SEOUL Stern, serious, socialist North Korea has carved out a spot in TV history for having one of the world's longest running comedy shows, despite it being mostly devoid of jokes for the decades it has been on the air.
The show now called "It's So Funny" is meant to uplift the morale of troops and extol propaganda about the virtues of serving under "The General" Kim Jong-il. Laughter is optional -- unless the soldiers in the audience are ordered to do so.
The format of the show is usually a conversation between a man and a woman in military uniform, who sometimes sing, dance and try a little slapstick, but mostly avoid telling one-liners.
"Often, it is really hard to find the humor," said a South Korean official who monitors the North's official broadcasts.
"This type of show has been on since almost the beginning of the state's official programing (in the 1970s)," he said.
The latest version that came out in the past week extolled the virtue of beans, while avoiding any flatulence humor.
It opened with the man soldier saying to the woman soldier he feels better and looks more handsome because he has been taking medicine made from beans.
"If we soldiers see beans, we become happy," he said and laughs. "If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy," she said and laughs.
Few of the soldiers in the audience could be heard laughing.
There was one long send-up that did gather a few chuckles. The two talk about how bean-fed North Korean soldiers were able to fight off U.S. imperialist troops during the Korean War.
The women soldier, playing the part of an old woman, said bean-fed troops including her husband had amazing strength on the battle field. "But he died," she said.
The show concludes with the two delivering homilies on Kim Jong-il's military rule.
"He had tried so hard to fill the people's tables," they say in tearful voices.
There is no room for irony in the performance shown on the reclusive state's only channel to a people who have battled chronic food shortages for decades due to the government's bungled agricultural policies.
Kim Yong, who defected from the North and became a TV personality in the South, said the actors on "It's So Funny" have immense talent but they are working with comedy vetted by propaganda experts and government censors.
"The show is delivering the same material over and over again," Kim said.
"They are still talking about beans. The country hasn't changed at all since I defected about 20 years ago."
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)