Most South Korean variety shows rely on a central theme to function. From Knowing Bros’ classroom concept to Busted!’s mystery motif, it would seem that crazy antics and lively conversation aren’t enough to keep a show afloat. It also has to have a distinct gimmick to make it stand out from the crowded competition.

In SBS’s online variety show Showterview with Jessi’s case, that gimmick is none other than the MC herself, the titular Jessi. Celebrity guests don’t have to dress up as students to be interrogated, or go sleuthing and look for clues with hosts, but they do have to brace themselves for Jessi’s no-holds-barred spontaneity, which can be just as (if not more) daunting than the former two combined.

The premise of Showterview, which has already raked in millions of views despite premiering less than a year ago, is as basic as can be: a guest sits down with Jessi for half an hour or less, while she asks them questions about their life and career. She employs, more or less, the same tricks to liven things up, with an acrostic poem here or a guessing game there. But the key to Showterview’s charm is that any pretense of being prim and pristine is left right at the door the moment the first word is said.

Before the start of the actual interview, Jessi will often make comments like “You know we call this the Shiterview right?” to her guests on camera. It’s a self-deprecating moment that introduces newcomers to her brand of humor, but it also works to put celebrities at ease. Their guards are down for this short while, and the rehearsed acts that usually take over moments like this are at once–and thankfully–absent. It’s this stripped-down and open nature, combined with its online novelty and small-crew charm, that makes the show a refreshing triumph in the variety sphere. 

As a performer, Jessi has now more than 15 years-worth of experience under her belt, so it’s no surprise that she can hold her own with various guests, from K-pop idols like Chungha and established actors like Sung Hoon to the “national MC” Yoo Jae-seok himself. What sets her apart isn’t her skillful ease in dealing with different people, though she definitely has a lot of that, but rather her alienation from them, by virtue of being an outsider even after all these years.

As a Korean-American who went back and forth between the two countries, it’s no secret that Jessi has struggled to assimilate herself into a comparatively more conservative Korean culture. Though she admits it has pained her in the past (for a more in-depth take, look no further than her interview with “best friend” Tiffany Young), it’s now something she obviously revels in. Her music, style, and upfront approach to life are all markers of a riskier self, and nowhere is this more celebrated than in the Showterview episodes.

In them, her foreignness cuts through the veneer of politeness as she always manages to get straight to the point. She’s not afraid to ask idols, for example, the heated question “Who’s the member you disagree with the most?” If they try to shy away from the question, she looks them dead in the eyes as if to say “You and I both know you have an answer to this,” and, eventually, they give in. Near the end of a particularly wild episode with Super Junior’s Heechul, where mentions of smoking and many a curse were made, the idol playfully turns to the staff behind the camera and asks “Can any of this be aired?” Of course, everything does air. Such is the show’s commitment to being utterly funny and real.

“She’s a perfect fit for viewers these days,” Jae-seok says of his mentee in another episode. “She directly says what she wants.” Indeed, when SBS announcer Jo Jung-sik, Jessi’s contrarian sidekick in the show, wonders in an early episode if Jessi might be “too much” for audiences, she cuts him off mid-speech and says, “Excuse me. My program, my concept.”

The ownership Jessi has over Showterview is something that resonates well with modern viewers. And while the accompanying openness ensures an insane amount of hilarity, it also drives the emotional core of the show. In an interview with Sunmi, the two share their fears about aging, while in another with Dawn, they talk frankly about love.

She was especially direct during Hyuna’s guesting, with both host and guest confronting their supposed “skin exposure” scandals. In the episode, Jung-sik shows the women candid photos of themselves in revealing clothing—Jessi in only a white shirt and underwear at the airport and Hyuna in skimpy black shorts on stage. When he asks them to explain themselves, Jessi fires back, “How is this any different than wearing a bikini?” to which Jung-sik replies, “Well, you’re at an airport.” “It’s my free will,” she says with finality, and everyone laughs in agreement. Hyuna adds that she was also too busy giving it her all to have noticed her shorts rising. The caption then displays, in both English and Korean, “Breaking news: exposure is proof you’re working hard.”

This is another interesting part about Jessi’s show: the fact that you sense other people’s sincere involvement in it, from the caption and subtitle creators, who add their own commentary and flair, to the PDs and staff behind the camera, whose engagement recall the live laugh tracks that used to punctuate jokes in comedy shows past. Their reactions are heard, if not emphasized, and Jessi clashing with her producers always makes for good laughs.

There is an intimacy to their setup that’s more similar to small-time YouTube productions than actual TV shows. The latter’s structure and politeness may be preferable to traditional audiences, but they won’t find a home in the freewheeling world of online media, where up-close and personal videos are the name of the game. Showterview’s achievement is that it treads the line between these extremes; it has the modern sensibility of meme-enjoying viewers while still making use of TV’s familiar beats and budget.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for this gem on the internet. With the steady increase of its viewership and Jessi’s own success as a musician, it’s not far-fetched to think SBS might have bigger plans for the show. Will it transition to a wider, more scrutinizing audience in network TV, or stay in the welcome arms of its digital, global fanbase? Whatever happens, it’s nice to think that a space like this exists in the entertainment landscape, one that is funny and kind, and that doesn’t feel the need to resort to anything too extra for it to work.

In an early episode, Jessi tells Jung-sik that hosting has always been a “dream job” of hers. “I would love to make my guests relax and be comfortable so that they can show their real selves,” she says. So far, she’s achieved just that by being impressively real and open herself.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6][7]. Images via PNation and SBS/Mobidic)