As Ronny Chieng
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Comedian and correspondent for the Daily Show Ronny Chieng talks to Sinéad about entering comedy as a foreigner, his disinterest in the spotlight, and growing up in two completely different cultures.
[00:07] Sinéad Burke: Hello. Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. A few weeks back, I had a chance to interview Ronny Chieng, who is an Australian-Malaysian comedian. Speaking to Ronny, it reminded me of the conversation that we had with Riz Ahmed earlier in the series. How, depending on the room in which you are in, you may have to code-switch, transform yourself. And for me, learning about his experience of growing up in two different worlds, and how as a visibly Asian man, the world might treat him differently, or it might challenge how he moves through the world. Despite having a very different lived experience as a disabled woman, there were similarities, particularly there were similarities in our physical experience. But also I loved how he constantly wanted to speak about the work, not just about himself, which on a show called As Me, well, that’s a little bit challenging. But I loved that he is doing this work for the expression and the impact, not for the spotlight.
[01:06] Ronny Chieng: It frustrates me that fame is a currency that we need to cultivate in this industry in order to do our jobs well. Fame is not the end-game. It’s self-expression. So I think that’s why I kind of shy away from the pursuit of fame, because I instinctively feel like it’s gonna be very hollow and, you know, you’re not going to get anything worthwhile from that.
[01:30] Sinéad Burke: Later on this week, I’m heading to L.A. I’m gonna be a guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show, which is a ridiculous thing to be able to say. And what’s on my mind this week is the in-flight entertainment that I also watched recently on a trip to New York. I watch The Farewell, an extraordinary film where Awkwafina is the protagonist. In the film, it becomes immediately obvious the cultural differences between the United States and China, even within one family. It’s particularly relevant in a week where the Oscar nominations have come through. And while I’m so thrilled and delighted for someone like Saoirse Ronan — who at 25, now has four Oscar nominations, each of which are very deserved — we are continuing to see categories like Best Director without a single female voice. And it really forces us to ask not just where are the women, but where are the different types of women? Because that will inculcate an education on the different cultures that exist in our world, and give us permission to shape them, feel seen and feel heard. So heading to L.A. this week, I’m reflecting on that as I’m particularly conscious that I speak the same language as Americans. But the cultural differences are real. I think I’ll have to get used to saying “awesome” a lot. Or actually maybe rid myself of notions, which in Ireland is similar to the Australian tall poppy syndrome. Americans and particularly in L.A. there is a confidence that is tangible. So next time you see me, my ego, well, it won’t fit in this recording studio. Are you ready? Let’s go!
[03:04] Sinéad Burke: On this week’s episode of As Me with Sinéad, I’m not sitting across from this person, as we’re both in different parts of New York. But they are an individual that I have long admired for the ways in which they not only tell the story of themselves and their own experience, but have deliberately created spaces for voices and representations that haven’t been considered as part of the media landscape, and have made so many people feel seen for the first time, as a respondent and a correspondent on The Daily Show. I am so honored to be joined by Ronny Chieng. Ronny, hi!
[03:41] Ronny Chieng: Hey! Thanks for having me.
[03:43] Sinéad Burke: It’s such a treat. Ronny, how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[03:48] Ronny Chieng: Personally? I’m a loner. And professionally, I am undaunted, I think.
[03:58] Sinéad Burke: How did you get to discover the fact that you’re a loner, or prefer to be that way?
[04:03] Ronny Chieng: I feel like I was always very comfortable with being alone and not needing social interactions, and I was comfortable with that. I don’t know when I discovered it, but I already knew that, and I proved it to myself by doing stand-up comedy. Because when you do stand-up comedy, you’re on tour a lot. Usually by yourself in very unusual places, or at least places which aren’t home, are very far from home. And you spend a lot of time with yourself, traveling and you get really comfortable with yourself. And so I kind of instinctively knew that I’d be OK with that. And I was proven correct by my touring schedule.
[04:43] Sinéad Burke: What were you like in school?
[04:45] Ronny Chieng: I think I was OK in school. I think I was probably the guy who was always chosen to present stuff. Not necessarily the class clown, but just more the guy who was the go-to guy for like presenting. If those like a presenting thing that was there would kind of make me the point guy for it.
[05:04] Sinéad Burke: Was that because you liked it or because you were good at it?
[05:06] Ronny Chieng: I don’t know if I was good at it, but I probably the most comfortable with it. Yeah.
[05:12] Sinéad Burke: And did you have friends in school? The reason I ask is my background is in teaching and I’m so interested in this idea of whether or not enjoying your own company is something that you did discover when you were doing stand-up comedy, or if it’s kind of always been a part of you.
