Johnny Yune: Korean-American Comic

During the first year of Covid, we binge watched The Love Boat, and that is how we became aware of Korean American comedian Johnny Yune (Yoon Jong Seung, 1936-2020). I didn’t know it at the time, but he had only just recently died at the start of the pandemic.

Yune caught my attention in the 1980 Love Boat episode not because he was good (he was terrible, on the show, at least. I’ve since watched a bunch of his stand-up clips and they are better, although his usual opening bits, starting with “Herro!” are pretty painful.) I’d known of Asian American entertainers like Jack Soo (Japanese) and Don Ho (Hawaiian/Chinese), but Yune was the first Korean comic I was aware of. He’d started doing stand-up in the U.S. in the early ’60s, 30 years before Margaret Cho. In the mid ’70s Yune began to get roles on shows like Kung Fu, M*A*S*H, and Kojak, and to get stand-up spots on variety programs like The Richard Pryor Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (over a dozen spots 1978-80). In 1979 he starred in the sitcom pilot Sergeant T.K. Yu and appeared in the movie Meteor, and this was the stage his career was at when he did his Love Boat spot. Yune had a bit role in The Cannonball Run (1982), then starred in the sleeper hit They Call Me Bruce (1982), followed by its sequel They Still Call Me Bruce (1987, which he also directed). He was also in Gidget’s Summer Reunion (1985), and Garry Marshall’s Nothing in Common (1986) with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks.

In 1988 Yune returned to Korea for a time to perform at the Seoul Olympics, and to star in the Korean film Hamburger Johnny (1988). In 1989 and 1990 he hosted his own Korean talk show The Johnny Yune Show. His last major screen credit was the independent film Western Avenue (1993), about Korean-Americans caught up in the L.A. riots. By this point, Margaret Cho, and soon many other Asian Americans were on the scene, and Yune’s hokey and stereotyped material rapidly seemed even more dated than it had originally. A lot of his material was Reagan era anti-Communism stuff of the Yakoff Smirnoff variety; Yune himself was a card carrying Republican. They may eat that stuff up at regional live dates in certain cities, but after the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War was over, for most of America it was like hearing Adlai Stevenson jokes.

In 2013, Yune returned to South Korea and took a job in government, as head of the Korean Tourism Organization. Health problems brought him back to the U.S. in 2016. He was 83 at the time of his passing.

For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube