As a South Korean whose first language is Arabic, Wonho Chung has brought a unique perspective to stand
up comedy. Sharon Carvalho speaks to him about heritage, the stage and music
How has comedy defined you?
I think it has made me see the world differently. For instance, if you work in fashion you always look at what people wear or if you’re an architect you notice buildings and the interesting architecture. But, as a comedian, you try to find the funny in everything. You see the funny in the simple things and that makes you relate to everyone. It also makes you aware of your surroundings. And because you find the funny in everything you do, it makes you a happier person.
How has your heritage affected the way you approach comedy?
Well, my father is South Korean, my mother is Vietnamese, I was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Jordan and have been in Dubai for the past 11 years. I would say that’s a really unique background and that has given me unique perspective on everything. Nothing about me is typical. Culturally I feel more Arab but the way I think is very Western. And I stay in touch with pop culture from everywhere so I feel like I have a finger in every pot. I perform in Arabic, as it is my first language but deal with topics that come from every where while keeping a Western mind set with anecdotes from the Far East and this lends to a very unique flavour.
How has the world responded to your multi cultural take on comedy?
For me, stepping into comedy was an opportunity that came to me when I was selected for the Axis of Evil comedy tour. At that time, I didn’t know that I was to become the first Arabic speaking stand up comic so, I focused on performing in Arabic. Off late, with performing in Sydney, New York, London, Montreal and other cities, I began taking my brand of comedy to the world in English and the feeling was overwhelming. As a comedian, all you can do is the work that you do and hope the audience like it, so, when you receive standing ovations and accolades it overwhelms you.
Do you still feel stage fright?
As an artist, there is a certain degree of stage fright every time you go up on stage. I once asked a friend of mine who is an acclaimed opera singer whether she ever got over stage fright. She said that the day you don’t get stage fright is the day you should stop performing. The thing is, you should always be wary of the audience, in a good way. You don’t know who they are, what their background is, how old they are or anything about them so the fear gives you an adrenaline rush and that helps you work harder. For me, an hour before I go on stage, I sit by myself, gather my thoughts and think about what I want to do and how I want to do it. And once I’m prepared, I go onstage and perform and hope they like it. Stage fright helps you work harder, think more and earn their laughter more.
One incident during a show that has stood out over the years. Growing up here has made me very aware of the do’s and don’t’s of this region so I generally toe the line pretty well. You have to understand that while the West has been pushing the boundaries of stand up comedy for over 30 years, the Middle East is still in it’s infancy and it needs time to develop.
So, four years ago, I was doing a show and even though I used it in context, I was kicked out of the theatre for saying the word ‘butt’. And it surprised me. So now, whenever I get booked for a show, I am cautious and my agent constantly reminds me to keep it halal! But I think comedy over here will change and people will be more accepting of pushing boundaries and being extreme. After all, the more extreme you are, the funnier you seem. Being safe is not funny.
Finish these 5 sentences:
Love is… what keeps you up at night
You are my… funny valentine
We go together like… peanut butter and jelly
I need you…like the desert needs the rain
What if… there was life in another planet
Favourite me time?
There are times when I travel for months on end so I really enjoy just sitting on my couch and watching random documentaries. The simple things make me happy.
Favourite vacation spot?
NY, Madrid, Montreal
Favourite dinner spot?
There’s this restaurant called Scaruppata in Ischia, Italy that you can access only by sea. It is open for only four hours a day and takes organic to a whole new level. The family that runs the restaurant gathers the ingredients from the farm they cultivate and fish from the sea on a daily basis to cook dishes that have three to four ingredients in it. It is the freshest and best food I have ever eaten.
All time favourite song?
‘Summertime’, by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Music from that era was different. It was beautiful. ‘Feeling Good’, by Nina Simone but I also like the Michael Buble rendition. It’s a powerful song and I’ve always imagined myself singing that song in a Great Gatsby suit with a big band behind me.
Five words to describe you…
Funny, kind, positive, explorer, dreamer
What inspires your work?
In terms of content, it is everyday situations that happen when I’m with my friends or just other funny
things that happen.