It’s no secret that Korea’s most popular and well-known variety shows are dominated by all-male or mostly-male casts. From Master in the House to Knowing Bros. to 2 Days 1 Night to Running Man, the variety show landscape, especially across Korea’s major broadcast and cable television networks, has been and continues to be overwhelmingly overshadowed by men.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Korea Communications Standards Commission of 39 popular entertainment programs from the three major broadcast networks and other cable channels, men comprised 62.7 percent of entertainment show casts while women only made up 37.3 percent. Findings from the study also revealed that variety show hosts and permanent guests were nearly twice as likely to be men.

Now, however, among a crowded field of long-standing male-led variety and reality programs, a growing and mighty group of female entertainment show hosts and female-centric variety shows and their cast members are quickly emerging, signaling that perhaps a new era of Korean variety programming is finally on the horizon and here to stay. 

Thanks to digital platforms like YouTube, many recent variety show newcomers, especially those featuring female emcees and cast members, are now more than ever finding their place on an even smaller screen. With broadcast networks seeing a steady drop in their viewership for some time now, major players like SBS, MBC, and KBS are finally capitalizing on the platform’s popularity, both in Korea and globally, to introduce an even wider range of entertainment programming that features a more diverse set of voices and personalities — namely, those of women. What has resulted is a space where female-starring variety shows can be free of network regulations, allowing their hosts and cast members to push the envelope and experiment with their content to a degree that is mostly unseen on variety shows aired on major television networks.

Take SBS’s Showterview with Jessi, hosted by Korean-American rapper Jessi, for example. Showterview, which premiered in June 2020 and which airs weekly on SBS’s Youtube channel, Mobidic, has a simple, familiar premise. Jessi sits down with her celebrity guests for roughly thirty minutes to interview and play a game or two with them, usually with the help of a handy set of cue cards provided by her staff. However, what typically ensues is anything but the usual stiff or awkward celebrity interview, thanks to Jessi’s brash, direct, and loud and explicit sense of humor, as well as her commitment to spontaneity to reveal unexpected sides of her guests (and sometimes even herself).

While the online variety program has garnered millions of views since its premiere and featured a star-studded lineup of guests, from Super Junior’s Heechul to Yoo Jae-seok to Sunmi, it’s evident that the show’s success and popularity would be unlikely without the presence of Jessi herself. In Showterview, Jessi does what she knows best, cutting straight to the chase to immediately break down any barriers of formality or awkwardness between her and her guests. Her tactic sometimes results in more awkwardness than intended, but so much as to ultimately help her guests let loose and at least feel comfortably uncomfortable with her. She’s also an expert at subverting variety show host norms, especially for women -— like when she interrupts and makes fun of her guests, makes explicit jokes, or goes completely off-script.

Jessi sets herself even further apart from her male variety emcee counterparts by her ownership over both her foreignness and Americanness (she was born and raised in New York before first moving to Korea in 2003) as well as her sexuality. She will frequently accept and make self-deprecating jokes about her Korean pronunciation or unfamiliarity with a Korean word, or yell “OH MY GAWUUUUD” (as the caption usually appears on-screen) in English in response to a cringey line her staff put on one of her cue cards, so much to the point where the phrase has become its own recurring joke on the show. She is also especially able to comfortably broach often taboo topics (such as aging, dating, plastic surgery, and scandals) especially with her female guests, against the backdrop of the show’s lighthearted tone. For example, during a segment from her interview with Hyuna, Jessi’s Showterview sidekick Jo Jung-sik stands at a podium and brings forth a series of “controversial” photos of the two women, including a set of photos in which they were both captured in revealing clothing due to a wardrobe mishap, then allowing them to hilariously explain the background behind the photos while still making the point that they have full ownership over their bodies and therefore what they choose to wear.

There’s also SBS’s other longstanding online variety talk show MMTG, hosted by SBS producer (and self-proclaimed “half celebrity, half ordinary person”) Jaejae. Much like Jessi in Showterview, Jaejae excels at something rare and often unseen in male-led variety talk shows: creating an environment that makes her guests feel relaxed, carefree, and comfortable.  

According to the idols and celebrities that visit her show as well as her fans, Jaejae is renowned for making her guests feel at ease. This, in turn, often makes them more willing to participate in and go along with her shenanigans, like when she hilariously dressed as the cartoon alien “Jito” (or “Jaeto,” as Jaejae calls herself during the episode) from an English language textbook to “teach English to students” with Itzy in celebration of the release of their first all-English album. In episode 123, idol group Seventeen is shocked to find that it’s acceptable for them to turn down participating in anything that Jaejae or the producers request them to do (something rare and almost entirely unheard of on idol-centric variety talk shows) after Hoshi is asked to do a dance and Jaejae reminds him that he can say no (which he then does). 

