The Limits of Ronny Chieng

Chieng in Speakeasy. Photo: Marcus Russell Price/Netflix

Let’s get this out of the way: Speakeasy looks gorgeous. The special, Ronny Chieng’s second with Netflix, opens with a shot of the comedian and his wife walking down Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown (to the croon of a Chinese folk song), then ducking into Chinese Tuxedo — the trendy Cantonese restaurant that serves as the night’s venue. Chieng is dressed in a white tux blazer and black bow tie. Indeed, the whole opening sequence seems to be going for a whiff of nostalgia, referencing some earlier time, some other place: The venue is named after another, long-shuttered restaurant. It’s in a building that once housed New York’s first Chinese-language theater. When Chieng takes the stage, it’s on a small round platform in the middle of the dining space circled by red lanterns, candlelight, and potted foliage from more equatorial climates. As shot by director Sebastian DiNatale, this is a production flowing with iconography — Chinese American iconography.

It’s a bummer, then, that Chieng’s actual material never comes close to being as interesting as Speakeasy looks. At best, it’s a passable special that makes decent use of Chieng’s special perspective on U.S. politics. At worst, it’s an hour from a privileged outsider who draws on the tropes of Asian America without knowing very much about what to do with their meaning.

Chieng holds a rare position: He’s a globally oriented stand-up whose main job is making comedy out of American politics. Born in Malaysia and ethnically Chinese, Chieng grew up partly in Singapore and partly in the U.S. Like many upwardly mobile Southeast Asians, he moved to Australia for college, where he grew into adulthood and started doing comedy. By the time he moved back to the States in 2015, he’d already toured throughout Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. But the U.S. is where he found, in many ways, the grandest possible stage for his work after landing a spot on the staff of The Daily Show — in an era when it’s led by another globally oriented comedian, Trevor Noah.

Both on that show and during his specials, Chieng has a compelling kinetic presence. He often comes off like he’s restraining himself from grabbing you by the lapels, and there’s a distinct pleasure in Speakeasy in watching him transcend the small elevated circle to assert control over the room. Chieng is better in the first half, which opens with a lament about the “I’m just doing my own research” school of American COVID skepticism. “All these fucking D-average students who are in the back of the classroom their entire academic career,” he grumbles, an accusing finger piercing the air. “Stay the fuck in the back! Don’t come to the front during a pandemic because you figured out how to start a podcast.” Speakeasy is imbued with politically flavored frustration, but its better sections revolve around conceits in which Chieng capitalizes on the gap between the American audience and the specificity of his own background: “It’s very hard to explain Singapore to Americans.” A beat. “It’s very hard to explain any other country to Americans.” There are some tired bits — including a joke about the Pill as a way to express generic differences between men and women, and an early crowd-work gag premised on determining which race has the worst racists comes with a payoff so predictable I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it somewhere else.

The special loses focus around the half-hour mark. It’s not that Chieng isn’t able to sustain momentum over the hour; he just doesn’t ultimately go anywhere. An extended bit about his distaste for the U.K. begins with a nod toward an anti-colonial posture: “I’m very pro-Brexit,” he begins, stiffening his body and drawing out a fun sense of unease from the room. The bit ultimately devolves into his personal frustrations with working comedy festivals in the U.K. Which, you know, fine. Some of those stories are amusing enough, but the setup implies that he intends to go deeper than he does. You keep waiting for him to take the next step, to push the line further and uncover something new. By the end, the special feels muddled and strange. Things aren’t helped by the fact that the closing stretch is anchored by a sprawling diatribe about critics: “Who the fuck reviews comedy unironically?” The section suffers both from a lack of precision — online trolls, professional comedy critics, audience members, and Twitter folk are all conflated into the stream of critique — and a lack of actual insight. “You can find flaws in anything if you look hard enough,” he says. “You can find flaws in the Mona Lisa. What does that mean?” Yeah, okay. But what does that mean?

The more interesting and promising aspects of Chieng’s work have always fallen in the moments when he exploits the edges afforded to him by his biography. He has lived as an ethnic minority in several countries and as the majority in one; he has taken up an artistic profession (already a sin as an Asian) that’s historically framed as rooted in American freedom of expression (broadly speaking, a freedom not widely found on the Asian continent); he has spent the last decade or so honing his craft across several cultural contexts. Now that he seems to be gaining traction in the U.S. — even nabbing small parts in Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — Chieng brings with him some real promise of disruption. Consider how his growing profile could layer onto the ongoing definition of Asian American popular culture, which continues efforts to self-actualize while navigating the space between accusations of white adjacency and Black appropriation. How does that map onto someone, like Chieng, who isn’t an Asian American but an Asian in America?

