The Globe-Trotting Ronny Chieng Will Crack You Up
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Chieng has built his outsider persona into a career — one that’s taking off.
By Fiona Zublin
Whether you were planning to join us in New York’s Central Park, or are enjoying OZY from across the globe, we still want you to celebrate the talent and bold ideas we had in our lineup — and that make our annual festival of ideas so powerful.
Ronny Chieng didn’t go to Australia to become a comedian. He went to become a lawyer, which didn’t pan out. After training in Melbourne, he wasn’t able to find a job in law, so he went into the next most stable profession, stand-up comedy.
That’s a bit of a joke, but Chieng, 33, would have been hard-pressed to find a place better suited than Melbourne to kick off a career in stand-up. While to American audiences it often feels like Australian breakouts like Hannah Gadsby come out of nowhere, Melbourne boasts the third-largest comedy festival in the world and has a red-hot comedy scene. Not everyone wants to leave, and not everyone can. But Chieng — who was born in Malaysia and now lives in New York — has not only made the leap across the Pacific but also hasn’t abandoned his Australian roots.
To really hit it home, you have to be able to make jokes and understand what the actual American perspective is.
While he’s not exactly a household name in the U.S., you’ve probably seen Chieng: He’s a correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and played a supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe you saw the spread on him in The New York Times, in which he picked out his favorite Manhattan hot spots. But back in Australia, he’s not only a stand-up staple but also a TV star (his show, Ronny Chieng: International Student, aired in 2017).
The Aussie comedy that usually appeals to international audiences is broad sketch comedy, a tradition that stretches from Crocodile Dundee to Summer Heights High. Lately, Australian imports have been skewing more toward the woke side of things with Gadsby’s anti-comedy show Nanette and Tim Minchin’s musical comedy. But Chieng is something else entirely: His persona, even on The Daily Show, is that of a slick jerk who thinks he knows everything. Still, no matter how much swagger they have, comedians of color face barriers, particularly Down Under.
“In comparison to other markets, it’s been a bit harder for people of color to break through and achieve a high level of mainstream appeal” in Australia, says Henry Thong, a 23-year-old Australian filmmaker who featured Chieng on his YouTube series Makers Who Inspire. “But, having said that, things are changing here. I’m excited to see the diverse stories that will be told by diverse Australian creators in the coming years … the stuff they’re putting out is bloody amazing.”
Chieng’s rise in Australia was aided by a new method of selecting TV shows, says screenwriter Marilyn Tofler: asking people what they wanted. Getting International Student on the air took a positive audience response to the pilot on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) and its online platform. “The Comedy Showroom was an interesting development in Australian comedy commissioning as rather than just using their expertise to select projects for commissioning, the ABC used audiences to vote on which of the Comedy Showroom pilots they wanted made into a full-blown series,” Tofler says.
Chieng spent part of his childhood in New Hampshire before moving to Singapore with his parents, who still live on the island. He’s said in interviews that he got his most high-profile gig, as a correspondent on The Daily Show, completely out of the blue: He was touring when host Trevor Noah emailed him and asked him to join the team.
Chieng has become an integral part of The Daily Show by beefing up the program’s global persona, offering Americans not just a comedic take on the news but also a chance to see how the rest of the world views them. The outsider view has always been Chieng’s thing. “You can come here and make fun of America, but to really hit it home, you have to be able to make jokes and understand what the actual American perspective is,” Chieng told Uproxx last year. “Otherwise, you’re only catching topics on a very surface level. You need to make fun of American things in a way that even Americans will get.”
Not that he hasn’t had setbacks. An announcement last year that Chieng would star in CBS sitcom pilot Super Simple Love Story got fans’ hopes up that he’d been cast as the romantic lead — but led to backlash when it turned out he was simply playing the best friend to a White lead. In the end, it didn’t matter: CBS passed on the pilot this spring, meaning Chieng still awaits his big American TV break.
He’s busting his hump to get there. “It can’t be overstated how dedicated Ronny is to his craft, and how hard he works to make sure he’s doing the best that he can,” says Thong, describing the whirlwind experience of producing a documentary about Chieng as he was doing stand-up at night, performing on The Daily Show and promoting Crazy Rich Asians. “The guy is a machine, but so down-to-earth and welcoming too.”
In other words, don’t take the smartass stage persona too seriously.