Everyone who knows of Ronny Chieng likely is aware of these trivia about him: He’s a stand-up comic of Malaysian-Chinese descent; he spent his foundational years studying in Singapore; he both pursued law and cut his comedic teeth in Australia; he’s famously senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Oh, and as satirically pointed out in Netflix’s short Ronny Chieng Takes Chinatown, he was ‘Mr Five Lines’ in Crazy Rich Asians.
It’s funny, because in a 2019 panel interview about landing the role, Chieng jested about telling his agent his new business model was the caveat that he would only do “200-million-dollar movies with [an] all-Asian cast”. Fast forward to 2021, Chieng appeared as underground fight club ringmaster Jon Jon in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Which, needless to say, featured a predominantly Asian cast and raked in USD360 million worldwide at the box office according to Forbes.com.
You start to wonder then, seeing a fellow Southeast Asian manoeuvring the global stage, with a Netflix special Asian Comedian Destroys America! and Comedy Central TV series International Student, all based on sincere personal experiences, whether he regards the Asian identity as integral to his career.
“Yeah… no, it definitely varies on the project. I did Bliss with Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson,” Chieng recalls with a light chuckle, “and in that movie, the ethnicity wasn’t a factor in that story. So I’d say it depends on the project you’re working on and what you’re trying to say with it.”
Being an Asian representation though, albeit intentionally or not, is another question altogether. Chieng acknowledges that it’s hard to avoid, merely by how he looks and sounds. It’s like The Daily Show Between the Scenes clip back in 2016, where newly acquainted audiences assumed that his Chinese accent was fake.
“Just by virtue of the fact that I don’t know how many Malaysian or Singaporean comedians there are on Netflix. There’s not a lot,” he muses. “To be fair, even if there was a ton of Southeast Asian comics, that doesn’t mean that when I make something I’m not representing.”
Chieng is currently co-writing an action-comedy that he would be starring in. He remains apologetically tight-lipped about it since it’s still in the works, but if anything, it sounds like a passion project.
“It’s the kind of movies I liked to watch when I was a kid, right? The Chow Yun Fat, Stephen Chow stuff. That’s where I’m coming from. All my projects are a combination of stuff I thought was cool, and stuff I haven’t seen anyone do before.”
And you can’t get more Asian than martial arts, which he reveals that the film is about, though it’s not necessarily the focal point of it. It may surprise some that the actor who did a non-action cameo on a Marvel picture about martial arts actually practises martial arts regularly. Chieng started with Wing Chun in university with the goal of graduating with another skill picked up because he, in his words, didn’t want to waste time.
Being an Asian representation though, albeit intentionally or not, is another question altogether. Chieng acknowledges that it’s hard to avoid, merely by how he looks and sounds.
Currently, he’s more involved with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Primarily because the prevalent sport is available in every city around the world he has travelled to, so training is simply accessible when he hits the road. Secondly, it’s a great way to work out aggression and stay fit. “Believe it or not, I get injured less straight-up fighting grown men than I do playing basketball,” he smiles. “In jiu-jitsu, people are more respectful.”
Having to stay in the present while engaging in the sport is something Chieng finds very meditative. “You do martial arts long enough it’s not even about fighting anybody or being macho. You’re trying to perfect your own technique, which I find a lot of joy in. I just love the pursuit of perfection and never finding it.”
It gradually becomes evident the ethics and style at which this quick wit toils at; a predisposition for quality over quantity when it comes to the process. Chieng considers himself fortunate that his chosen form of self- expressions typically requires a timeline of one to two years to execute.
“I’m very lucky that I’m not like a social media content creator where I have to pump out stuff every couple of days in order to stay afloat. I think I’m just too lazy for it,” he admits. “I was lucky that people in TV gave me chances, so I get to work at a different pace which I way prefer. The thing which I do the most constantly is The Daily Show; that we’re talking about the news of the day.”
With the amount of daily output churned over the past seven years, it’s understandably difficult for him to pinpoint the most memorable coverage. “I’m telling you we do this show every day. It’s very Buddhist; we do it and then we just let it go and focus on the present. I’m sure if you give me some time, I could pull up my favourite ones.”
He proceeds to Google, then mentions Bill Gates (who was fun and down to mess around with), the district attorney/motorcycle gang member, and particularly the guy who shot fish. “I mean, that was crazy,” Chieng recounts of the context of the predatory lionfish overpopulation that had to be dealt with.
“We were shooting fish underwater with real guns to save the environment. It’s just a weird combination of things that I find the whole situation to be very classic Daily Show. Who’s the villain? Who’s the good guy? Who knows anymore? It’s such a serious problem with such a crazy solution that actually works. That kind of sticks in my head a little bit.”
Chieng still speaks about The Daily Show with the same reverence he has from the outset. Fame isn’t even an incentive here. That you could probably achieve by shooting yourself in the foot on Instagram, he reckons. The show is what he calls the Harvard Business School of Comedy just by the sheer number of skill sets it teaches.
