Sam Hammington is a star in the South Korean entertainment industry. He first travelled to Korea as an exchange student, as part of his university program which included Korean. He got his ‘break’ as Korea’s first foreign comedian, and now works in variety and reality television. Sam was in a hugely popular TV show about South Korea's military service called Real Men. It was a gruelling experience, which included swimming through a frozen pond in shorts and experiencing frostbite. Sam became the first non Korean to be awarded Best New Male Talent in variety television, which was based on his role in Real Men.
As a child, what did you dream of doing?
"Growing up, my mother was the casting director of Neighbours, so television was something I was always interested in. But I was probably more interested in studying zoology. My biggest downfall was both not studying hard enough in high school, and not having an affinity for maths and science."
You’ve become Korea’s first foreign comedian and have worked on a number of TV programs. What’s been important to your successful career?
"Obviously the ability to speak Korean has been integral. I think that my time spent working on a comedy show in front of a live audience was a huge part of my success. That period was such a steep learning curve, especially having to learn the difference in humour, developing the ability to adlib in Korean, as well as learning the Korean work ethic.
A typical Australian trait is upfront honesty, which has certainly helped with my time here in Korea. Starting out, I was a little worried about stating opinions that may not be popular opinions, especially as I was an outsider. But I find that viewers and fans are happy that I call a spade a spade.
I’ve also met some great comedians here that have helped me along the way, and continue to be inspirations and teachers. For me to continue my career here, I need to maintain the role of student and continue to learn. Working with Jack Black was a perfect example. He is the epitome of professional — never complaining, always at 110% and just a ball of energy. It’s important for me to reflect on all my experiences and take away as many lessons as possible."
On the Korean reality TV program, Real Men, you went through Korean military training (which is compulsory for Korean men). Why did you sign up for it? What were the most enjoyable and gruelling experiences?
"It is one of the biggest timeslots on Korean television and opportunities like that don’t come around all that often. The chance to be involved with the Korean military was something that was going to be a once in a lifetime chance. Growing up, I had applied to ADFA [Australian Defence Force Academy] but was not successful based on health issues. So this was my chance to ride in tanks, shoot guns, throw grenades. I think Rambo had a lot to do with that.
The most enjoyable experience came outside of filming the show. It was at the awards ceremony where I was awarded Best New Male Talent in Variety. To be able to receive the award on live television and thank people that had got me to that stage was huge, being the first non Korean to ever win that award was even bigger.
On a more selfless front, we spent a week in Leyte, the Philippines deployed with one of the Korean bases over there, helping with the cleanup of Typhoon Yolanda. Being able to help out by rebuilding schools and giving back to the community was incredibly enjoyable. Just being able to see the kids smile was truly inspirational.
On the gruelling side of things, we had many times where we would be training in the winter. Something I’ve never gotten used to is the frigid cold. Two examples spring to mind. The first was a 1.5 km run to a frozen pond. When we got there we had to strip down to shorts, smash through the ice and then get in the water for what was about 60 seconds but felt like 60 minutes.
More gruelling than that was the time when we were doing a training session in a wind chill of minus 20, walking through snow. It was reconnaissance training that took at least an hour, with simulated booby traps and simulated enemy assaults. My gloves were wet and I ended suffering from first degree frostbite. There were times when I couldn’t even hold the barrel of my rifle because I couldn’t bend my fingers without immense pain. I still struggle in cold weather after that experience."
How many years have you lived in Korea? What do you miss about Australia?
"I’ve been based in Korea for 14 years now, and I think the biggest thing I miss will always be friends and family. Beyond that it has to be getting in a car for a 30 minute drive and being able to get out in the middle of nowhere, and just being able to spend time by yourself.
I miss the great beaches, I miss the amazing coffee, the great pubs and I really miss reading newspapers in the morning, especially the Sunday papers. Korea is so online that it seems like newspapers are almost nonexistent these days."
Have you observed any surprising/interesting cultural differences?
"Probably one of the biggest cultural differences when working in comedy is the taboos. On Korean television, sexual innuendo and swearing are off the table, political satire is nonexistent and generally making fun of other public figures is frowned upon. Sarcasm doesn’t work, because people just think you are being mean. Jokes about someone else’s family will get you in all sorts of trouble.
More often than not, wordplay and slapstick tend to be the more popular choices for comedy here. From an outsider’s perspective, it can seem childish, but when you have to work within certain restrictions, it makes you more imaginative with what you can get to work."
Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?
"[Comedian] Nazeem Hussain. I love his sense of humour and he is the kind of comedian we need in Australia right now. I really appreciate that he is playing with social issues. My biggest concern with the country is we have become too politically correct, which seems like we have lost our sense of humor. Nazeem reminds me that Australia can still be a funny country.
[Former Prime Minister] Harold Holt [who disappeared after going for a swim at Cheviot Beach]. I want to know what happened to him. It’s one of Australia’s biggest mysteries! I used to go swimming every week at my local swimming pool in Melbourne, which was called the Harold Holt Swimming Pool. The sick irony of that!
Keith Payne & Reg Saunders — technically two people I know. There are many wars that Australia has fought in, but the Korean War is the one war that seems to be most often forgotten. Having lived here, I live with the reality of both North and South still technically being at war every day. Those that fought in the war deserve the recognition and respect, and I would love to hear their experiences during this time. Both men have interesting stories. Reg was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an Officer, and he fought in the battle of Kapyoung — arguably the biggest battle that Australian forces were involved in. Keith was the last living recipient of the original Victorian Cross and also fought in the Korean war.
The menu would be lamb chops, and sausages in bread with some beers. I miss that so much.
I would probably hold it in a park. I would’ve had it at a beach somewhere out of Melbourne, but if Harold Holt was there it’s better to be on the safe side."
What would be your advice to your 15 year old self?
"Get out and travel, live in another country for a year or two and just roll with the punches. That’s when all the best things happen."