How K-variety show ‘Running Man’ gives me a sense of comfort

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"Running Man" is a K-Variety show where a group of entertainers (comedians, actors, and singers) complete missions to win prizes and avoid penalties. Photo from SBS RUNNING MAN

I’ve watched all 558 episodes of “Running Man.”

I was in my second year of high school when I caught the curious sight of the first episode on my mother’s laptop screen. Two teams donning powder blue and hot pink overalls were running around on clothing racks in a large shopping mall with noticeable velcro-detachable name tags at their backs. The sight of my mother watching shows with subtitles was a familiar one — I grew up spending my weekend nights with her watching Korean dramas (“Heading to the Ground,” “Secret Garden,” and “My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox”). But on that Sunday, the casual setting of the show’s frames and the frequency of crowd laughter-like sounds led me to believe it wasn’t anything like a K-drama.

"Running Man" cast. Top row, from left: Song Joong-Ki, Hwang Jung-Eum, Yoo Jae-Suk, Kim Jong Kook, Lee Kwang-Soo. Bottom row, from left: Ha Dong-Hoon, Ji Seok-Jin, Lee Hyori, Kang Gary. Screenshot from KJKGLOBAL

I remember thinking the show was a bit odd yet I couldn’t find it in me to turn away. I lurked around my mother for another 30 minutes and laughed at the same times she did. Finally, I grabbed a chair, joined her, and pointed to the one I found the funniest so far; standing at six feet tall with unusual bowl-cut hair whom I later identified as the actor Lee Kwang Soo.

"Running Man" is a K-Variety show where a group of entertainers (comedians, actors, and singers) complete missions to win prizes and avoid penalties. For the most part, the cast carried out these missions within South Korea but they’ve since traveled around Europe, Oceania, and Asia in their tearable nametags to perform more dangerous missions (riding the Nevis Swing, the world’s biggest swing, upside down and going wing walking at 120 km/ph).

One of the episodes I will always go back to is the Idol Special from 2013. The show welcomed a record-breaking number of fourteen idol guests from Apink, Infinite, MBLAQ, SISTAR, Girl’s Day, Beast (now Highlight), and 2PM. Teams of three were formed among one cast member and one K-Pop group to compete in a series of missions testing their athleticism both on land and in water. At that time, I barely had any friends to share my love for K-Pop with as it wasn’t as widely popular yet as it is today so the episode served as a conglomeration of all my interests I had kept to myself. From the ridiculous dance introduction of the teams alone, I had to take countless pauses as I felt my eyes closing and my stomach shaking from laughter. Not long after, the sound of my laugh turned inaudible and my tears became uncontrollable, releasing stresses inside me.

When the show first aired in 2010, the original cast was an all-male team of seven — including the likes of actor Song Joong-Ki (left after episode 41), and rapper Kang Gary (left after episode 324). The rest of the pioneering cast who stayed includes National MC Yoo Jae-Suk, comedian Ji Suk-Jin, award-winning singer Kim Jong-Kook, actor Lee Kwang Soo, and all-around entertainer Ha Dong-Hoon. Actress Song Ji-Hyo, the sole female member for nearly seven years, was drafted as a permanent cast member after her initial guesting in the first few episodes. After School’s Lizzy also briefly joined the early episodes of “Running Man” as a regular for around 10 episodes. Since then, other guest-turned-members actress Jeon So-Min and comedian Yang Se-Chan have joined what is now known as Running Man’s 8012 — an emblem for the show’s octet combined with Korean homophone “012,” which also means “forever.”

While the premise and format of the show stays simple, the reality-variety show’s ability to make people laugh stood the test of time as it remains to be one of the oldest Korean variety shows remaining on-air. Its popularity extended beyond its local borders as the number of fans around the world grew rapidly. By 2016, it earned the title of the top non-American show in the world with 2.4 million demand expressions (number of people expressing interest for a TV show to be shown on their available channels) a day. With its global success, “Running Man” has welcomed appearances from Hollywood actors like Jackie Chan (episode 135), Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Henry Cavill (episode 410), and Ryan Reynolds (episode 482) during their visits to Korea. The South Korean variety show demonstrated the same level of traction in Manila as tickets to the Philippine leg of their 2019 Asia fanmeet tour (cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) sold out in mere minutes.

