In the United States, comedian Ronny Chieng is best known as one of the correspondents for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. Before making his way to America solely for the purpose of joining the rejuvenated satirical series, however, Chieng cut his teeth as a stand-up on the Australian comedy circuit. That’s where he based his ABC television show Ronny Chieng: International Student, a fictionalized, exaggerated and comedic take on his experience as a Malaysian-born law student at Australian National University.
International Student premiered last year on Australian television, and now it’s available to binge on the Comedy Central app in full. Of course, Chieng’s series isn’t the only thing the comedian will be featured in this week. Director Jon M. Chu’s highly anticipated film adaptation of author Kevin Kwan’s book Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters on Wednesday, and while Chieng’s role in the movie is small, the actor tells us he knows everything about it.
“I know this story. I know this world. I grew up in it,” he explains. “I know these people. I know the accent. I know the slang… I know all this stuff. I lived it.”
People often remember your early Daily Show segment about Jesse Watters being racist in New York’s Chinatown. Do you look back on it, or other early segments, now that you’ve got more time and experience under your belt?
The way the show works is we do a show every day, so it’s kind of like the New England Patriots. We constantly move on to the next thing. Maybe we don’t play a great game, but we’ll go on to the next one and play a great game, then on to the next one. In that sense, you don’t really have the time or the energy to dwell on past successes or whatever it is, because we always have the next show to do. So in that sense, I’m always looking forward or living in the moment. Even now, a lot of it is tied into the topics which are really relevant to me, like Crazy Rich Asians and my own TV show. When we talk to Asian-Americans, stuff like that, from pop culture and elsewhere, comes up a lot. But yeah, we just keep doing new segments and we don’t stop. The news doesn’t stop. The world doesn’t stop.
Do you feel like you have a pretty good grasp on who you are as a comedian, as a correspondent on the show? Or does it feel like you’re still figuring your voice out?
It’s a never-ending process to get better, really, and I feel like we get better every time we do the show. I really feel that I’ve gotten better at it. I can feel myself getting better every time I do it. Part of that is interesting because I’m not… I moved to America for the show, so I kind of had to relearn how to do comedy.
I spoke to John Oliver about this when I first joined the show. I actually met with him in his office, and I was trying to figure out… I was asking how to be a non-American correspondent on The Daily Show. He gave me a lot of very useful tips, but the one thing he told me was that it took him two years to relearn how to do comedy in America. Because we both come from stand-up, we both had these very relatable experiences in terms of moving to America and trying to figure out how to do it here.
He said it took him two years to learn how to do it in America, and he was spot on to the day. 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. 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. You need to demonstrate that you understand the American point of view, but can still make fun of it. I think that’s when you start hitting the nail on the head, so to speak.
I imagine it’s even more complex than that, as you’re not just doing that on The Daily Show, but also going out and doing stand-up every night. They’re two totally different things, with different expectations and audiences.
Doing stand-up every night really helped me a lot, because I got to meet people. I did stand-up every night in New York, but I was also touring around America a lot, so I got to see a lot of different places throughout the country. Not just visiting, but going there to perform live for them. You get to meet them, and you get to see what they laugh and don’t laugh at, and the different attitudes of the people. I still get a thrill out of exploring American cities. Every time I get booked to do a stand-up show in a different city, or to do a Daily Show field piece, I get to visit all of these really cool American cities. I think people don’t understand how big America is, not just geographically, but in terms of its cultural diversity. Every state is very different from the others.
So whenever you’re assigned a field piece somewhere, do you and the other correspondents do stand-up while you’re there?
Yes, but that’s just because we’re psychos. We just love jumping on stage. Most of the time what will happen is, we book a stand-up tour on weekends. It’s actually very hard to coincide those with field pieces, because the field pieces are like the fire department. You don’t know when exactly they’re going to be, or where they’ll be, and so when it happens you have to move very quickly. There’s no real way to pre-plan where you’re going to be for those. There’s no way to book a headlining tour. But yeah, when we do a field piece somewhere, if we have some free time one night, me and Roy will usually go up to the local open mic or the local comedy club and see if we can get five or ten minutes on stage.
Do you see yourself putting out a stand-up special here in the U.S.?
I would love to do a comedy special here. I’ve got four specials now in Australia. I filmed them myself and put them up on my website, but I come from the Australian mindset. In Australia, we do one hour a year, for better or worse. I come from that. That’s what I used to do. In Australia, I would do a new hour every year. But I’d love to do it in America, for sure.
Ronny Chieng: International Student is something you had already done before you came to the U.S. to work on The Daily Show. Were you already working on it when the latter came about?