[05:25] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, I definitely had friends in school, but I’ve been labeled a misanthrope by various reviewers in the U.K., so I think I have very low patience for other people. So I think I definitely have friends whom I get along with, and I love very much, and I hope the feeling is mutual. But I’m also very comfortable with just hanging out by myself, hanging out with my wife. Like, for example, for the Netflix launch. I really don’t need a launch party or viewing party. In fact, the thought of having a viewing party, you know, probably gives me more anxiety than the actually making the comedy special.
[06:04] Sinéad Burke: So why do you think that is?
[06:05] Ronny Chieng: I don’t know. I think I just don’t like to talk about myself and I don’t like to — I kind of like the work to speak for itself, you know. I don’t like to, like, build up this thing with especially people I know, whom I am friends with, to make this thing where they kind of have to come and throw adoration towards me. Like, for me, that’s very uncomfortable.
[06:26] Sinéad Burke: That’s so interesting. My family background — my dad is an actor and I grew up very much, as he is, the only other little person like myself in my family. It was my experience that I would go with him to various film sets. And I was always intrigued with my parents’ dynamic because my dad very much reveled in being in the spotlight and my mother didn’t. But how do you, as somebody who enjoys the loneliness of stand-up comedy, have the patience to be also in the spotlight?
[06:52] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, I mean, I think stand-up comedy is interesting. I view it like a profession, not like a — fame is not the end-game. It’s self-expression. So like everything I do, it’s not the fame and the spotlight isn’t what does it for me. What does it for me is the self-expression and making something cool and getting people to laugh, you know? So I don’t know if that makes sense. Separating the spotlight from the job, you know.
[07:18] Sinéad Burke: But does it does it frustrate you that it’s intrinsically linked?
[07:22] Ronny Chieng: I think it frustrates me that fame is a currency that we need to cultivate in this industry in order to do our jobs well. Yeah, I think so. I think, you know, there’s a lot of extremely talented stand-up comedians and creators who are much better than me, but for whatever reason, they don’t have the profile, you know. So stuff like that kind of frustrates me.
[07:47] Ronny Chieng: But I’ve been in this for long enough now where I kind of accept that as part of the game. I’m like, as long as you don’t believe your marketing, I think you’ll be OK, you know. You can still play that game without losing yourself in it, or being motivated by the wrong things that ultimately don’t bring you happiness and are very shallow. So I think that’s why I kind of shy away from the pursuit of fame, because I instinctively feel like it’s gonna be very hollow and, you know, you’re not going to get anything worthwhile from that. Which is probably why I also don’t like to make a big deal about “achievements” in show business, whether it’s a Netflix special or this or that. Because, again, I feel like the work kind of speaks for itself. You don’t need to kind of bring your friends in and have a night where they have to kind of — are forced to laugh at your jokes. And even when I started stand-up comedy, I never asked my friends to come. I just went to do it in the public in front of strangers. I just instinctively didn’t want to ask people I knew to come to watch me do comedy. I felt like if I can’t do it to people who are not invested in my emotional outcome, I don’t think I can do this professionally.
[08:53] Sinéad Burke: Were you nervous of what they’d think of your comedy or did that not even come into your mind?
[08:57] Ronny Chieng: What my friends thought? I think I was just as nervous about them as I would be a stranger. You know, I mean, so, yeah, obviously, you know, when you’re doing stand-up comedy, you need a reaction from the crowd, and you want to be liked, and you want the crowd to laugh. But I don’t think I value my friends’ opinion more than strangers.
[09:15] Sinéad Burke: They’ll be thrilled to hear that.
[09:16] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, I think they know me too well by now.
[09:23] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[10:31] Sinéad Burke: What do you think has been the moment where you most connected with an audience? Has there been a time when you came off stage and went: “Yeah. They got it.”
[10:41] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. Actually, four years ago I was doing a set at the Comedy Cellar in New York and I’d just been past there, and I just moved to New York City. And that show, I remember distinctively being very, very present in the moment onstage, doing the jokes and going, “oh, man, this is amazing, this is awesome.” Because I’ve been trying to move to New York for a long time. At that point, I had just moved there. I kind of essentially started from scratch professionally, and creatively, but in a good way, I think. I moved to America four years ago, when I was 30 years old. And I was entering this point where I could feel myself maturing as a person and I could feel my comedy maturing but I hadn’t gotten there yet. But I just felt like everything I was doing wasn’t where I was at when I was 30. I’m still doing my 20-year-old jokes, the jokes I wrote when I was in my 20s, and I was just entering 30, I could feel myself become a different person. And I was moving to America. And I was starting on The Daily Show. So I was having a lot of these changes. And I knew if I came out the other side of the tunnel, I’d be a better performer. But I was still in that tunnel. You know, I mean, I still trying to figure it out.
