Ronny Chieng opened his Netflix stand-up show Asian Comedian Destroys America! on December 17 to the rather soothing Oriental melody of Teresa Teng’s cover, Ye Lai Xiang (The Evening Primrose) – before he plunged into an hour long series of jokes, some of which his Malaysian and Singaporean brethren had the chance of hearing during his Tone Issues shows two weeks prior to the Netflix release.
Standing on the stage of Alex Theatre in Los Angeles (technically Glendale), California, where Asian Comedian Destroys America! was recorded, it was a far cry for someone like Ronny, who graduated from University of Melbourne 10 years ago with Bachelor Degrees in Laws and Commerce – double degrees that each promises bright futures in Asian-favoured careers like lawyers and accountants.
His years in university, however, were translated into a full six-episode series for ABC in 2017, Ronny Chieng: International Student. The part-fiction/part-factual television series came about after he has toured four one-hour stand-up specials – The Ron Way (2012), Can You Do This? No You Can’t. (2013), Chieng Reaction (2014) and You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About (2015), in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Canada and London.
Ronny will begin his Hope You Get Rich tour next in April, one of the shows happening during the Netflix is a Joke Fest on May 2 in Los Angeles, California. In the meantime, our exclusive with the local-gone-global stand-up comedian is an Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
How did you come about deciding on this stage persona?
There are a lot of different types of comedy, one of them being stand-up comedy, which itself comes in many different styles. Now, one of these styles comprises expressions of your unique perspective as authentically as possible. The way you find your voice for that particular stand-up style is to do shows after shows after shows. After years of that, you kind of figure out what you want to say, and how you want to say it. What works for you, the kind of comedian you want to be, the ideas you want to express on stage – how they all happen is just years of evolution in maturing as a comic.
We are in the “woke” era right now, when everyone is pretty much sensitive about everything. Where do you draw the line in telling jokes in this time and age, if there is, in fact, a line drawn in the first place?
As a professional stand-up comedian that does five to six shows every night after a long day at The Daily Show every day, and touring stand-up’s on weekends, I have to believe that if there’s a topic you can’t joke about out there, it’s a challenge for me to take up, a puzzle for me to solve. I mean, I don’t necessarily have to make jokes about the topic per se, but it’ll still make me think about it: Is it really something we can’t joke about? Is there any way I can still make it funny? After turning it in my head over and over again, and knowing there is no chance at all to be funny with it, then there’s no point in performing it.
Good comedy has to be edgy, and you get great comedy by pushing the boundaries, going close to the line, and sometimes, even crossing the line. The idea that there’s a right answer, that you can’t joke about certain things, or that there is only one way you can tell jokes correctly… I don’t think that’s true. Comedy is an art form, it’s not science; and just like any creative pursuits out there, you don’t always get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong, and sometimes you go too far, but the only way to find out is testing the materials to figure out if they work.
Trevor Noah has often mentioned about the hesitation of the industry when he took over The Daily Show baton from Jon Stewart. Was the reaction from the public the same for you when you joined The Daily Show as a correspondent?
I don’t think I had the same reaction as Trevor did, because he’s the face of the show, after all, and I’m just a supporting cast member of the show. But at the same time, I think it’s also because people didn’t know what to do with me, or how to react to me. They weren’t used to Asian people on shows in America then, much less Asian people from Asia – that’s a hyper-minority. There was a “we don’t know how to take him” phase, it’s either “he’s too Asian”, or “he’s not Asian enough”.
You’d be considered “too Asian” when you’re talking about Asian stuff just a smidge too much, but when you aren’t talking about it, people would be like, “Why aren’t you talking about Asian stuff?” That was kind of like the first reaction when I joined the show: a lot of people wanting you to be what they think you should be. It takes time for you to find what you want to be despite it all, and do just that. At the end of the day, if you’re authentic and you resonate in what you do, people do get on board.
How has it been working with the other correspondents like Roy Wood Jr and Desi Lydic, who joined The Daily Show the same time as you?
It’s a very collegiate environment at The Daily Show. Everyone is super friendly and supportive, it’s like a small family. Sometimes, I’d pitch ideas to other correspondents, and vice versa, and we’ll help one another get our respective segments right. If the show does well, everyone benefits from it. The cutthroat behaviour is non-existent at the show. If you’re a piece of sh*t, you’re not going to survive in there. You have to be friendly in that working environment, because you’re working together with everyone every single day, from writing the night’s show in the morning, to producing it at 6pm.
Do you think Trevor has a favourite among the correspondents?
Man, that’s a question for him! It’d be a funny question to ask him (laughs)… Me, his favourite is me. You can put that in print.
What would you say is the most important lesson you have taken away from your fellow Daily Show colleagues?
The Daily Show is made up of more than just Trevor and the correspondents. There are writers, producers, editors… a lot of people in this family you don’t see in front of the cameras, who are just as crucial to the show. But if you were to ask each and every one of us at the show, we would tell you that we want the same thing: a funny show. Any disagreements that come up are all purely because of creative frictions, and no one takes them personally. I think that’s important to have in an organisation – in any organisation, in fact. Everybody is self-motivated, ambitious and gives a f*ck, and we trust in one another to go after this same thing that we want.
With great power comes great responsibility, and with a great satire political show like The Daily Show, surely comes the great responsibility as gatekeeper of information much like those at proper news channels.
How do you go about with your comedy when laden with such a non-comical responsibility?
It helps to have fact checkers like senior producer Adam Chodikoff – who has been with The Daily Show since Craig Kilborn’s tenure in 1996, to make sure what we say is factually correct. We can’t be setting up a joke within a premise that’s inaccurate to begin with, so working with the fact checkers, every script we write we get to make sure it’s airtight and spot on.
That being said, our ultimate allegiance is to comedy. The fact checkers do come in every now and then for the technicalities – what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, but the primary driving force is putting out a comedy show. When you’re doing a job like this, you can’t be thinking about anything else other than what’s funny: what’s in the news today, and how can we make it funny?
But surely by giving your take on certain events happening in the world, you are shaping some people’s informed decisions?
Before I joined The Daily Show, it was just trying to make people laugh by telling jokes. One thing we do drive home with the show is: what are you trying to say? This may be a funny joke, but what are you trying to say with it? Just doing that extra mile of thinking has really helped me figured out my voice; if I’m making a joke, what’s the ultimate point I’m trying to make, and is it a point I can live with? On top of that, what will people take away from it? Will they take away a perspective they never thought about or knew of – a perspective that stems from strength, intelligence and sophistication?
For example, if I’m making fun of the Asian culture, ultimately, am I saying this culture is bad, or am I saying it is awesome? You make fun of the culture from a dignified and empowered perspective, rather than one of self-deprecation. Our internal barometer comes into play in situations like this: as long as we are making jokes that are funny, and the point we’re making is something we believe in – then, our job is done. I mean, if it does contribute to some form of decision making, maybe it’s a good thing, maybe their opinions needed to be swayed. Otherwise, we don’t care if what we joke about changes people’s minds or opinions politically.
Photography by Ting Yang Shan
Art direction by Joyce Lim
Assisted by Alison Loh
Make-up by Joey Yap
Hair by Angeline Low
Location by One World Hotel
Special thanks to LOL Asia
For the full story, get a copy of the August Man Malaysia March 2020 print issue