On Monday (May 27), K-pop group Monsta X got the Cartoon Network treatment when all seven members of the group were featured in the latest episode of the animated series We Bare Bears. Through an episode that put the focus on fandom behavior and highlighted the bond between Monsta X and their Monbebe following, We Bare Bears became the latest, and most successful, cartoon television show to incorporate K-pop into an episode.
The forward-thinking brainchild of Daniel Chong, the series began airing in 2015 and has regularly incorporated Korean culture into its plotlines, and features multiple characters that speak the language; an early short featured one character performing K-pop-inspired choreography. The idea of an entire episode inspired by K-pop was something that the We Bare Bears team had wanted to do for a while, and so “Panda’s Birthday,” where the titular Panda Bear tries to meet his favorite K-pop band Monsta X while they’re in town, was born.
“A lot of people on our crew listen to K-pop, and a lot of us are very aware of its presence and how cool it is so it just felt natural for our show,” said Chong about the collaboration. “Around the time we had come up with a story for it, a fan tweeted at me about putting Monsta X in an episode. When our team reached out to their team, they were already sorta looking to do a collaboration as well, so it all sorta worked out.” The result was a 10-minute or so episode that concisely introduces Monsta X, its members and its music, and Monbebe, to the show’s audience.
Storyboard artist Sang Lee, who worked on the episode with fellow storyboard artist Charlie Parisi, was a major factor in bringing Monsta X to life in We Bare Bears in a way that felt earnest to both the show’s premise and to the band’s nature. Not only did Lee, who speaks Korean, direct the recording of Monsta X’s parts, but he was able to bring the nuances of the language into scriptwriting. “He was able to write them speaking both Korean and English,” said Chong, in reference to how Monsta X’s members, both in the show and beyond it, switch off between the two languages. “To me, if we just had them speaking English it wouldn’t feel quite natural so being able to authentically switch it up between English and Korean felt like the most honest way to approach the writing.”
The We Bare Bears episode is the first-ever guest starring appearance by a K-pop group in an American animated series, but it’s not the first time a cartoon show has referenced the South Korean music industry. Aside from We Bare Bears’ earlier aforementioned dance performance, a Family Guy episode in 2016 featured a music video clip of girl group SISTAR and had several of its characters parody HyunA's 2011 viral hit "Bubble Pop." More recently, BTS was referenced in passing in a The Simpsons episode that saw the titular family visit South Korea. Beyond the music industry, We Bare Bears isn’t the only Cartoon Network show to feature characters that speak in Korean; Adventure Time, which began in 2010, features a rainicorn that speaks only in that language.
The prevalence of Korean influences in animated television series may be happenstance based on the creators of each show and their personal interests, but also have something to do with how many cartoon series' are animated in South Korea. According to Chong, the Monsta X crossover episode of We Bare Bears was animated by Rough Draft Korea, the Seoul affiliate of California-based Rough Draft Studios. “There is a kind of Korean presence in all animated shows. I wouldn’t say that’s why it’s often included, but I would say that a big part in the making of many shows takes place in Korea.” Rough Draft also is credited with working on The Simpsons.
Though there are no more K-pop projects in the works for We Bare Bears at the moment – at least not ones that Chong is talking about – the showrunner surmises that in general animated series’ flexibility may be a more approachable format for K-pop stars looking to break into television in the U.S. market, at least more so than cameos on live-action shows. “We couldn’t even record [Monsta X] when they came to Los Angeles for a concert [so] we had to record them in Korea over Skype a little later. But I suppose being able to be flexible with the recording schedule since we’re working in animation made it a little more possible to feature them, in spite of their crazy work schedule.”
The response to the Monsta X episode has been an exciting one for the We Bare Bears team, and gave Chong a sense of just how popular the act is — and that was before they announced a recent deal with Epic Records. “I didn’t quite realize, not just how big the fanbase for K-pop was but how aggressively excited and supportive they are,” he said. “They definitely show up. It’s been a really fun experience so far.”
I'm still not over it, it's all so damn cute lol.