You can see some flashes of these questions playing out in both of his Netflix specials. In particular, there’s an early moment in Speakeasy that gets at the difference between Chieng and most Asians living in the U.S. — that by virtue of his comfortable Southeast Asian roots, international career, and growing success, he has the power to opt out. It’s a whimsically punchy bit when he faux begs for the sweet release of cancellation. “Cancel me. Cancel me. Do it. Cancel me,” he says, head cocked slightly forward, working the repetition of his words up to a frothing point. It’s a common tactic in his delivery: accelerating and chaotic, hitting the same words over and over again to create a deafening sense of saturation. (From his first special, when commenting on the supreme conveniences of Amazon Prime: “We need it Prime. We need Prime harder, faster, stronger!”) It comes from Chieng’s persona — marked by a kind of stuffy exasperation over the stupidity of the world. The repetition crescendos, and, when the punchline comes, it’s a wicked turn. “What are you going to do? Cancel me, so I have to go back to Malaysia … where I’m a national hero? And the currency advantage is very much in my favor?”

The joke whips back around and folds inward: Why does he even want to be here in the first place when “half the country has lost its mind, the virus is raging out of control, major metropolitan areas are literally on fire”? — or so says Chieng’s mother in Singapore in an appeal for him to leave the U.S. “I had to tell my mom, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t see what I see,’” he says, “that America, despite all its flaws, is still the country where you can tell dick jokes for $12 in New York City.” It’s a deeply fun sequence, but the line of inquiry stops right where things start to get interesting. What does it mean that “making it in America” continues to be the ideal despite everything? Chieng consistently gestures toward these kinds of questions, but, at almost every opportunity, he fails to follow through.

I can’t help but feel invested in Chieng’s work. Like him, I happen to be an ethnically Chinese Malaysian with ties to Singapore and Australia and continue to identify as such despite having migrated to the U.S. more than a decade ago — an Asian in America, not an Asian American. My impulse is to perceive him as a kind of proxy for people like me and, perhaps, a test case who could yield some insight into the state of the diaspora. I feel this even though I know it gives way too much weight to blunt representation politics.

What Chieng and I have in common, and what we don’t, also means I can’t help but perceive a somewhat conservative bent to his comedy — a meritocracy-obsessed bias that, to me, feels very Singaporean. That comes across in Speakeasy in various forms: in the way Chieng dings American COVID skeptics for being poorly educated; in a rant in which he argues that “before you’re allowed to comment on something online, you should be made to do something with your life”; and in the special’s closing joke, in which he talks about the time when someone physically attacked him on the street — then considers whether the perpetrator of a hate crime against Chieng should be commended for being more proactive than people who criticize him online. “I still respect that woman more than these fucking Twitter/Yelp-reviewing bloggers,” he says, “because she was unhappy about something in her life. She got off her ass to do something about it. She didn’t just sit behind her keyboard … No, she didn’t like Asian people. She went and committed a hate crime.” It’s an intriguing twist. It also doesn’t work. A hate-crime joke like this could land as an intentionally absurdist provocation, but, given that the bit is anchored in Chieng’s extreme sensitivity toward online criticism, it feels profoundly wasted on a shallow conceit.

These aspects of Chieng’s work deserve more scrutiny than they get and, frankly, so does my own impulse to view his work in relation to Asian American culture. The problem is that gains among Asians in the U.S. entertainment industry — let alone the comedy world — are still a recent phenomenon. It’s almost impossible not to see Chieng’s growing profile as part of the “representation” conversation and the tensions that come with it. Speakeasy is a special that plays with the symbols of identity politics, and Chieng is a comedian whose jokes often draw on tropes associated with Asian America. Those seem good enough reasons to wonder whether Chieng actually has anything to say about them — and to be frustrated when he refuses to speak for anyone but himself. But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe we should simply take him at his word. “Everybody thinks that just because I’m on The Daily Show, I’m here to save the world,” he says in the special. “I’m not here to save the world, man. I’m here to talk shit, make money, and bounce!”

The Limits of Ronny Chieng