IT’S ALL HAPPENING
‘The Daily Show’s’ Ronny Chieng Wants to Destroy Asian Stereotypes in Comedy
The star of ‘International Student’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ talks about this summer’s Asian comedy boom and owning Fox News host Jesse Watters.
WEST HOLLYWOOD, California—Ronny Chieng’s entire career has been leading up to this moment. On Monday, the stand-up comedian’s new series, Ronny Chieng: International Student, premieres as Comedy Central’s first-ever streaming-only series. Two days later, Crazy Rich Asians opens in theaters.
During a recent week-long break from his regular gig as correspondent on The Daily Show to promote his new projects, Chieng emerges from the elevator at the Palihouse hotel wearing a light grey suit and crisp white shirt. He settles into his seat in the courtyard restaurant for a quick lunch of pork belly salad with a fried egg on top before jetting off to a photo shoot.
Host Trevor Noah is “very supportive” of correspondents pursuing personal projects outside of the show, he explains. “It’s part of the job, right?” Plus, even though he’s been at The Daily Show for close to three years now, International Student actually predates his time on that show.
The series, based on his real-life experience of going straight from high school in Singapore to attending undergraduate law school at the University of Melbourne, ended up airing in Australia last year before Comedy Central decided to pick it up for a U.S. release. “Authenticity resonates,” he says, “so I tried to base it off of something that is authentic and hasn’t really been told. It’s also a story that I thought only I was in a position to tell.”
After letting Daily Show correspondents like Samantha Bee and John Oliver get away to other networks in recent years, Comedy Central seems to be making a more concerted effort to keep its rising stars in-house. In addition to Chieng’s new series, the network is also currently developing a sitcom project with Roy Wood Jr. called Re-Established.
In the show, Chieng and a handful of other students from Asia try to navigate a collegiate culture in Australia that feels quite foreign to them in many ways. But at the same time, the series continually upends perceived Asian stereotypes, something Chieng felt was important to the comedic point of view.
“I don’t want to ever tell a stereotype joke for the sake of it,” Chieng says. “I’m going to tell the story that I feel is true.” For instance, one stereotype about Asian people is that they study hard. “But the reality is that these were type-A personalities, they were here to kick ass.” He wanted to “own the humor” and make it about real aspects of Asian culture, not what he thinks white viewers might find funny about Asian people. That’s why he believes it’s so important for people to “tell their own story.”
From the ages of three to seven, Chieng lived in New Hampshire while his parents attended college there before returning home to Malaysia. He wanted to make it back to the U.S. for his higher education but ended up in Australia instead. “Australia was almost the path of least resistance,” he says, noting that his older sister was already studying in Melbourne. “Really, I just wanted to get out of Singapore,” he says, describing himself as an “angsty teenager” looking for “independence” from his family.
At that point, he had no idea that “independence” would mean a life in comedy. Not long after he arrived in Melbourne, he decided on a whim to enter a campus stand-up comedy competition. “I thought it was something I could do and just wanted to confirm that suspicion,” he says, betraying his outsized confidence. He was right. He won the competition, receiving the encouragement he needed to keep going.
Chieng was a fan of stand-up as a kid but stresses that he wasn’t a “comedy nerd.” Growing up, he was a fan of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and especially Russell Peters, the Indian-Canadian comic who has a massive international following. When he graduated from school, the global financial crisis had just hit and he struggled to get a job in law. “Comedy was going better than the job search, so I just kept doing comedy,” he says.
Initially, he didn’t even tell his parents that he was working as a comedian and not as a lawyer. When I ask when they finally found out, he jokes, “I still don’t think they know. I think they think I’m in private practice in New York.”
The first time his family caught wind of his burgeoning comedy career was when his shows started getting written up in Singapore. The first time Chieng performed there, his parents came to watch. “It was pretty funny, because my mom said, ‘Can you not swear and can you wear a suit?’” he recalls. That night he came out on stage in a suit and opened by revealing his mother’s request. “Let’s just say one of those things is going to happen,” he told the audience.
On International Student, Chieng’s “mom” appears periodically on FaceTime to check up on her son. He says the portrayal is “too real” to the point where sometimes he found himself getting genuinely frustrated with the character’s constant nagging from afar.
“I think the whole ‘tiger mom’ thing is a very common trope,” he says. “People like to show Asian moms giving pressure, but they don’t really show the love that comes with it.” He never intended to portray his mother as a stereotype. “Literally, my mom is like that,” he says. “My way of subverting the trope, or expanding on it, is to show there is a lot of love that comes with it.”
When Chieng arrived in Melbourne in the mid-2000s, clips of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show were just starting to make their way onto the internet. He and his law school friends would eagerly watch Stewart “eviscerate” various right-wing figures. It was a chance meeting with Trevor Noah a couple of years before he ended up taking over for Stewart that led directly to Chieng becoming a correspondent on the show.
Both men were performing at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal and Noah happened to catch Chieng’s set. They didn’t even exchange numbers at the time, but two years later, after it was announced that Noah would be hosting The Daily Show, he got called in for an audition.
“From the first time I saw Ronny on stage, I loved his ability to expose the stupid and illogical things society subscribes to,” Noah tells The Daily Beast by email. “That for me was what would make Ronny a great addition to my Daily Show—someone who could dismantle the cage of our accepted reality. As an Asian person who’s lived all over the world, Ronny also brings a nuance and experience on issues to the show that we wouldn’t normally have. And most importantly he’s funny!”
