Ask any avid variety show viewer for a recommendation and they will more likely than not suggest the fan favourite, Running Man. Time and time again, Running Man has proven itself as an easy to understand yet unpredictable show. Having started out as a simple name tag chase, no one would have known that it would grow into a decade long show with over 500 episodes.
An accidental success or not, in its 11th year and running, Running Man has recently surpassed Infinity Challenge as the longest airing variety show. But what is the show’s secret to success?
The show has produced many legendary games and moments in their early years despite later forgoing their original intentions as a large-scale game of chase. In their heydays, the peak of each episode relied heavily on the highly anticipated name tag elimination game. While it grew rather predictable as a primarily physical game, adding smaller missions in between gave the weaker members a chance to change their fate. To some extent, it places the members on a rather equal playing ground.
One of Running Man’s strengths is their themed races, which stretches out this very element. Be it the Yoomes Bond episodes, Prison Break, Best of the Best Matches, or Superpowers Race, the production team has always cleverly played to each member’s abilities. In other aspects, the mini-games were also easily re-creatable despite being elevated on a bigger scale in the name of competition.
At other times, Running Man’s speciality concerns how physical, insane but creative the games were — ones that were impossible for the average Joe to participate in or even recreate. Be it singing on a rollercoaster, getting launched out of chairs, throwing each other into the water, riding the stomach-churning Nevis Swing, you name it, the members probably have done it.
However, as their popularity skyrocketed, foregrounding laughter is at the expense of physical sacrifices. With a handful of members being comedians and the rest being no stranger to variety shows, they often sacrifice themselves, their bodies and ego for the laughs. The members, especially Lee Kwang-soo, Haha and Yoo Jae-suk, frequently go out of their way to raise the comedic potential of any scene. Be it drawing on their faces or getting rough and childish with one another, they are unafraid to shed their celebrity image for laughter.
While most of the show’s funniest moments are rooted in slapstick humour, hitting others, slapping or accidental body gags, it is undeniable that the nature of Running Man is still primarily physical. At its peak, there was a lot of running, slipping on surfaces when water was involved, pushing, jumping from great heights, and having a tremendous amount of water dunked on them as punishment.
As a weekly guilty pleasure for viewers, it is easy to forget that the show is physically exhausting for the members and there is only so much one’s body can tolerate. As expected, behind closed doors, Haha mentioned that the members all suffered herniated disks. Respectfully, the cast have been going through this for years to keep up with the show’s growing popularity.
Still, they reap the benefits of their laudable sacrifices. Through using their bodies, viewers need not necessarily be Korean nor understand the culture to enjoy Running Man. Running Man appeals to the masses by speaking the primary language that is understood by all: body language.
While the show is acknowledged for its crazy missions, it makes up only one aspect of what makes Running Man prominent. Its unscripted nature makes up the other parts of it. It allows for better cast chemistry, an element that is impossible to emulate, playing on spontaneity and the cast’s willingness to (respectfully) overstep boundaries. At times, they air some private matters, offhandedly mentioning Ji Suk-jin’s secret bank account and Kim Jong-kook’s old love line with Yoon Eun-hye, much to the viewers’ amusement.
Though some 11 years have passed, some of the original members are still known best by their on-screen nicknames. They portray recognisable characters, one that plays on patterns and repeated behaviours during the races. Prominently, Seok-jin is commonly referred to as the “Big Nose Hyung” and “TikTok Grandpa”, Jae-suk as the “Grasshopper”, Haha as “Haroro”, Jong-kook as “Sparta” and “Tiger”, Song Ji-hyo as “Ace” and “Blank Ji-hyo”, and Kwang-soo as the “Betrayer”, “Giraffe” and “Prince of Asia”. Granting each member nicknames based on their physique, strengths or weaknesses differentiates them from one another and makes them almost irreplaceable.
Likewise, with different teams each week, the show offers a variety of team dynamics and distinct pairings. Given this, putting Kwang-soo and Suk-jin together creates the nostalgic “Feel Chok Cross” or “Easy Brothers”, Gary and Ji-hyo are known as the “Monday Couple”, and Jae-suk and Jong-kook are so-called “rivals”. While the list can run on and on with some episodes constantly reinforcing certain pairings, negative consequences will also naturally surface. While it can be difficult to admit, fans can grow too attached to them.
With the addition of Jeon So-min and Yang Se-chan in 2017, many 7012 fans (“7” representing the number of members before Gary left, and “012” bearing aural similarities to “forever” in Korean) are still unreceptive towards them. It would not be a problem if they were simply left alone. But this is unfortunately not the case with the two youngest members. Unhappy about the situation, some fans go as far as leaving malicious comments and nitpicking at their every action.
Likewise, Gary’s sudden departure took fans and the cast by surprise. While Monday Couple was a heavily pushed love line, Gary’s marriage was a wake-up call for many. An on-screen romance, just as its name suggests, is simply done in the name of entertainment. More often than not, on-screen personas are played up for variety sake and are unreflective of real life. Many Monday Couple fans struggle to accept his departure and the separation of the well-loved couple. Gary’s departure surely opened up Pandora’s box and it does not stop there.
In contrast to the show’s emphasis on the member’s bond as a family, in actual fact, it is reported that Gary abruptly severed contact with the members. Years have passed and the members seem to have let the news die. But when they do mention him once in a while, it is not without slipping in subtle jabs, hinting that they parted on shaky terms. Yet, a handful of old-time fans still latch onto the original lineup despite Gary’s departure being out of anyone’s control.
Trudging through ups and downs, Running Man has not only impacted the Korean variety scene, but also the international one. For many, the show’s concept is unique and its concept is easy to mimic. Its popularity can be measured by the two spin-offs in China (Keep Running China) and Vietnam (Running Man Vietnam). It is also no secret that much of the show’s success can be credited to their loyal international fanbase who continue to express their unwavering support weekly. Even Jae-suk acknowledges their power during the Thailand episode back in 2011, one that marked the show’s huge turnaround.
11 years is a long time for a variety show. Like myself, many long time viewers have seen the members grow out of their same coloured one-piece jumpsuit, to their now mismatched style of clothes. But as the members get older, what will be of Running Man’s future?
While it seems like their future is uncertain upon Kwang-soo’s departure, the members have often expressed their will to continue to run as long as they are able to. With a loyal fanbase and an upcoming fan meeting, the show shows no signs of slowing down just yet. Though the prominent name tag chase is long gone, plenty of viewers still continue to watch the show out of habit. Despite not being indicative of its actual popularity, Running Man’s domestic viewership seems to take a hit at times. But from a broader perspective, it is still able to maintain its spot as a popular weekend show. And on an international level, the flame is still burning.
No doubt Running Man’s PDs and cast have constantly proven their fluidity. Despite gradually changing the show’s structure, they have still managed to maintain its prominence as a household variety show. With the will to continue, a loyal fanbase and cast, honestly, anything goes.