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KNY Exclusive: An Interview with Ronny Chieng the Comedy Vehicle

Early on a Thursday last October, “Daily Show” Correspondent Ronny Chieng was on his way to Chinatown to get a response to a cringe-inducing segment from Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor”. Fox correspondent Jesse Watters had put out five minutes of clipped interviews with non-native English speakers in Chinatown, juxtaposed with stereotypical snippets of 80s movies featuring yellow-faced actors, a mock karate fight, and tunes like “Kung Fu Fighting.” Chieng was worried it would be tough to get people to speak on camera.

He underestimated.

People lined the street, waiting to voice their reactions. Chieng and his “Daily Show” team seized the moment, conferencing the first few hours of that morning to produce a response piece that called out the Fox segment. The Washington Post called it “a masterful takedown.”

Within 24 hours of Chieng’s piece airing on “The Daily Show” that night, social media reactions and messages flooded his phone. Since then, the YouTube version of his clip has over a million and half views. Chieng has become an unsung hero of the Asian-American community, yelling loudly on national television what we were all thinking in our living rooms. The funny thing is, Chieng isn’t Asian-American. But he’s got plenty of international experience to understand what the minority group may face every day.

Born and raised in Malaysia and Singapore, with a brief stint in Manchester, New Hampshire, Chieng moved to Australia for law school. But upon graduating, he found it hard to find a job. When his university hosted a comedy competition during his senior year, on a whim, he decided to give it a go. He won.

To see how far his skills in comedy could go, he tested himself. He started doing stand-up publicly outside of the school, eventually landing himself in the top Australian Comedy festivals in Melbourne and Sydney. He won them all too. The booming voice of a host shouting , “Ronnnnnnnnnyyyy Chieeennnnnggg!!!,” became his regular introduction. His style casual, he would enter stage left at a comfortable pace and immediately grab the microphone off the stand, wasting no time diving right into his stand-up routine.

Between 2012 and 2014, regulars on the comedy circuits of Melbourne, Sydney, Montreal and Edinburgh came to know his name. He was invited back to the renowned Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal for a second time in 2015. And that was when Chieng received a phone call from New York. He was tapped to join “The Daily Show” as a correspondent and work alongside their new host, Trevor Noah.

Fast forward two years, and Chieng is living out his dream job at Comedy Central. He’s also a regular stand-up comic on the New York City scene. As a correspondent, he gets to write his own scripts, just as he would for his stand-up work. Between his unique accent and his insightfully smart comedic material, the audience can hear the culmination of his life so far.

“I’ve done maybe four 1-hour comedy shows now. In each of them I’ll talk about law school a little bit and the international perspective, definitely. We’re all the sum of our experiences, so for me coming from living in Singapore, Australia, and now living in America – all that finds its way into my comedy,” says Chieng. 

Chieng says Australia has a much more restrained comedy environment, and as a result he’s used to being very politically correct. But in New York, he’s embracing the “say what you want” environment. Because comedy and race can be a pretty grey area in any country, Chieng sets some loose rules for himself, not wanting to restrict his performance too much.

“I’ll do jokes that are funny to me and if they happen to touch upon race that’s okay. As long as I’m not going out of my way to joke about race, I’m comfortable with that,” says Chieng. 

As a fellow comedian, Chieng gives Jesse Watters’ Chinatown debacle a fair critique: Watters tried something he thought could work, but his jokes were outdated for 2016 and it just wasn’t funny.  Chieng says that the nature of the comedy environment contains that risk. It could easily be him making the same mistake next.

“I do avoid certain controversial topics, because I don’t feel like I have the comedic ability to make the taboo funny. If you’re gonna go somewhere, it better pay off. Obviously you don’t go try something (untested) on national television,” says Chieng.

Chieng’s approach to comedy differs starkly from Watters who has a history of repeating his segments with the same format and comedic approach without much creative variation. Even critics who believe all topics or people are fair game in comedy seem to agree with Chieng’s assessment of Watters’ piece.

“I was bothered by the complete lack of wit and true comedic talent in presenting (Watters’) points. All comedians know that the #1 rule in comedy, the only rule in comedy, is that it has to be funny,” writes Karith Foster, a comedian who wrote for thehill.com.

Though his response piece went viral, Chieng hasn’t lingered on it, not even using it for any self-promotion. If you follow him on the Daily Show, you’ll see that his work has continued forward, following with the latest U.S. and world news events.

“If we do a good show, we don’t spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back. If we do a bad show, we don’t spend a lot of time commiserating. That’s how I like working, so I am happy to be a part of an organization that operates that way. It’s very Bill-Belichick-New-England-Patriots, onto the next, every day is onto the next,” says Chieng.

Ronny Chieng lives in New York City and regularly performs stand-up in Manhattan and Brooklyn clubs. You can find information on his upcoming shows, listen to his podcast, or follow him on social media at ronnychieng.com. Recently, it was announced that he has been casted in the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, “Crazy Rich Asians”, where he will be acting alongside Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, and many others.