Cover Photo: Lucas Goldman

The Malaysia-born, US-based comedian and actor talks success and next steps

“The Internet is making people so f**king stupid,” is one of the most memorable lines from Ronny Chieng’s 2019 Netflix comedy special, Asian Comedian Destroys America! It perfectly captures the Malaysian stand-up comic’s distinct comedy style: aggressive, incisive and incredibly entertaining to watch.

Sitting down with Tatler for a virtual interview, Chieng is a lot more reserved as he reflects on his illustrious career in comedy, which began two decades ago with a stand-up gig in Melbourne, Australia. “I don’t like talking about myself,” he says.

However, there are glimpses of his outspoken on-stage persona as we discuss his biggest career milestones, from his viral segments as senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to his involvement in blockbuster films, Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings and Crazy Rich Asians.

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Did you grow up watching a lot of comedy?

Not more than anyone else. I remember watching a lot of Jack Neo on Gao Xiao Xing Dong and we watched Seinfeld as a family. I would say seeing Jerry Seinfeld in action was one of my first experiences of stand-up comedy. 

What made you decide to try your hand at stand-up comedy?

I don't know. I just thought it was something I could do and I confirmed it. It was my final year at Melbourne University and I had a chance to enter a comedy competition.

At the time, you were studying law and finance. Was there a point where you had decide to choose between a career in law or comedy?

I wouldn't say that I had to choose between the two. Sure, I went on to do an internship at a law firm and study for the Victorian bar exam, which is not as intense as the New York bar exam by the way. But that was mostly so that I could tell my parents that I was doing something. I was pursuing comedy throughout, with mini-wins that kept me going. I was doing shows around town, building a local fanbase. I won Best Newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I ended up passing the bar but I was already doing quite well in comedy, so I continued. 

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You moved to New York City in 2015 to join The Daily Show with Trevor Noah as a senior correspondent. Was it challenging breaking into the American comedy scene?

There’s nothing like the New York comedy scene. It’s more open and edgier than Melbourne. You can get away with saying anything as long as you're funny. There's so much opportunity, with 20-30 shows every day of the week. But The Daily Show definitely opened a lot of doors for me. I was allowed to prove myself as a stand-up comic quite quickly, compared to those who were out there trying to book show after show in New York.

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From climate change to anti-Asian hate crimes, do you find it exhausting having to cover this kind of new stories at The Daily Show?

I don’t know if comedy has made me more of a sociopath or if I’m just naturally like this. But that's the job. I can brush it off quite easily at the end of the day. I imagine it’s the same as being a doctor in the emergency room. When you keep seeing the most horrific stuff day in, day out, you don’t even get emotional about it anymore. 

You've also been involved in a lot of discussions about racism, diversity and Asian representation in Hollywood. How do you feel about always being asked about the ‘Asian experience’?

One of the reasons why I started comedy in the first place was because I didn’t see anyone talking about things from this perspective. So, I don’t mind it when people ask—I get it. It is frustrating when journalists keep asking me generic questions and I provide generic answers; it can feel so pointless. But I’m proud to be able to provide that perspective. At the same time, I don’t agree with doing things just because I’m expected to. I want to be able to focus on what I want to do. And the weird thing is that it’s not something that I ever thought about growing up in Asia. 

Your childhood was pretty evenly split between Malaysia and Singapore. Do you feel more attached to one more than the other?

I’m Malaysian. People don’t really understand what it was like to grow up in Johor Bahru. Maybe they think I’m pandering to both but I don’t really care. I was the kid who would wake up in Johor Bahru at 4am, take the Mickey Mouse bus across the causeway to go to school in Singapore. I don’t differentiate between them like that because they are so close. 

Singapore and Malaysia are just like New York and New Jersey. There’s no doubt who's who in this scenario but the point is how close they are: there’s just a bridge separating them. 

But who has better food, Malaysia or Singapore?

That's not even a question. Obviously, it’s Malaysia. 

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Do you think your career would have taken off in the same way if you were in Malaysia or Singapore?

That’s a good question. I don’t think it would’ve been as good a start. When I was starting out, comedy culture in Asia was still a very new thing. I have a lot of respect for Malaysian comedians like Kuah Jenhan and Phoon Chi Ho, who were building their careers and the whole industry at the same time. They had to do that from scratch. When I was in Australia, I was able to focus on what I wanted to do.

"I was the kid who would wake up in Johor Bahru at 4am, take the Mickey Mouse bus across the causeway to go to school in Singapore. I don't differentiate between (Malaysia and Singapore) like that because they are so close."
Ronny Chieng

The pandemic has changed the way that people consume comedy, with TikTok and Instagram Reels. Do you think that’s something you’d be interested in exploring?

No, I don’t want to do any of that sh*t ever (laughs). And I'm lucky I don’t have to. In terms of social media, I feel like I’m ancient and I’m not even that old! My brain isn’t wired to make short clips every day. When I started comedy, my main business was not from sponsorships or media. I followed the oldest business model: selling tickets for live performances. YouTube had been around but stand-up comics were precious about our material; we worked on it for a year before we're ready to release them to the public. 

That‘s how I still think about content. Less is more. Quality over quantity. Limited supply, increased demand. I think Dave Chappelle is a comedian that does this very well, and it works. 

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Speaking of Dave Chappelle, you recently attended Chappelle's Summer Camp 2021 alongside Jon Stewart and many more. What is it like meeting your comedy heroes?

Chappelle’s Summer Camp is like the NBA All-Star game for comedy but I actually met a lot of my comedy heroes, including Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle, when I was in Australia. They let me open for them and after I moved to America, we were able to connect even more. Bill Burr produced my Netflix special. It’s great when people I respect think that I’m doing a good job. It empowers you to ignore a lot of the negativity and haters.

Above Ronny Chieng plays Jon Jon in Marvel's first movie featuring an Asian superhero, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings.

Can you share any spoilers from the highly-anticipated Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings?

I don’t know how much I can talk about it. I’m more afraid of Marvel than the Secret Service. I can say that it was really cool to be part of this project. The filming experience in Australia was life-changing. The plan was to go there for two weeks but because of the pandemic, it ended up being six months and it was so much fun. I was able to hang out with the whole cast—Simu Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang—and really get to know them. 

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You have been part of non-comedy movies, such as Bliss and Trust, with an upcoming role in sci-fi thriller, M3gan. It looks like you're taking on more dramatic roles. 

I’m excited to expand my acting range. I’m not a classically trained actor, so when people trust me to be part of their vision, especially in roles that are not strictly comedic, it’s a huge honour.

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