“You need to know how to produce, which is a lot different from pure creating. Producing has a lot of administrative elements to it [like], for lack of a better term, logistics. I don’t know any other job where you’re pushed into so many different things and beyond your limits. And all these you can take with you to your next project; writing, improv, acting, editing, cinematography and directing,” Chieng says.
“Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of support staff, so it’s not like I’m doing it but I get to learn from them doing it. Sitting in and seeing these world-class editors who’ve been on the show for over 20 years and working around people who are the best at what they do, you’re kind of forced to raise your game because you don’t want to let the team down or be the weakest link.”
“We were shooting fish underwater with real guns to save the environment. It’s just a weird combination of things that I find the whole situation to be very classic Daily Show."
As far as he’s concerned, it’s the best job in comedy. A dream job that still is. It doesn’t discount the just over a decade-long career he has in stand-up. In fact, Chieng’s earliest exposure to comedy was of the genre—Seinfeld. That, alongside Mad About You, Cheers and other Hong Kong comedies.
Like what many in the field would say, there’s no equation or hard answer to comedy. It’s an art form that Chieng thinks most don’t believe it is. Stemming from the misconception that making money from telling jokes is a fairly uncomplicated gig, a chord seems to be struck as he effuses on the subject.
“Sometimes people are like, ‘You’re not that funny? I’m funny. How come you can do it and I can’t do it?’ And the answer is, you probably could do it, but [didn’t]. It’s not my job to teach people how to do stand-up. I learned by doing it every single night. Are you willing to put in the work? Are you just asking because you’re just trying to make small talk or poke holes in it? Or are you trying to figure it out for yourself? Dude, if you want to find out, you go do it.”
The indirect rant is a less exaggerated version of the bit he did about his wife’s friends reacting to his job. Being on the receiving end of predictably repetitive comments would render anyone a little frustrated, but to witness a similar pent-up response in real life, save the self-slapping, was a testimony of character consistency.
Chieng swiftly changes tune to an admission that greater and more challenging art forms do exist, but the same principle applies where it can look effortless when it’s done well. “It’s just my chosen art form so I treat it with a lot of respect. I wish I had a formula, then it would be easier for me to write material. Forget relatability, number one is it has to make me laugh,” he says.
There are the observational jokes, which relay a matter so relevant to everyone that most would deem humorous. There are also the absurdism, where the utter ridiculousness of the setting is hilarious. And then there are personal situations that perhaps the majority have not experienced but can find funny once conveyed.
It naturally goes on to the next task of making an idea funny for someone else. There was a time when Chieng felt that there was almost a stigma surrounding highly localised themes, but he’s glad to now see more getting behind the mic and talking about issues authentic to themselves and their specific countries as opposed to imagining, say, what an American audience would want.
Again, it goes back to the notion of being present. Chieng, whose own material broaches time-sensitive topics, does not worry about it surviving the Internet or future trolls.
“In many ways, it’s really good to do so because you’re the only one who can make a joke about this month in 2022, as a 36-year-old Chinese Malaysian. What better place to mine a joke unique to you in a timeframe that will never happen again? Someone else can talk about the same month in 2022, but are they 36 years old and a Chinese Malaysian?
“That’s why you as a stand-up comic should always be writing new stuff and making jokes that people love in the moment. Are you worried that someone’s gonna judge you because you did a joke relevant to March 2022 in March 2022? My concern is not making stuff for someone in 10 years on the Internet. My concern is making something that makes me laugh right now.”
"Sometimes people are like, ‘You’re not that funny? I’m funny. How come you can do it and I can’t do it?’ And the answer is, you probably could do it, but [didn’t]."
There’s a running impression that Ronny Chieng just doesn’t care. Not in a self-inflated way, just in an objective sense. To a certain degree, anyone with a platform shouldn’t. This leads to the question: Was that fourth wall breaking quip about Asian Reddit hating him based on something in reality? Does he have any inkling of how the Asian community actually reacts to his content?
“I honestly don’t know. It’s almost not for me to say, because who knows anymore? We all kind of live in our own bubbles. There’s this real focus on feedback, it’s very Singaporean. I try not to look for feedback? I don’t make stuff according to the feedback. I make stuff that I think is cool. I think, in general, more people like me than they hate me, but again I’m just speculating,” he laughs.
I pose a follow-up to a statement he said the year before about being a baby in his career compared to the industry greats, and allude if he still feels the same way. “Oh absolutely,” he answers instantly, “always trying to get better.” And there’s no time like the present to do so.
PhotosAlvin Kean Wong
Creative ProducerVanessa Caitlin
ProductionCassandra Tannenbaum / What Budget Studios
Photography assistantsHarry Kong and Brian Hexter
Styling assistantTanya Jean-Baptiste
Prop styling assistantYo-Yo
GroomingJohnny Caruso / Bryan Bantry