It could have been much worse.
That’s one of the main insights Wonho Chung gleaned from staying inside his Dubai apartment for weeks at a time.
In March and April, stringent measures were introduced in the emirate to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which involved residents spending extended periods of time at home.
The popular South Korean comic describes that experience as a psychological marathon in which his enthusiasm ebbed and flowed.
“I began as an A-grade quarantine student. I was cooking all my meals and even freeze-drying my herbs. I would exercise and really look after my health. A few weeks later, it was just chips and chocolates,” he says.
“But now that we are slowly getting back to normal, I realise it wasn’t that bad after all. Can you imagine if this was the 1980s and we had no streaming services and it was just VHS? For a lot of us, we really had all the tools to make this the easiest quarantine ever.”
This optimistic message forms the crux of Chung’s return to the stage on Thursday, August 20. As part of the ongoing Dubai Summer Surprises, the comic will perform a set of new material at The Theatre at Mall of the Emirates.
Titled Life in Quarantine, the performance will regale audiences with some of the lessons Chung learned while indoors. While the show's marketing campaign promises Chung will "rant and vent" about his experiences, he insists it is all tongue-in-cheek.
“I have always been about finding the silver lining in everything,” he says. “I enjoy talking about things that everybody has struggled with because it strikes a chord with the audience. My comedy has always been about uniting everybody.”
Laughs from shared experiences
It is that inclusive approach that helps elevate Chung’s material.
Born in the Saudi city of Jeddah to a South Korean father and Vietnamese mother, and raised in Jordan, Chung arrived in Dubai in 2004 to work as an editor for a range of broadcasters.
Three years later, he made his stand-up debut as a supporting act for the 2007 regional hit Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, starring Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani from Iran and Palestinian funnymen Aron Kader and Dean Obeidallah.
Audiences were stunned by his fluent command of the Arabic language and his insights into regional culture, and Chung went on to form a successful career as both a comic and actor.
In 2017, he earned rave reviews for his role in the Ramadan drama Saq Al Bamboo, a television adaptation of award-winning novel The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi.
Despite branching out into acting, Chung says the stand-up stage gives him the most satisfaction because of its direct link to the audience.
"My comedy has evolved from the early days where it was more about the shock value of how I look and how that doesn't correspond with the language that I speak," he says.
"While I still work that into the material – seeing people's faces in Egypt or Lebanon when I begin talking in their dialect never gets old – it is more about talking about things we have in common. And when it comes to the pandemic, that is definitely the case. We may have our own experiences, but we are all living with it."
Switching it up
But this time around, Chung’s show will come with an added twist, in that it will all be in English. The move was partly instigated by promoters, he says, who were looking for a new and fresh dynamic.
While unfazed by the linguistic switch, Chung admits it forced him to readjust and, in some cases, reassemble parts of his material.
“Doing it in English it means I will have to work harder for the crowd and make sure my entrance is strong. With Arabic, I didn’t need to do that. What would happen is that I come in and people see my face and then I just speak in Arabic, they laugh straight away and I break the ice,” he says.
“With English, it is a different process of joke writing in that it is all about focusing on the right pun. With Arabic comedy, the pun is not too important and I often rely on using different dialects and local references. So there are pros and cons to it.”
It is that uncertainty, coupled with the visceral thrill of being on stage, that Chung looks forward to when stepping under the limelight.
It is no coincidence, he says, that people have been flocking to see stand-up comedy since performances began in Dubai last month. Chung says that the beauty of the art form is it allows comics to speak about everyday anxieties in ways that resonate.
“Like all art, it has a way of mirroring what is happening around us,” he says. “As a comic, I am just telling you a story that reflects the world we live in, from my perspective. The only thing is I am doing it in a funny and quirky way.
"A lot of times, that can help people see things from a different perspective. Other times, they can view the show as some much-needed distraction. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”