Ronny Chieng Is So Successful He Doesn't Even Need To Do Stand-up

1 July 2019 | 12:57 pm | Maxim Boon

Ronny Chieng tells Maxim Boon he’s coming for the “arseholes in society” with his latest stand-up hour.

Ronny Chieng’s resume reads like a laundry list of comedy career goals. After relocating to Australia to study law and commerce at Melbourne University, the Malaysian-born, US-raised fledgling comic took his first tentative steps into the world of stand-up at that most humble and unforgiving of launchpads, an open mic night. Where so many comedy wannabes before him have bombed, Chieng’s earliest sets soared, and despite his well-heeled education, a future in comedy beckoned. Realising his aptitude for making people laugh, he upped the ante by entering the Raw Comedy competition in 2010, and while he didn’t win, buzz about an up-and-coming, Asian-Australian comedian began to simmer. In 2012, Chieng made a major breakthrough, taking out the MICF’s Best Newcomer Award alongside Matt Okine. For the next few years, his live outings remained consistently among the must-see shows on the Australian comedy circuit. 

But it wasn’t until 2015, already firmly cemented as one of Aussie stand-up’s A-listers, that he would land his biggest break. While touring his wildly successful show You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About, he was discovered by South African comedian Trevor Noah, who invited him to become a regular correspondent on The Daily Show. Since that career-making moment, Chieng’s star has risen even higher. Tipped as one of ten comics to watch by Variety magazine in 2016, the ABC commissioned the first season of his sitcom, Ronny Chieng: International Student, in 2017, and in 2018, he appeared in his first major movie, the box office hit Crazy Rich Asians.

So, given Chieng’s stratospheric successes in front of the camera in recent years, it begs the question: surely he could enjoy a rich and fulfilled career without ever having to appear on stage again? 

“Oh fuck, when you put it like that… fuck, what the hell am I doing? I should probably cancel the tour,” he says, with his trademark part-surly, part-sassy delivery. “I guess I just have this crazy obsession that keeps motivating me to perform live. You know, it’s this crazy drug of making people laugh. So, to answer your question, insanity is most of it. Probably like 60 per cent of it. And the other 40 per cent, I dunno – I’ve never really ever stopped performing live. I still do sets all over New York, I tour around the US. Working in TV and film is great, but for me, everything starts and ends with stand-up.”

The live stage may be where Chieng is most comfortable, but he’s also proven to be just as masterful in the digital space as a viral sensation. In 2016, on the eve of the first American Presidential Debate ever to be moderated by an Asian American, a thoroughly tone-deaf report aired on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor segment. In it, Fox’s Jesse Watters sought out every possible Asian stereotype in New York’s Chinatown, spliced with clips from The Karate Kid while Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting played in the background. In a epic rebuttal for The Daily Show, Chieng brilliantly tore Watters to shreds with his trademark combo of red-hot burns and a furious, expletive-laden delivery. In one of his most inspired lines, drawing on the kind of informed, razor-edged wit fans have come to expect from Chieng, he suggests: “If you wanna come at Chinese people, make fun of China’s high pollution, or the fact they censor most of the internet, which in this case might actually be a good thing since no person in China will ever have to watch your garbage attempt at comedy.” 

Chieng broke the internet again in 2017, while back in Australia filming International Student. He filmed a new legendary report for The Daily Show after finding out that a group of Sydney high schoolers had managed to synthesise the HIV medication the-now jailed ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli had attempted to price hike by more than 5500 per cent. Dressed like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Chieng mocked Shkreli’s rambling Tweets and even let the adorably nerdy Sydney students throw a few zingers the disgraced entrepreneur’s way.

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Chieng has also been front and centre of a burgeoning wave of comedy made by young Asian comedians, specifically about their cultural experience. The success of Ronny Chieng: International Student and Crazy Rich Asians has mirrored that of Benjamin Law’s sitcom The Family Law and Michelle Law’s hit stage play, Single Asian Female. 

They’re stories that haven’t been told before. That’s why they feel so current and fresh,” Chieng says. “The stereotypes have been out there, of course. But I don’t think they’ve ever been told from the perspective of someone who’s actually lived through it. They’ve not be told from an authentic perspective before. So partly I think it’s because we’re seeing more Asian storytellers that are coming into their own. But it’s also ‘cause some of [these stories] are fucking weird man. Tiger mums and intense family stuff: it’s weird and funny and it’s crazy, you know. And anyone can identify with a crazy family.”

When Chieng next takes the mic in Australia, he’ll be bringing a heap of new material perfected on the US stand-up circuit. “Personally, I kind of go where I feel I can be most original. I want to go where I can say something no one else has said before,” he says of his new show, Tone Issues. 

Audiences can expect the same firebrand repartee that has made him such essential viewing on The Daily Show: “There’s gonna be lots and lots of complaining. You can expect lots of volume and anger directed at various arseholes in society.”