Ronny Chieng interview Montreal Just for Laughs

Photo by Marcus Rusell Price

Ronny Chieng on misunderstanding satire, his standup pet peeve and social media nonsense

We spoke to the Daily Show correspondent, actor and standup comic ahead of his upcoming Just for Laughs Gala hosting gig.

Ronny Chieng wanted to do comedy for nearly his entire life.

“I was four years old watching Seinfeld, and it was during the interstitials — the segments where you’d see Jerry doing standup at the club — I definitely remember telling my mom that I wanted to do that,” says Chieng. “But then I didn’t do anything about it for 20 years. I only did stand-up for the first time in my final year of university.”

That two-decade gap between Chieng’s initial interest in standup and his first time at the mic in front of an audience makes his subsequent career all the more impressive. In little more than a decade, he’s ascended from open mic nights to being a correspondent on The Daily Show and hosting his own Just for Laughs Gala.

Reflecting on his early influences from Malaysia and Singapore, Chieng says there wasn’t much of a comedy club scene, so standup didn’t seem like a viable career. “People like Hossan Leong were doing some interesting things, but on television, not as standup comedians. They influenced me to consider comedy as career path, but not standup comedy specifically.”

Asked if there are any major, noticeable stylistic differences between the kinds of comedy one might find in Southeast Asia versus what would work in North America, Chieng states that North American comedy tends to be ahead of the curve. “It’s very cutting edge here, and that makes sense because it was invented here. So obviously this place  would be on the forefront of it. That’s why I’m here, that’s why Just for Laughs is here. I think North America and Just for Laughs sets the tone for comedy worldwide, and I think everyone looks to here for the latest thing.”

The Ronny Chieng Netflix special

Expanding on that idea, Chieng reminds me that standup comedy is a relatively new art form — less than 100 years old — and that it’s even newer in Singapore and Malaysia, where he spent much of his youth. “They’re influenced by what’s happening here. If you watch Singaporean comics, what they were doing maybe 10 years ago is what North American comics were doing back in the 1990s.” In his estimation, the comedy most prevalent in his home countries in the early years of this century reflected the race-based humour popular a decade earlier in North America, though now, as it catches up with North American trends, it has shifted to being more observational and satirical.

Considering the importance and significance of language in comedy, Chieng — who’s multilingual — says that even though his creative process involves thinking, writing and working in English, his own multilingualism is no hindrance to his career as a comic. “Multilingualism certainly helps. Being able to think in another language really lets you empathize with a different culture, and you can bring those observations into your primary language. In my example, I can bring in Chinese concepts and cultural nuances that no one’s really ever thought of before. I think learning another language helps in any profession.” Chieng has performed in Chinese in the past, as a creative exercise, but “it’s completely different, for me anyways,” he says. “It’s not a simple translation. Culturally it’s different, you have to write a whole new set, and it’s a very different audience. It’s a whole thing.”

Ronny Chieng on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah and Ronny Chieng on The Daily Show

In his work with The Daily Show, Chieng favours the field assignments, describing them as akin to short films. “Two really stand out: There was one about shooting lionfish in Florida that was really fun, and another about a guy who got nunchucks legalized in New York City.” Asked if any of the field pieces count among his least favourite assignments, Chieng replied that none come to mind. “When we go into it, it’s like, ‘How the hell are we going to do any of this?’ and then, by the end, they actually come out good, which is a testament to the producers and the staff at The Daily Show. It’s a real team effort. Doing these things is crazy. You’re flying around the country meeting people, talking to people who aren’t actors — they’re real people who feel a certain way. Sometimes there’s guns involved. They’re really major productions.”

Asked about the comparatively recent evolution of the nightclub comic to the position of de facto reporter and current affairs critic — something not only pioneered by The Daily Show but, now, through the work of the show’s alumni, further evolved into the role of investigative journalists — Chieng is hesitant to refer to himself this way, saying he and his Daily Show colleagues are all comedians first and foremost. “We’re not trying to be journalists, at least not on The Daily Show, but I think, with comedy, you speak truth to power, and I think people gravitate towards that. And that’s where the overlap with journalism happens.”

Chieng has high praise for Jon Stewart, the man who nurtured and developed The Daily Show into a core component of contemporary American culture. “I think Jon Stewart invented modern American satire,” says Chieng. “He was the first guy to put video over someone’s shoulder and make fun of it, point out the hypocrisy, point out people’s previous statements. He invented all of that and I think it resonated with a lot of people. And in true American fashion, everyone has now tried to recreate those moments on The Daily Show.

“But the thing about The Daily Show is it wasn’t just that, it wasn’t just pointing out hypocrisy and railing against institutions or people — there were a lot of jokes, too! It’s just that people kinda forgot the jokes when they look at what was going viral on the internet. Obviously the more emotional stuff would go viral. I think that in America, a lot of people thought that’s what The Daily Show is — yelling, pointing out hypocrisy — and they forgot that we’re a comedy show first. When everyone tried to replicate it on the internet, all you see is eviscerations and, like, ‘He destroyed this!’ and ‘So-and-so destroys that!’ That’s kind of a bastardized version of The Daily Show, in my opinion. A lot of people seem to think satire is about eviscerating someone in the political spectrum, but I think satire is a lot more than that. In fact, if you tried to do that every single day, it would lose its edge.”

Ronny Chieng vs. former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minaj

Given that much of The Daily Show’s content revolves around pointing out the absurdity of modern life, Chieng had a prescient point about what might be the most absurd element of the timeline we’re living in. “Probably the biggest concern I have about modern life — among many, many problems — is people online getting upset at things that aren’t really real. For me, that’s the biggest absurdity in our society right now. Even worse are the people who get angry at other people’s reactions to things they see on the internet. And then we ascribe the reactions of four or five people on Twitter to an entire group of people, or an entire country, and really it’s just five people representing themselves. And then some people get angry at those people and it becomes a circular anger kind of thing… people getting angry at other angry people getting angry about something that, really, no one was angry about in the first place.”

When asked what, if given the opportunity, he could get audiences to stop doing while he’s performing, Chieng wasted no time in addressing what happens to also be my own personal pet peeve about comedy show audiences. “Yeah, if everyone could shut the fuck up while I’m performing, that would be great. I think that would be awesome. I’d rather everyone shut the fuck up and listen than anything else. Literally, doing anything else in a comedy show is the wrong thing to do. Even if the comedian is asking you a direct question, don’t answer. I don’t care if he comes down and says, ‘Please answer me right now’ — just shut up.

“In truth, 99.99% of comedy show audiences are respectful, and I realize that I’m doing that thing where I ascribe the actions of a minority on a whole group of people, when really most people know how to behave, and the key to that is mutual respect. And it goes both ways — when a performer is disrespectful to the audience, that’s a bad thing. You should always respect the time that the audience has given you, and I think that respect should be given back.”

As for which comics are on his radar right now, Chieng says, “Julie Kim, and Andrea Jin — both excellent.” ■

The Just for Laughs Ronny Chieng Gala is happening at Place des Arts’s Théâtre Maisonneuve (175 Ste-Catherine W.) on Sunday, July 31, 9:45 p.m., $45–$115

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.