I actually got it before I got The Daily Show. I filmed the pilot before I got The Daily Show, and I was lucky that they picked up our series in Australia, and that Comedy Central decided to pick it up. I was working on it back in January 2016. Everyone watches American TV, but I think more importantly is the fact that when I was making International Student, I really wasn’t thinking about where it could go, or about my becoming famous or blowing up. I was just thinking about telling a cool story. That’s the reason why I stayed in Australia and not in America at first, because that’s where the authenticity of this story was. I went to University in Australia. If I was trying to game the system and make it more popular on paper, or more relatable here in America, I probably would have written it to take place in America. But I wrote it based on my own personal experiences in Australia, because I feel like with storytelling, authenticity resonates. I was just trying to tell an authentic story, and make it as funny and as cool as I could, with as many layers as possible.
Were there any particular Australian or American television shows that inspired International Student?
To be honest, we had several keywords we kept using. I mean, we really liked how contemporary Broad City felt. Broad City feels like a very contemporary show and we liked the energy of it. It was kind of silly and absurd. It also really grew from South Park in terms of how every episode has a satirical message. It was satirical, but it was also so absurd and silly that at the end of every episode, everyone would always walk off just a little bit dumber. I really like that energy and those types of endings, the ones that draw away from the feel-good endings, and instead show how everyone is dumb and how everyone loses. That was really the model of the show, that everyone is stupid, including myself.
That is some of the best critical appraisal I have ever heard of South Park and Broad City.
South Park is up there with Seinfeld. It just doesn’t get a lot… I guess because they’re still in production. For that many seasons, to still be that relevant and have all their episodes be so on the nose, and just how well written they are… They always have really cool story arcs that resolve, and multiple A and B stories that usually converge. I really like it. I’m trying to think if there were any other main influences, but for me, personally, that was really what it was.
The other thing The Daily Show taught me was figuring out what you’re trying to say. That’s one of the questions we always ask at The Daily Show. “What are you trying to say? This joke is funny, but what were you trying to say?” That’s something I never really thought about before I started at The Daily Show, so when I was writing this series after I had been working there for a little bit, that also began to influence where the series would end up going. Asking questions like, “What are we trying to say with this joke?” Or, “What are we trying to say with this episode?” That’s something South Park does really well, too. They always try to say something with every episode. I guess that’s what good satire does. It says something, even if it’s funny and absurd and silly.
Have you ever met Matt Stone or Trey Parker?
No I haven’t. Have you ever watched that documentary 6 Days to Air?
Yes. It’s insane.
How awesome is that? It shows them writing, animating and voicing a whole episode in six days. In that way, I feel like I know them, but I’ve never met them.
Switching gears, you’re in Crazy Rich Asians. Had you read Kevin Kwan’s book before you joined the film?
The book was on my radar because I’m from Malaysia and I grew up in Singapore. I spent 10 years in Singapore. My parents live in Singapore, so I’m very connected to it, and when the book came out, it came up on my radar because how often do you hear of a Singaporean’s story blowing up in America? So it was on my radar, but I didn’t read it until I first heard they were making a movie of it. That’s when I made the time to read it.
Did they come to you, or did you audition for them?
I was filming International Student in Australia at the time, and when they announced the movie, I was like, “Oh, this is really interesting.” But it was just a pipe dream for me to be a part of it, so I didn’t really consider it. I wanted to be a part of it, but it’s a long way to go from watching movies to actually being in a movie, so I didn’t really think much about it. Then sometime in January 2015, I read an article that Jon M. Chu, the director, was having trouble casting because he was looking for authentic Asian actors, with authentic accents. That’s when I was like, “I actually have a decent chance at this,” so I asked my agent to help me book it. I was like, “I never pull this card, but if you can get me an audition, I know I can book this. I know this story. I know this world. I grew up in it. I know these people. I know the accent. I know the slang. I know the dialogue they use in the book. I know all this stuff. I lived it. So if you get me an audition, I can book it.”
He got me an audition in Australia, and two months later they told me I got the role. It was awesome. At one point, I was talking to Jon on set. I met him on for the first time on set, and we were hanging out during production. I was thanking him for putting me in the movie and he said, “We always wanted you for that role.” Apparently, he saw me on The Daily Show, and already had me in mind for casting, but I guess I had to audition for the studio just to let them know that I wasn’t a complete piece of shit.
There is a lot of joy regarding the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is debuting as this big feature film, but it also seems like there’s a lot of pressure behind it. Specifically, the pressure to do right by Kwan’s book and the people of Singapore.
We approached the day-to-day of it. We weren’t thinking about our place in history. We were trying to get through each scene and, obviously, I’m not the biggest role in the movie, so spent a lot of time waiting around for my scenes. You have to stay focused. You’re not really thinking about it. When I first joined the movie, I appreciated the moment and what it could be, but day to day, we were just trying to get the thing done to the best of our abilities.
Jon is a very positive guy. He’s got great taste and great vision, and with him directing it and leading us, we could tell that this was going to be something special. We had to make sure we got what we needed to get, so we were focused on that in the moment, but there were definitely times when I thought, “Oh yeah, this is it. This is the moment.”
‘Ronny Chieng: International Student’ is now available to stream on the Comedy Central App. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ hits theaters on Wednesday, August 15.