do you have for the future?
Kim: Comedians typically aim to become TV entertainers or hosts like Yu Jae-seok or Lee Kyung-kyu in the past. But we want to remain as creators and comedians and keep making our own content, rather than taking the TV path. We want to remain as Psick Univ.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]