DUBAI // The Axis of Evil comedian Wonho Chung is developing his own programme for the Showtime television network - and he will be telling his jokes in Arabic. Arab comedians normally perform in English, but Chung, who is half South Korean and half Vietnamese, is breaking with tradition. Chung, 26, can speak Arabic fluently and believes he can "win the hearts" - and laughs - of audiences by speaking their language.
He disarmed the audience at a recent show, telling them, "I don't speak Arabic", before bursting into a classic song by the late Egyptian singer Abdul Halim Hafez. Currently, Chung is the face of Showtime's Show Comedy channel and is the host of its Friday Night Live programme. While Chung cannot give details about his new project, he said it would be an Arabic-language programme and could be launched before the end of this year.
The only real comedy scene in the region is the hugely popular Axis of Evil show, whose Arab comedians - Aron Kader, Nemr Abu Nasser and Ronnie Khalil - perform in English. Chung, who was compère of the show, only started performing his stand-up comedy routines about eight months ago. "Once I start doing comedy in English, I'll just be compared to the Axis of Evil," he said. "In Arabic, I'm one of a kind. There's no reference for me."
But he says delivering comedy in Arabic poses a new challenge. "Comedy in Arabic just isn't the same. A punchline in English is so different. "All of us in the Axis have grown up listening to comedy in English, so that's how we've practised," he said. Chung refuses to interchange English and Arabic, saying the Arabic market is the one he wants to capture. "It takes time to practise a routine, and I need to establish myself as an Arabic-language presenter/comedian. Doing Arabic only gives me an exclusive market," he said.
"I'm winning their hearts as soon as I speak Arabic." Even with his fluency in Arabic, Chung's routines still have to reach out to the various nationalities in the multicultural UAE. It is easier to cross geographical boundaries in English among Arab audiences because of the differences between dialects, such as Lebanese and Jordanian or Egyptian and North African. Even learning to deliver the Arab sense of humour was a challenge when preparing routines, Chung said.
"At least in Dubai, English unifies the Arabs," he said. "Many Arabs don't understand some other dialects like Jordanian or Lebanese as they're so different, so it means you can totally lose the punchline." Chung, who has been in the UAE for just more than four years, said if there were more Emirati artists, the UAE's fledgling arts scene could embrace a far wider audience. "Dubai's great, but it's not a true reflection of Arab culture," he said. "Dubai is creating a new strand of Arabs. They're very ambitious and driven and focused.
"The arts here needs more Emiratis. There are so much less Emiratis than in other sectors and if that changed then the popularity of Arab-language arts would increase. They are much more concentrated in areas like banking and so on." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org