[Editing] The off switch

Being in the limelight isn’t easy. Expat funnyman Sam Hammington reveals life behind the laughs

Comedian, actor, reality star, funny man, husband and son. Sam Hammington is not just one of the above, he’s all combined, sometimes he’s funny, and sometimes he’s not. A recognizable face amongst Koreans due to his rise in fame through variety TV shows like ‘Gag Concert’ and ‘Real Men’. He’s less well known by expats, although he admits some have asked to take photos with him. “English teachers have told me their students think they look like Sam Hammington, and so they google the name.”

He’s also gaining fame quickly around the globe and was even recognized during a recent trip to New York. “Korean guys came over to ask for photos and there were these American guys sitting there thinking ‘Who is that guy? Should we be getting a photo with him?’” He is quickly losing his hiding ground thanks to the Korean wave’s global domination. “Whenever I go anywhere in the world there are a couple of people who recognize me. It says a lot about Korean entertainment, Kpop and the Korean wave.”

Tired of being thought of as the ‘funny man’ not because he hates his job (in fact he wants to continue his career in entertainment for as long as possible), but simply because he is not capable of being funny all the time. “I meet people and they’re like, ‘you’re not as funny as I expected you to be.’ That’s just my job. In my spare time I just like to chill out and do my own thing.”

Sam is he says as normal as they come… Here’s his story, straight and simple

Born in New Zealand in 1977 he moved to Melbourne, Australia aged three. There he was raised solely by his mother, a former casting director of popular daytime drama ‘Neighbours’.

He grew up in the entertainment industry and made his first television debut at age 4. “I always enjoyed talking to people and being the center of attention. And I think that goes hand in hand with working in film and television.” But after listening to his mother say, ‘actors were out of work 70% of the time’ he decided he didn’t want to do this as a profession or even a hobby anymore. “I wanted to have some sort of job security. So, I soldiered on and got through high school, just.”

He studied International Trade at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and with Australia’s close proximately to Asia thought learning an Asian language would be an invaluable asset. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean were the options. Japanese was the most popular Asian language at the time and there were a lot of Chinese immigrants in Australia, so Sam went with the unfamiliar. “I knew nothing about Korea so, I thought if I can speak three words of Korean and I put Korean on my resume, it’s going to stand out from the rest of the crowd.”

He began his Korean studies and visited as an exchange student for 18 months in 1998. After graduating from the Australian community college in 2002, he returned to Korea to improve on the Korean he had studied and rekindle his relationship with his then girlfriend Jung Yumi, who became his wife last year. “I thought I’d be here for two or maybe three years and 12 years later I’m still here” he says laughing.

His rise to fame came in different outlets, some crashed sooner than expected, but that never left Sam out of the limelight for too long. Starting out with small TV appearances his first big break came after he was spotted speaking a few words of Korean at a comedy night, this eventually earned him a slot on hit variety show ‘Gag Concert’ he thought he had hit the big time, but when his ‘World News’ skit ended after two years he was out of work again. “I kind of hit a brick wall” he says thinking back “I was like, crap what do I do now?”

After a while he moved onto TBS eFM where he hosted a radio show ‘Drivetime’ for four years. During that time he was cast in a big drama which involved filming in China for two weeks. “They wouldn’t let me go” he recalls. “I had to turn down other TV shows and it got to the point where I was going any further with this.”

After watching too many good opportunities pass him by he decided it was time to quit, he did the odd TV show here and there and eventually after lots of self-promotion on facebook and twitter he was offered a role in ‘Real Men’ a new variety show that would make him a household name across Korea.

The reality show records the daily activities of seven male celebrities as they experience life in the military, a mandatory two year requirement for all South Korean males. For the past year Sam has filmed all day every day for one week a month. “It’s intense, we’ll eat breakfast then training, then break for lunch, and then back to training. It’s just exercise after exercise after exercise. What you see on-air is probably 15-20% of what we film. There’s just so much that gets thrown out.” Considering the 37 year old had never even fired a gun before and was fond of a sleep in, this was going to be an immense challenge. “It was one of the scariest experiences in my life. Mentally it’s really… it was quite draining. But then, once the episode went to air we could see that it was a bigger success than any of us imagined it would be.”

Slapstick comedy is something that has long being associated with Korea. Many expats enjoy the Korean comedy style and many others are simply dumbstruck by its obvious and sometimes juvenile format. For Sam this is the type of comedy that works best for him. “In a place like Australia” he says “it’s predominantly stand-up comedy”, but that just doesn’t work for him. “I tried stand-up comedy at an amateur open-mic night and I just fell on my face. Situational comedy is more my thing, just going with the flow of the conversation and ad-libbing.”

