In his 2013 comedy special Think Pain, Marc Maron tells a story about the late Bill Hicks in which the latter screams “I’m a fucking poet” at the audience. It’s this image — of a (typically straight white male) comic yelling at the crowd about something they find irritating — that comes to mind when most people hear the phrase “angry comedy.” Ronny Chieng, a correspondent at The Daily Show who, before making his way to the United States, got his start in the Australian comedy circuit, is doing what he can to change this.
With his first Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, which is now available to stream, Chieng releases an hour-long litany of jokes, jabs, and routines that feel like an extended version of his “Everything Is Stupid” segment. But as he explains it to us, there is far more to craft an intelligible, relatable joke about something that’s insanely annoying than simply yelling at a bunch of strangers about it.
The last time we spoke, I asked if you were planning on doing a comedy special in the U.S. because everything you’d taped before took place back in Australia. Now, here you are.
You made it happen, man.
Obviously, that’s not the case, but how long has this been in the works?
I think I’ve been working on it since I moved to America. So, four years now, I guess.
I’m curious. Most comics in Australia, and outside the U.S. in general, still put out a new special every year. Some American comics do this, but not many. Was that slower pace better for you? Not so much? What was your experience with the process?
I came up in an environment where we would do an hour-long festival show every year. We do a comedy festival circuit, which includes Edinburgh and Melbourne, among others, and you’re expected to have a new hour every time. I did like four hours of those. Four or five, actually. I did five, recorded four, and released three independently. But when I moved to America, I was really happy to be off that kind of cycle. I was getting a little bit burnt out, and in New York City, I was very lucky to be able to jump on at clubs where nobody knew who I was. I could do 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Maybe 15 somewhere else. As a result, I rediscovered the joy of doing stand-up that way. And the process of building this new hour was actually a lot of fun because I took my time with it. I created it at my own pace, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to say, instead of trying to meet a festival deadline.
There’s also the fact that you’ve never done just one thing. Sure, The Daily Show is basically your main gig now, but you’re still doing all these things around it. That way, you’re not just working the stand-up part of your brain. I suspect that is very beneficial for you, creatively.
I think so. The Daily Show is kind of like the Harvard Business School of comedy. I learned a lot about comedy before I got there, but I’ve learned even more by just working there. This hour is actually a really fun product of all the stuff I’ve learned at The Daily Show — how to tell jokes at a higher level, telling jokes with meaning, writing better punchlines, being a better performer. Plus, I moved to America when I was 30 years old. I could feel myself maturing then. It felt like my personality was maturing more than my art and what I was saying. So, over the last four years, I’ve managed to catch my comedy up to my personal life.
I’m always fascinated when I speak with comics like yourself, who got their start outside the U.S. circuits. Some, like you and Trevor Noah, plant your flag in America and basically start over. Others, like Daniel Sloss, visit on occasion but eventually go back home.
I think one of the key differences, at least with Daniel’s recent special, to use an example, is he’s not really joking about America. He’s talking about other stuff. I talk about America in this special, but I’m also talking about my personal experiences. A lot of this hour is about me coming to America, and in order to tell jokes about America — jokes that are nuanced, that even Americans will get behind — I need to understand what they’ve gone through. And because I’ve lived here now, I can still make fun of it all, as opposed to shallow American jokes that a lot of comics abroad will tell. Things like, “Why do you have guns?” or “Why does your Coca-Cola have three flavors?”
I didn’t even know there were ten flavors of coke.
There are so many. But seriously, I guess that’s what I’m saying is, you can come to America as a foreigner and destroy it, like Daniel and so many other comics have. Or, if you want to joke about America, you can spend some time here and come to understand the vibe, and how people feel and why they feel that way. I think that’s what John Oliver meant when he said it took him two years, after he moved here, to crack American comedy. I’m in the political satire business. That’s my day job. In order to do that, to do American political material, you’ve got to understand America in a very nuanced way.
Day job aside, a lot of stand-up, and most of what you discuss in the special, is based on your own experiences. What does it take for something to trigger you like that? To make you think, “Hey, this could be a joke?”
There are two things. The first is, usually something that really irritates me and doesn’t seem to irritate anyone else. Whenever that happens, I try to explore whatever it is that I find to be pretty ridiculous, even if no one else seems to notice. That’s usually a good sign when it comes to comedy. As for the second thing, stuff that just makes me laugh at a particular moment, even if it’s just to myself, is always a good place to start. So, yeah, it’s usually either pure anger or laughter for me. I know that if something makes me really angry, I can usually find some comedy there.
Whether it’s the bits about Amazon and your wife’s friends in the special, or your running “Everything Is Stupid” segment on The Daily Show, anger plays a big part in your approach to comedy.
Early on, I realized my best bits come from something that really pisses me off. I usually try to think about or remember those things for later use. But in my experience, at least, it’s always been a flag or a signpost for me when something makes me really angry. I always try to explore those things or moments because that’s always been good for my comedy. It’s definitely a big part of my creative expression.
Anger has always been a big part of stand-up comedy, but I enjoy your approach to it because you’re not just going out on stage to rant about something. It’s obvious that you’ve thought about these things enough to understand them and write jokes about them. It reminds me of Lewis Black, actually, who was a former The Daily Show correspondent.
It’s easy to become one-note. If you’re just an angry dude, you can get away with it sometimes, but not always. I learned early on in my career that you can do 10 minutes of yelling at people, but if you want to do an hour, or if you want to headline, then you have to be able to see nuance and give a little bit more. You can’t be just one dimensional.
Plus, if you’re going to be an angry comic, it has to be authentic. It has to come from a real place. People can smell bullshit. But when it’s done right, it’s great. That’s what Bill Burr, Lewis Black, and comedians like them do so well. It always seems to be coming from a real place with them. A real irritation. And I don’t think you can fake that. At least, not very well. You can’t just pretend to be angry at something for laughs. That never works. So, I guess my point is you have to have a real personality disorder to be like this.
I wouldn’t describe it exactly like that, but I see what you’re saying. Switching gears, aside from using your anger for comedy throughout the special, you also dress up. In your previous specials, you didn’t go the suit route, but you do here. Was that a conscious choice?
Yes, I was very conscious about that. It kind of matches where I am in my life right now. As a public figure, I’ve been trying to keep it classy ever since I moved to America. I try to represent whatever it is I’m representing in a classy manner because there aren’t a lot of Asian people in the media. And when you’re a visible figure, I think it’s best to put your best foot forward. Another aspect of that choice is, one of the visual themes of the special is American show business. I wanted to put a live Asian performer on a platform other Asians normally aren’t given, which is that classic American Johnny Carson look. It’s the classic American showbiz aesthetic.
Classic still works. I looked at other specials, including my own, for reference. In my previous ones, I was dressed down to avoid too much attention. But there’s also this thing where, when you watch some of these older specials, you realize they get dated very quickly. It’s not just the fashion, but the art direction also. It dates it. But the classic always stays classic. John Mulaney does it. So do Aziz Ansari, Jerry Seinfeld, and a lot of those guys. Those looks still hold up because they’re timeless. That’s kind of what I was trying to do. Make something timeless.
‘Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!’ is now streaming on Netflix.