Ronny Chieng may be a recognisable name in the American comedy scene but he was already cracking wise back in Australia. Born in Malaysia, Chieng spent his formative years hopping from place to place (New Hampshire, then Singapore) before graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce.
It was around that time that Chieng began his comedy career in earnest. With sold-out shows and TV appearances, things came to the fore when he became the first Asian correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and was cast as Eddie Cheng in Crazy Rich Asians. Since then, he became that go-to person that every Chinese mother would point to, "see what a bachelor's degree can get you? At least, tangentially?"
For this year's Esquire Neighbourhood, we present the "In Conversation" series, where we talk to personalities about their work and life. Here are the highlights of our talk with Ronny Chieng.
No surprises here but America’s response to the Coronavirus is terrible
As someone who has lived through the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in Singapore, Chieng has some context with dealing with a pandemic. He was in Australia when COVID-19 was declared by the WHO as a pandemic. “Granted SARS wasn’t nearly as bad as [the Coronavirus]. It’s a real shame that America has never seen a country handle a pandemic so they don’t that it’s even possible.”
Not a fan of stand-up on Zoom…
Given that the pandemic has shuttered entertainment places that house a large number of people, comedians are taking their stand-up to online. You won’t see Chieng doing Zoom comedies anytime soon. “It’s not the same. It’s not what I do. I don’t yet see the need for me to do it yet. I understand why a lot of people are doing it and some people have really figured it out in really smart ways, which is great… but I’d literally risk my life in New York City to do a live show then do a Zoom show. It’s crazy, I know.”
Chieng wished that when he started comedy in 2009, that he had used YouTube as a platform for his act. But at the time, Chieng’s focus was selling tickets. “That was the main source of revenue. It wasn’t trying to get views or hits, it was selling tickets.”
…But is a fan of making the customers work for it
He believes in making the audiences work for it when it comes to attending comedy shows. Chieng laments that the consumer base in Singapore and Malaysia differ from the ones in Australia and America. "They are some of the worst consumers. In Singapore and Malaysia, if you pay money, they expect the show to be perfect and to be convenient for them. For a consumer to put in any effort on their end, that idea is crazy to them."
But asking for audience participation is a key mechanic for stand-up comedy or with any form of live entertainment. According to Chieng, a free show will not do as well as a paid one. "Just having them pay five dollars, 10 dollars, some token sum, that changes their investment in the thing.
Dude really digs his Sea Scout days
Chieng was bemused by the query about his time as a Singapore Sea Scout. “It was important in learning that I don’t respond well to authority.” Despite his aversion on being told what to do, Chieng has equal parts love and incredulity for his stint with the Sea Scouts. He remembered going overseas to attend the World Sea Scout Jamboree in Thailand, how much fun he had, the photos he took.
He also compared Singapore’s National Service to the uniformed group cadets as ‘commandos’. “It’s crazy that these 12- to 15-year-old kids were [undergoing] Navy SEALS training. It is insane. I look back on it and I’m like, ‘man, what the hell was going on?’"
His sitcom about his university days won’t see a second term
Partially-based on his experiences as an international student at the University of Melbourne, International Student started out as a pilot for Comedy Showroom—(kinda like a deathmatch to see which promising pilot gets to be a full TV series. The show garnered positive feedback but since its finale in July 2017, nothing was heard about a second season.
“I don’t think it’s happening,” Chieng reveals. “You can ask Australia [ABC] about that. It wasn’t really my decision… but I think we’re all kinda aged-out of telling that story now.”
Chieng adds that there are a lot of stories yet to be told in International Student. “That’s how a lot of Singaporeans and Malaysian meet white people… By being around them and being their peers and not having this weird expat/local power dynamic. There’s this initial sense of equality and cross-culture learning and communications.”
The room that Wayne was in
We don't need to talk about that. Moving on.
Head over to Esquire Neighbourhood for more events and highlights over the weekend.