Korea is still in many ways a conservative country and it’s this way of life that forces the world of Korean comedy to get creative. “After 9 o’clock you can say and do almost anything on TV in Australia. Swearing, sexual innuendo, and being quite graphic are acceptable. But here you’re inhibited by so many things you can and cannot do.” People on the outside looking in might think this means the audience and style is less mature, but Sam says, “comedy doesn’t have to deal with religion or politics sometimes slapstick works really well. I really enjoy it when it comes naturally.”

Being a household name doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Having a label like ‘comedian’ is difficult to live down, or in this case live up to. “When you’re in the public eye, people tend to put you on a pedestal and they’re like, ‘wow, Sam Hammington I expected more out of him.’ I’m no different from anyone else; I just have a different job.”

Sam is exhausted by the ‘are you not having a good night?’ questions he gets from fans passing by all because he doesn’t have a permanent smile stamped across his face. “A lot of people don’t realize that there’s an on and off switch. When I’m on TV I make people laugh to give people a break from the realities of life. But when I’m at home, I’m not like that. If I was like that all the time I would probably either be dead or in a hospital. It would be physically exhausting to try and keep up with that.”

Comedians are typically thought of as people who can laugh their way through difficult situations, but usually there is an underlying darkness eclipsed by the bright humor.    “Robin Williams was a prime example. You look at a guy like that. He was always so funny, and jovial.” Sam speaks in a serious tone many Korean fans would not recognise “but he had dark sides as well, he dealt with addiction and depression. And that’s a common thread with comedians throughout the world.

“I’ve gone through slumps, but not to those extents I know a lot of people in the industry that struggle with loneliness. It is a lonely profession. Sure you’ve got people you work with and you’re friends with but, a lot of the times it’s just work and it’s a cutthroat industry. So you might not be necessarily friends.”

When you’ve got a fan base as large as Sam’s it hard to socialize like the average person would. Fans have interrupted him during dinner and drinks with friends, during our chat we were interrupted twice by adoring fans and we’re in a quiet spot in Gyeongnidan. “There’s nothing I appreciate more than a fan” admits Sam. “With the exception of when I’m in the bathroom, when I’m eating, and when I’m drunk, I will take photos and sign autographs.”

Believe it or not Sam has been approached for photographs, autographs and even handshakes while taking a whiz in the bathroom. Being spotted in the bathroom is only the half of it, it’s been a few years since Sam has visited one of his favorite areas, Hongdae, the last time he went to a busy area like that it took over an hour to move even a hundred meters. “There’s times you’ll be out and it’s like a tidal wave and you have to be really aware of the situation and your environment. You have to think, ‘ok, where’s my get-out, where’s my exit.’ because once you take a photo, or sign an autograph you’ve got to do it for everyone.”

He may be famous here, but back in his native Australia it’s a different story. “My mum’s been over here and seen the media and the fans, she’s blown away by it” says the 37 year old. “But my friends don’t get it, they just say ‘Yeah, yeah, Sam’s famous in Korea.’ They just think it’s a joke. When they see photos of certain events that I’ve been at or, even how many likes I have on facebook that shuts them up pretty quickly.”

He loves his job and stated over and over again that he wants to continue on this path. Sam is a kind, thoughtful family man that enjoys his fame and the opportunities that it brings with it, but at times is exhausted by the attention. I mean who wouldn’t be frustrated when receiving unwanted attention in the bathroom. Nevertheless Sam is here for life. “There’s so many reasons to miss home and I don’t get back there often enough. But this is where my work is. With work, everything is going well, so there’s no reason for me to leave here any time soon. I’ve never even considered what I’d do if I went home.”

Sam Hammington doesn’t swagger around Gangnam in the trendiest threads and dark shades. Instead, he wears a T-shirt and Braves jacket while speeding through the streets of Haebangchon on his scooter. Many expats would be hard-pressed to identify this medium-height, stocky Australian guy as a national celebrity. But when one of his half-million fans spots him in the wild, they are often left disappointed.

He might be familiar to some expats from the odd Dunkin Donuts poster around Seoul or his four years on the TBS eFM radio show “Drive Time,” but it was his goofy antics on the Korean small screen that led the 12-year expat to become one of the peninsula’s most famous slapstick comedians, branded the first foreign comedian to do comedy in Korean. Even though his “Gag Concert” variety show days are far behind him, he can’t go 100 meters before hordes of fans flock to him for photos and autographs.

But being a household name doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Having a label like “comedian” is difficult to live down, or in his case, live up to. He’s never as funny in person as they expect him to be.