Jaejae is also well-known for coming to her interviews so overly prepared and with so much knowledge of even the most minute and unheard of details of her guests that she often leaves them shocked at how much of a true fan she is of them. In one of MMTG‘s recurring segments, Jaejae reveals her deep knowledge of her guests via her spiral notebook, which is typically filled with hilarious memes, viral photos, or unseen candid moments of her celebrity guests. She also frequently gives idols and celebrities the freedom to do and showcase what they want so as to almost make them feel like an extension of the show’s fixed cast of one (Jaejae), rather than mere guests. For example, during the same episode with Seventeen, member Seungkwan reveals that he contacted Jaejae prior to the episode’s filming to make suggestions for segments on the episode based on MMTG’s usual “K-pop evolution” segments, which Jaejae then incorporates into the show. Although Jaejae doesn’t necessarily have the storied celebrity power of an emcee like Yoo Jae-seok, she does have the enthusiasm and knowledge of a true fan, bringing an authentic aura and her own fresh take and personal star power to her variety talk show. 

In addition to female variety show hosts leading the way thanks to the wonders of the internet, women are also making their variety show strides and revitalizing the genre in the television arena, most notably with new shows featuring majority-female or all-female casts like tvN’s Sixth Sense and Tcast E Channel’s Sporty Sisters. With these female-centric programs come both a refreshed take on the variety show genre as a whole, as programs like Sporty Sisters take the classic variety concept of cast members trying out new activities (as in Master of the House) and apply it to an all-female perspective, as well as an update to the often male-centric humor of most mainstream Korean entertainment programs.

Sixth Sense, which premiered on tvN in September 2020, is not only making waves for its unconventional premise, in which its five fixed cast members, along with a sixth, male guest must use their “sixth sense” to determine which out of three “trendy” venues is entirely fabricated by the show’s production staff. On top of that, it also features a gender ratio of fixed cast members typically unseen on a variety show on a major network. The show stars a majority female cast of Jessi, Running Man’s Jeon So-min, Sky Castle’s Oh Na-ra, and Mijoo of girl group Lovelyz, alongside lead emcee Yoo Jae-seok. According to the show’s producer (who is also the producer of Running Man), Jeong Cheol-min, he wanted “to try something” different with the show’s hosts. “From the outset of the planning, I realized the importance of the chemistry between our female members if our show was to be successful,” Jeong said. “And I believe that Yoo is the only main emcee adequate to blend well with the members, not overshadow them but to add a strong presence.” 

From the show’s first episode, and even first scene, that chemistry between the female cast members, as well as Yoo Jae-seok’s ability to fit neatly into their unique relationship, has proven to be the show’s primary draw, and perhaps its best feature. In the first scene of the show, the fixed cast members meet up for the first time to find out what exactly it is they’re going to be filming together for eight episodes. As soon as Mijoo, the last to arrive, enters into the restaurant where the rest of the cast is already seated and catching up, the women begin talking about none other than their bra sizes, and Yoo is blatantly and hilariously left out of the chat. It’s a prime example of what the show does best: feature the unique dynamic between women and the often self-deprecating humor they place on each other and themselves, as well as their ability as a female-majority cast to reclaim the typical male-centric humor and turn it on their singular male cast member, Yoo Jae-seok. 

Reality show Sporty Sisters, on the other hand, is more laid back in nature, and instead showcases the lives of some of Korea’s biggest female athletes, including professional golfer Park Se-ri, swimmer Jung You-in, former fencer Nam Hyun-hee, former figure skater Kwak Min-jeong, and former volleyball player Han Yoo-mi. The premise of the show is fairly standard for a variety show, as its cast members get the chance to try new activities they hadn’t had the time or the chance to experience before due to their busy schedules as athletes. The show offers a breath of fresh air and cool take on a classic variety format by giving viewers a look into the lives and challenges of an unlikely grouping of stars — professional female athletes. From the very first episode, the women dive into topics that have mostly gone untouched on mainstream Korean variety and reality programming, including the challenges of being a woman in their sport, injuries they have faced, and even dealing with pregnancy while being world-renowned athletes.

While these women and female-centric variety shows are making strides within the variety show genre, there is surely a still long way to go. Recent controversies, such as comedian Park Na-rae’s scrutiny for inappropriate jokes she made on her YouTube variety show Hey Narae and subsequent calls to remove her from her weekly appearances on I Live Alone and Where is My Home illustrate the backlash that still exists and remains present for female emcees in Korea. 

However, with changes in technology and audience base, and a slew of successful examples to follow, a revitalized path for women in the variety show world is most definitely in place. With more web-based shows comes an opportunity for female hosts to step outside the box and make themselves known to the world beyond their home base of Korea, and a renewed interest in the dynamic between female variety cast members by producers and audiences alike remains promising for future programming to follow. For Korean variety programming, the future looks starkly female.

(Korea Bizwire, MN2S, Korea JoongAng Daily [1][2], The Korea Herald, Youtube [1][2][3][4][5], Youtube [1][2][3]. Images via Netflix, SBS, E Channel.)