“Kudos to him for wanting to represent Asian voices,” Chieng adds. “Obviously I’m biased because he picked me, but he really didn’t have to do that. No one was pressuring him to do it. I’m sure he has closer friends than me, but he really wanted to give Asian people a voice on television.”
Chieng’s breakthrough moment on the show came about a year into his run when he tore into a remarkably racist segment by Fox News’ Jesse Watters, who was then essentially Bill O’Reilly’s errand boy. After Donald Trump had spent a good portion of the first general election debate whining about China, Watters decided he would go to New York’s Chinatown and “interview” people who didn’t speak English. He punctuated their blank stares back at him with egregious stereotypes, many of which, as Chieng pointed out, were not even Chinese.
As the only Asian personality on late-night television, he says he was “lucky to be in almost a perfect position to respond” to the segment. Nearly two years later, people still come up to Chieng and thank him for doing that piece, which culminated with his own trip to Chinatown where he had nuanced political conversations with residents in their native language.
The conceit of the Fox News piece was that people in Chinatown were ignorant of the political conversation in America, but Chieng tells me that when he showed up the following day to talk to people about it, people immediately knew what he was there to talk to them about. People were “lining up around the block” to respond to the Fox host.
Of course, Watters’ stature at Fox News has seemingly only increased since then, especially after the departures of O’Reilly and The Five host Eric Bolling for alleged sexual harassment. “So what does that tell you about the network?” Chieng asks rhetorically.
Chieng was in Australia filming International Student when he read an article about how director Jon Chu was having trouble casting Asian actors with authentic accents for his next project, Crazy Rich Asians. Chu actually put out a public casting call online, encouraging people to post their two-minute audition videos on social media.
“When I read that, I was like, I’ve got a chance,” Chieng says. “When I saw it was being made into a movie, it was kind of a pipe dream, like, that’s cool but I’m never going to get it.” He immediately reached out to his American agent and told him, “If you get me an audition for this, I know I can book it. Because I know this world, I’m from this world, I grew up with these guys. And this is the only accent I can do.”
Chieng taped his audition from Australia and two months later found out that he got the role of cousin Edison “Eddie” Cheng. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. It’s his first movie role and has the potential to be seen by far more people than those that see him on The Daily Show week to week. Chu told him on set that he wanted him to play the part from the beginning. “Apparently I was already on his radar,” he says.
More recently, Chu said that Chieng’s name was included along with stars Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, and others in what he has referred to as “the Avengers of Asian actors” during his original pitch to the film’s producers. Providing comic relief along with Chieng is an all-star lineup of Asian comedy stars, including the breakout star Awkwafina, former doctor-turned-comedic actor Ken Jeong and Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang.
Chieng describes his role in the film as “super obnoxious, status-driven, self-centered, huge douchebag,” joking, “Very little acting was done.”
“It’s genuinely a good movie, if you like rom-coms,” Chieng says of Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s also much more than that.
It is hard to overstate the potential impact this film could have on the pop culture landscape in America. “I’m annoyed that I have to be excited for Crazy Rich Asians,” Andrew Ti, who started the Yo, Is This Racist? blog recently said at a live taping of the Lovett or Leave It podcast in Los Angeles. “It happens that I am excited, but I’m annoyed that I have to be.”
That’s because—incredibly—Crazy Rich Asians, based on the 2014 best-selling book trilogy of the same name, is the first major Hollywood studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. When ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat premiered in 2015 it was the first sitcom to center around an Asian-American family in more than 20 years.
The actress Constance Wu, who stars in both projects, recently wrote on social media that before Crazy Rich Asians, “I hadn’t even done a tiny part in a studio film... I never dreamed I would get to star in one... because I had never seen that happen to someone who looked like me.”
Similarly, Chieng says that growing up in Singapore he never saw Asian faces in Hollywood movies. “America is the NBA of culture,” he says. “So to have Asian people in the biggest entertainment market in the world, in Hollywood, is cool.” And this film in particular “shows Asian people in positions of power and dignity and strength and masculinity.” He’s excited for young Asian-American kids to “see themselves as more than a sidekick, more than a punchline, more than a one-dimensional character.”
Chieng notes that Netflix made a big offer for the film, but Chu and the producers ultimately decided to turn it down because they were “adamant” that it have a traditional theatrical release, an arguably riskier proposition. “That was important to them,” he says. “How often in this business do people make decisions not based on the bottom line?”
“We were gifted this position to make a decision no one else can make, which is turning down the big payday for rolling the dice—but being invited to the big party, which is people paying money to go see us,” Chu told The Hollywood Reporter recently. “We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button,” author Kevin Kwan added.
“If we make a decent showing on that first weekend, there are like six Asian-American lead movies set up at different studios,” Chu added in another interview. “They’re not greenlit. Everyone’s waiting to see how this one does. But if this one does well, we’ll immediately have more chances. And if it doesn’t, we’ll just have to do it again.”
Chieng says he’s “well aware of the importance” of the film, but is trying not to think too much about the “pressure” for it to be a hit. The combination of an “untapped audience” and “fresh perspective” could make for an unexpectedly strong box office performance. Conversely, if the film is not deemed a success it could be a detriment to getting similar stories on screen. “I don’t feel the pressure as much as I’m proud of it,” he says.
“One of the many things I like about it is that it portrays Asian culture without being heavy-handed about it,” he says. “It doesn’t over-explain. It just shows it.” In other words, it makes no great efforts to cater to a white audience.
Again, Chieng says, it’s something that can only happen “if you have Asian people telling the story.”