Some expat entertainers reflect a subdued version of their on-camera persona: Morning TV darling Bronwyn Mullen is warm and outspoken, while Jake Patchett, host of Mnet America’s “Jjang” K-pop variety show, is just as silly and snarky as his emcee and rapper alter-ego Jake Pains. Others, like the hyperenergetic DIY stars Simon and Martina Stawski of Eat Your Kimchi, are freakishly the same. But Hammington is not throwing one-liners or pulling gags at the table to get a laugh. He is calm and reflective, observing his surroundings, perhaps noting inspiration for future material. Over coffee the 37-year-old Melbourne native speaks with a slow, sincere tone. He’s just a normal guy you’d run into on the street or hang out and play video games with. Away from the limelight, he is notably turned off.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there’s an on and off switch,” says Hammington. “When I’m on TV, I make people laugh to give them a break from the realities of life. But when I’m at home, I’m not like that.”

Though Hammington is grateful for his success, always being thought of as the “funny man” gets tiresome. He says he’s exhausted by fans asking, “Are you not having a good night?” when they see him without a permanent smile stamped across his face. It’s not because he hates his job — in fact, he’d like to continue his career in entertainment for as long as possible — but simply because he is not capable of being funny 24-7. “If I was like that all the time I would probably either be dead or in a hospital. It would be physically exhausting to try and keep up with that.”

People seem to expect those in the public eye to be smarter, more attractive and better dressed than the common folk. They expect Hammington to be funnier. “A lot of people see me on talk shows, variety shows and reality shows, and think that’s who I must be.” On screen Hammington plays a caricature of himself, but in the real world he’s just Sam, a guy who likes to read, work out, travel and play video games. “I’m not different from anyone else. I just have a different job. People make mistakes, people say things they regret. We’re all the same.”

 Finding a niche

It took him many years and tribulations to be this comfortable with himself, both on and off camera. His time on “Gag Concert” first shot him to fame a decade ago, but once his “World News” skit on the show ended, so too did his time in the limelight. He hit rock bottom, but managed to pick himself up and move on to TBS eFM — a valuable experience but a dead end. After quitting and then putting all of his energy into securing his next break, Hammington was juggling gigs, advertisements and variety show appearances when he landed at his current challenge on MBC’s “Real Men,” a reality show following seven male celebrities as they experience life in the military.

Looking back on his varied projects, he hasn’t strived to perfect a certain character or performance. Instead, he draws from experiences of himself and others and observations of things around him to constantly improve. Diversification has been his secret weapon, allowing him to break away from a typecast. Becoming an “all-rounder” gives him more weapons and variety to forge his unique identity on camera.

And Korea has been his playground to do so. He’s had to ditch the Western favorites of stand-up, scripted one-liners, racy humor and sarcasm to take on Korea’s word play — no small feat for a foreign speaker — ad-libbing, situational comedy, self-depreciation and good old slapstick humor. While it gets mixed results from expats, slapstick is the holy grail of comedy in Korea. Many enjoy the Three Stooges’ simplicity, while others are simply dumbstruck by its obvious and apparently juvenile format. But Hammington says this type of humor is perfect for Korean network television, which is too conservative to take on the racy jokes of Australia or other Western countries. It’s these boundaries that force the world of Korean comedy to get creative — and it’s here, in improv and ad-libbing, where Hammington thrives.

“For me if it comes naturally. I enjoy it. When I feel like I have to, if it’s forced, that’s when I don’t enjoy it,” he says. “When I was starting out, I didn’t really know Korean humor and I was given a role, and I was always too scared to veer off and do my own thing because I was worried that it would ruin the joke or the punch line. Now that I’ve developed myself, and settled into a role, I’m given a lot more freedom with what I can and can’t do.”

Hammington may just be a normal guy while “off duty,” but once the cameras start rolling, his animated and silly childlike character take over. It’s not a fake side, he says, but a small part of his character exaggerated for TV. “It’s like putting some ‘steroids’ into that part of you. It’s certainly not the whole me, it’s not the complete me. It’s just a part of me.”

Ever since his childhood spent sitting next to his mom — Jan Russ, an influential former casting director of Australia’s “The Neighbours” — deconstructing actors’ performances and getting firsthand experience in seeing what directors are looking for, he’s worked on honing his skills at not only getting from point A to point B in a performance or skit, but the big picture of how it all connects. “I want to be able to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. I break things down in my head and kind of work out how they all have to go hand in hand,” he says. “It’s a lot harder than you’d think.”

Even today, he second-guesses every performance, beating himself up over whether he got the timing right or how he screwed up delivering a line. Timing is key in comedy, and if you’re performing in a language that is not your native tongue, it can be easy to miss that golden moment. There is always an anxiety about being self-analytical, but he finds it essential for breaking past mediocrity. It takes a lot of mental strength to work through it, he says.

“You’d come off stage and punch walls and kick doors because you weren’t happy with your performance. That’s an everyday thing. I’d walk out of the studio and I’ll be like really pissed off, really angry,” he says of his “Gag Concert” skits years ago, but his self-criticisms still hold true. “You self-analyze and you’re like, ‘I missed this time and I missed this punch line.’