The official “Running Man” Instagram account has over 2 million followers). Screenshot from INSTAGRAM

Last April, original cast member Lee Kwang Soo announced he would be leaving the show he has called home for years. Playing the role of the show’s notorious traitor and clumsy “giraffe” (a nickname due to his height) charmed the hearts of thousands — crowning him as Prince of Asia by fans around the continent. The notice for his departure left many in the Philippines heartbroken — myself included. The Philippine fanbase of “Running Man” paid tribute to the Prince of Asia with a billboard in EDSA showing clips of his best moments.

What was the enduring appeal? For me, spending every Monday of the last 11 years watching “Running Man” grounded me. To me, every new episode was an hour a week that I could turn my mind off, rest, and run free on its own. When I was still in school, it was a way for me to cope being away from home for the first time in my life. Having weekly post-episode conversations with my mom was an easy way for us to stay connected even when apart. Now that I have a job, “Running Man” remains a default pastime that de-stresses me on the first day of every working week. Anticipating and watching the antics of Lee Kwang Soo kept me looking forward to Mondays and offered a sense of comfort, especially while enduring prolonged time indoors the past few months.

The 11 year-old reality-variety show has the inherent power to make you laugh at the simplest things — from a mumbled remark to slapstick humor. There are random moments where I catch myself cackling alone because of something that Yoo Jae-Suk or Ha Dong-Hoon said from an old episode resurfacing in my subconscious. Sometimes on harder days, I cheer myself up by searching up the clip of Lee Kwang Soo fully committing to “fool acting” as he appeared in a blaring all-green tracksuit with a wig, trying and failing to eat a dried persimmon in episode 137.

My college roommate gifted me with customized Lee Kwang Soo stickers when we moved out as a way to commemorate our shared love for the show (after I made her watch an episode or ten with me). Photo courtesy of the author

While the thought of having to grow used to the absence of Lee Kwang-Soo leaves me wretched, I’m also reminded of the show’s history and ability to withstand members coming and going. With a short stay that lasted 10 episodes, Lizzy took her leave from the show to focus on girl group After School’s tight schedule of promotions. Song Joong-Ki left the show after ten months to focus on his budding acting career in 2011 — fans often call him a “permanent member” for his surprise cameos and appearances on “Running Man” since his exit.

Back then, I remember feeling disappointed no longer being able to see the show’s resident “flower boy” perform missions with his real-life best friend Lee Kwang Soo and the family he had found with the rest of the “Running Man” cast. But Song Joong-Ki’s decision to leave still allowed me and the rest of the show’s fans to see him elsewhere on screen with his famous roles in “The Innocent Man,” “Penny Pinchers,” and “Descendants of the Sun.”

Since his departure, the cast was able to find a stable rhythm and chemistry with each other as their roster remained the same for over another 280 episodes. When Kang Gary left the show in 2016 to focus on his music career and marriage, fans all over the world mourned the loss of the Monday Couple (a role he shared with Song Ji-Hyo). The news left me personally despondent, knowing that there was no other place or show to watch the South Korean rapper on — leaving me with no other choice than to wait in high hopes for new music to be released.

A few years later, Kang Gary returned to the screen through popular reality-variety show “The Return of Superman” with his son to share parts of his life as a newly-wed and a father.

Kang Gary left the show with an absence so felt that the production team knew they had to give the show’s fans something new. Shortly after, they casted previous recurring guests Yang Se-Chan and Jeon So-Min as the show’s two new regular members. With the unique dimension and personalities they both brought to the show, loyal viewers found novel and different ways to laugh again.

I don’t think anyone can fill the shoes that Lee Kwang-Soo is walking away from. Some may even argue that he’s a pillar of the show given the comical roles he and the other members had created for him — the K-Variety show’s original traitor and the quick first target for teasing. But if there’s anything I can attest to after 11 years watching “Running Man,” it’s that the show will always find a way to make people laugh again.