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How Ronny Chieng Found His American Muse in a Pile of Amazon Boxes

Ronny Chieng. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

Malaysian-born and U.S. and Singapore-raised comedian Ronny Chieng is not an angry guy, but he plays one on TV. On The Daily Show, he rails against Fortnite, Fox anchors, and most recently, racist media coverage of the coronavirus. Onstage, after years making his name in Australia and the international circuit, Ronny perfected his boiling-over-rage persona. After moving here for The Daily Show, he had to learn how to translate that to the American stand-up style. In December, he released his Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America — the culmination of all that work.

In this episode of the new, improved, and now weekly Good One podcast, Chieng talks about the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the paradigm of authenticity, and Amazon Prime. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode right below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

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On American Wastefulness and Amazon Prime

I actually care about the environment and sustainability, unlike, I guess, most people in this goddamn city. And I just went onstage and I talked about it. So that’s where it came from. It came more from waste, and then it became about abundance. Essentially, I was like, Why is there so much waste here? And then it was like, Oh, there’s so much waste because there’s so much stuff.

So people can waste stuff, because they don’t care. It’s like, I can throw away a thousand napkins because there’s a thousand more right there. And I just find it crazy! I didn’t know how the joke was going to go, obviously, but people got behind it. So I feel like even Americans felt it was crazy. It wasn’t just me being a weirdo. It felt like it was one of those jokes where you show people the matrix — of like, Oh yeah. Why do we treat stuff like that?

Where are all these boxes coming from, man? The boxes come. We throw them away. They come back. We don’t know where these boxes are coming from. There’s a lot of boxes. Someone’s making the boxes, man. And they’re going somewhere, because they’re not in my house. Every day I see the Amazon vans pull up with tons of boxes. They go away. They come back. Next day, more boxes. Where the fuck are these boxes going? Where do they come from?

On the Difference Between American and Australian Stand-Up

In America, the goal is to get on TV with a [ten-minute set]. That’s why everyone here is super punchy and funny. In Australia, we don’t have TV. [Laughs.] So no one’s goal is to do that. There’s no showcase for TV in Australia. It’s very tempting to say we go less punchy, but I think in Australia we have a ten-minute set, but we also learn to tell longer stories. It’s a storytelling culture. So when you’re doing a one-hour show that people come to see you [for] and there’s no opening act, they paid money to see your name — Ronny Chieng, one hour, whatever your show title is — that changes the dynamic of things a little bit, because you’re not going to a comedy club. We have comedy clubs, too, where you have to go in and prove your worth to an essentially uncaring audience who is wanting to laugh. But when you’re doing a one-hour show in a festival environment, people pay money to watch you, and they’ll give you the time of day to expand a little bit more on your ideas, or show a bit of who you are, what you’re about. In fact, they expect it. If you don’t do it, they leave feeling like something’s missing. So that idea of mining personal experiences to tell a story, that’s a very kind of, I would say, Australian comedy tradition. Also British — you know, Edinburgh Fringe Fest.

On Channeling Anger for Comedy

I think a lot of people hide their anger because they’re nice people. They hide their frustrations in day-to-day life. So I think there’s something cathartic about being able to express that, or hear someone else express the same frustrations that they’re feeling, in a way which maybe they wanted to at some point. I think maybe that’s the value of it. Honestly, for me, it’s the only way I know how to do it. I got one mode. I just found that the things that I genuinely felt angry about, it would translate onstage. So usually that’s my divining stick. If something makes me angry, I’m usually like There should be some joke here, because people seem to get behind it.

On Pressure to “Represent”

I just want to be a funny comedian. I don’t want to be a funny Asian comedian. But sometimes you have to represent. And so sometimes as an Asian person, “representing” means punching everybody. Maybe it’s because everyone’s been punching down at you for a while now. So now it’s time to punch; we don’t know whether you’re above or below me, I’m just swinging now. So some of the jokes end up in that category of like, Am I punching down or up? I don’t know. I’m just swinging for the fences.

I’ll do any room. I’ll perform for any crowd. But you cannot deny in America if you’re an Asian performer, you have some responsibility to speak to that crowd. What you’re making is going to reflect on them. So I’m very lucky that the Asian-American community, for the most part, has really welcomed me in. Because that’s one of the burdens of being a nonwhite comedian in America: It’s that no matter what, you’re expected to kind of do that. You’re expected to represent your ethnicity. I just want to be a funny comedian.

I did expect to have to represent because I was the only [Asian cast member] on The Daily Show. That’s the reason Trevor brought me onboard — to speak to that crowd. So yeah, I definitely felt the need to represent. And like I said, this is a complicated relationship, because you want to represent, but you also don’t want to be pigeonholed into this thing, which is the constant battle. You want to do a show that represents Asian people, but you don’t want to be just the Asian comedian.

That’s one of my proudest things about this special, which is very subtle: trying to navigate that line of this is what Asian people think, but it’s not just for Asian people. And the idea of suddenly showing, Hey, I never saw an Asian person in American showbiz in that classic showbiz setting. What will that look like? And lo and behold, it kind of looks like … Oh, man, it’s cool and it’s different. And then even the music choices — like, we’ve got to put music that represents us, because I think it’s very common now to put hip-hop. And I love hip-hop, but I just felt like for this special, I was trying to say We have our thing, and it’s super cool. Shanghai jazz was perfect. Shanghai jazz is literally Chinese people interpreting an American art form.

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How Ronny Chieng Found His Muse in a Pile of Amazon Boxes