“But I think you need to be self-analytical. If you’re not, you just become mediocre. … I think you can talk to any artist in the world and they’ve all said the same thing. You’re always trying to outdo yourself.”

 The dark side

The challenge of forming his identity doesn’t stop when he steps off the set. When he first started rising to fame, his lifestyle changed as he found himself doing what he thought people expected of him, something he constantly sees among emerging celebrities.

“People who are famous here in Korea are expected to wear certain clothes, or do certain things or go to certain restaurants and bars,” he recalls. No one forced the celebrity lifestyle on him, but he found himself getting sucked into the vanity, buying designer crap he never used to care about. “There’s so much hype that comes with a job like this that you can get caught up in. … I was buying things that I never had any interest in because that’s what I thought people did.”

But when the curtains closed on his “Gag Concert” gig, the starry-eyed rising actor faced a harsh reality check as his finances dried up. “When you’re behind on the rent, you can’t afford to pay your bills and there’s no work all of a sudden, that allows you to focus more on the big picture,” he says. After years of ups and downs, he realized how hard it is to maintain the good times but all too easy to get caught up in the celebrity hype. He’s found positive reflections to the bad times, and now he’s not concerned with other people’s expectations. “Now, I buy things that I want to buy, I wear things that I want to wear. … I think the important thing is you have to stay true to yourself.”

That’s a challenge that goes far beyond pricey fashion labels and luxurious lifestyles. Staying true to oneself is easier said than done for most people, no less a comedian. Hammington has watched many people in his industry get lost in the job. “When you’ve got a job and you’re trying to enlighten other people’s lives and make other people happy … there’s a downside that comes with that,” he says.

Comedians are typically thought of as people who can laugh their way through difficult situations, but usually there is a darkness eclipsed by the bright humor. The link between comedy and depression has resurfaced with the recent suicide of Robin Williams. In a role that manipulates people’s emotions, turning stress, worries and sadness into laughter, it’s the comedian’s job to help you forget about your worries. But who is there to do that for them? “Robin Williams was a prime example. You look at a guy like that. Whenever you saw him on TV he was always so funny and jovial,” Hammington says in a serious tone many Korean fans would not recognize, “but he had dark sides as well. He dealt with addiction and depression. And that’s a common thread with comedians throughout the world.”

Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, John Cleese, John Belushi and Chris Farley are but some comedians who have admitted to struggling with inner demons. “I’ve gone through slumps,” Hammington confesses, “but not to those extents. I know a lot of people in the industry that struggle with loneliness. It is a lonely profession.”

It even takes a toll on his work to not be able to interact with people, whose stories and antics give him the inspiration for his gags or routines. Hammington acknowledges that it’s hard to socialize like the average person when he’s constantly wary of his surroundings. Friends who are fellow actors or comedians are still competitors in a cutthroat industry, and friends outside of entertainment are wary of the crowds.

“This is the thing a lot of people don’t know about. You know, about the restrictions that come with this sort of life. They all think … you’ve got all those fans, it’s great, but they don’t realize it takes you maybe an hour to go a hundred meters,” he says. “The whole socializing thing and going out with friends to the bar for a few beers is not what it used to be. When you’ve got people coming up to you asking for photos, just sitting there and having to chat with people becomes an exercise.”

While he’s well aware and appreciative of all his fans — they’re the reason he can keep going, after all — he is firm that he has to draw the line. “I’m always generally really apologetic. When someone asks me in the middle of dinner, I’ll say, ‘Look, I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of eating.’ … When I’m in the bathroom I won’t be as apologetic,” he quips. Fortunately for him, he can go out with friends who will diffuse the situation for him. “It helps having friends that are really understanding.”

 Live without regrets

Hammington plans to leave no stone unturned in honing his craft in Korea, with a movie in the works and directing a distant pipe dream. He’s ready to give anything a go. “There’s a lot that I want to still try. One of my goals is to host a TV show here. If the right program came up, I’d jump on it,” he says. “I’m of the philosophy (that) you have to try something before you make a decision on whether you’re good at it or not, whether you can succeed at it.”

There are some regrets about not being able to spend much time with his family and wife, but in the end he has to do his job, like everyone else. Their being supportive of his success has made it easier for him to deal with. And when the camera’s not rolling, he hits the “off switch” and enjoys a quiet married life with Yumi Jung, the woman who helped him fall in love with Korea.

“I may fail miserably and I might end up with an egg in my face,” he shrugs, “but if you don’t try, you’re just going to live with regret and you’ll never know the answer. Thinking about what could have been is a time killer and a self-confidence killer.”

With this way of thinking, Hammington has plenty more things to try. Maybe he’ll work in politics someday. Either way, he’s hoping to hijack a TV screen near you for as long as people keep laughing. “I really enjoy having the ability to bring some happiness into someone else’s life,” he says — just not while he’s off the clock.

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