It was the middle of his interrogation in a South Korean police station, and Chris Tharp was trying to explain satire. "I said that back home in America, we have a tradition of making fun of authority figures, that we make comedy about them, try to bring them down. Then I just stopped. I realized I was digging myself in a hole."
The police had detained Tharp—a sometime Seattle theater artist who was part of an infamous company called Piece of Meat and has been teaching English in Pusan, South Korea, for the past two and a half years—over a sketch comedy he helped produce. Called Babo-palooza (babo is Korean for "fool"), the show sold out two nights in a 60-seat theater with bits about drunken English teachers, overzealous customs agents, and some doggerel about dog-meat soup, called boshintang: "I will not eat this boshintang. I will not eat it, Kang-Jae Wang." It was, Tharp said, a silly evening that gently mocked both Koreans and Westerners.
Less than two weeks later, police came to the university where Tharp works and detained him and another performer for questioning, fingerprinting, and a drug test. "Luckily, we were all clean," he said. "In Korea, failing a piss test is the same as possession: You go to jail for a few months and get deported." At the station, he remembered selling one of his interrogators a ticket: Two undercover detectives had attended the show. The police said that the performance violated the expatriates' work visas, but most of the questioning was about the content: why it was called Babo-palooza, what the jokes meant, what the performers were "trying to say."
Investigators were especially curious about a sketch making fun of an ignorant Westerner being interrogated by nationalistic immigration officials. "In Korea, we do not have a tradition of mocking superiors," Tharp remembers the policewoman saying. "Why do you do?"
The police released the performers and said they'd pass the results of their investigation on to a prosecutor who will decide whether the foreigners will be warned, fined, or deported.
Tharp called the American embassy, which gave him the standard line: We can't get involved in your local legal issues. The Korean and English newspapers casually distorted the story, making the show seem more pointedly racist than good-natured. One newspaper renamed the show Oriental Story. Another reported that it primarily mocked old Korean women. "This country has totally different journalistic standards," Tharp said. "I can't even tell you."
Despite the trouble, Tharp loves Korea and doesn't want to leave. He teaches at a university, travels, and stages the occasional play. Last year he helped mount a production of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. "We're just amateurs," he said. "Not everything we do is funny or successful. But it doesn't warrant a trip to the police station."