[11:55] Ronny Chieng: And I sat down with John Oliver, who was very kind to meet up with me when I first got the job. He’s very generous and sincere, very generous with his time. And I was asking him how to be a non-American correspondent on The Daily Show. And he told me it took him like two years to relearn how do comedy in America. And he was spot-on, to the day, because I feel like it took two years. And I think that’s what John Oliver was talking about. It takes two years to kind of relearn the nuances of the place you’re in. For example, if you come here as a foreigner, you can kill for like five minutes, you can kill for 15 minutes. You can probably even kill for 45 minutes on stage, but you’re always the novelty act, right? You’re like, oh, you’re the British guy, or you’re the Asian guy from Asia, or you’re Australian. And you’re making jokes about America as a British person, as a foreigner. And that works for like six months or nine months. But then after that, people can smell the B.S. because they’re like, oh, wait, you live here now? You’re joking like a foreigner, but you’ve lived here, and you still are joking as though you don’t live in America.
[12:57] Ronny Chieng: So it takes two years to kind of learn enough about America to make fun of it in a way which even Americans will agree with you, you know. Not just surface-level jokes about guns or 10 flavors or Coca-Cola, but like deeper stuff where you’re making fun of them, maybe still as a foreigner, but in a way which even the Americans will agree. Like, oh, yeah, you get us. You know, and that’s spot-on. Like what you just said is spot-on. And so I was going through all these kind of creative and personal changes and getting a at the Comedy Cellar is like one of those like, you know, silly comedy milestones that everyone — we all kind of take as a badge of honor. And I got passed there. And I remember performing for the first time after I got booked and it was just fun. You’re like doing comedy in New York City at, you know, the most famous comedy club in New York. And your on-form, you are doing jokes that are working, the crowd’s liking it. Yeah. And so that was the moment where I was like, oh, yeah, this is pretty cool. I can’t remember your question anymore. I think that answers it.
[13:59] Sinéad Burke: It does. And in that assimilation process of those two years, how do you embed yourself in the locality while still maintaining who you are?
[14:09] Ronny Chieng: Oh, that’s just being yourself. I mean, yeah, that comes naturally to me, I think especially. Like I say, I moved in my 30s, so I was kind of — the die was kind of set. So I kind of knew who I was, I think. I don’t know, maybe I’m still changing. Yeah. Just being authentically yourself, I think is — it should be the easiest thing, right? It should be the easiest thing. So
[14:32] Sinéad Burke: There’s lots of barriers.
[14:33] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. You know, getting used to the locale, as you said. But yeah, I just never tried to be someone I wasn’t I guess.
[14:43] Sinéad Burke: You’ve lived in a bunch of different places, right?
[14:45] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. Yeah.
[14:46] Sinéad Burke: How has your experience of being yourself been different in those places?
[14:51] Ronny Chieng: I mean that stuff — I was still growing up, so, you know, every place I lived in feels like a different lifetime. Even just recently, I was in Australia for 10 years just before I moved to America. And that felt like two lifetimes ago now. I think I was just myself in the moment. And I think if you ask people who knew me, they would say that I wasn’t super concerned with fitting in. To the point where I would lose kind of my stuff that makes me “me.” Yeah. I was never huge on assimilating just for sake of assimilating. I lived in Australia for 10 years. My wife is Australian. I got a law degree in Australia. I don’t think I have an Australian accent. So I don’t know, like I never tried to, you know, become something I wasn’t. I guess.
[15:40] Sinéad Burke: What did Australia teach you?
[15:42] Ronny Chieng: What they teach me in Australia?
[15:44] Sinéad Burke: Well, not necessarily your law degree. What did you even just learn from ten years in Australia. I was in Brisbane for four days, in Bris-Vegas for four days as it was —
[15:55] Ronny Chieng: What did you learn?
[15:57] Sinéad Burke: What did I learn? Being on the other side of the clock is really difficult to maintain relationships. Even the ones you love most. I live in Ireland, so I was in New Zealand for 26 hours and in Australia for four days and just something as simple as being able to ring home. And I wondered how that would work if I was there for longer than four days. Do you just lose touch with everybody, or —
[16:19] Ronny Chieng: What happened in four days that you lost all your friends in four days?
[16:23] Sinéad Burke: Right? That’s how good I am at being a loner. You should learn from me.
[16:25] Ronny Chiengr: Damn, that’s hilarious. You went to Brisbane for four days and you lost —
[16:32] Sinéad Burke: I lost everything. What did Australia teach you?
[16:37] Ronny Chieng: I mean, I went there when I was 19. And I left when I was just where I was turning 30. I was there for ten years. So, you know, 19 to 30, that’s such a huge chunk of life. Like I would have been changing as a person no matter where I was. So I can’t put this all on Australia. But yeah, you definitely learn how to be an adult, be a mature person, the right way to treat other people, how to be professional. I learned how to be professional. I learnt how interact with a lot of different people who don’t look like yourself, you know, coming from Singapore, where pretty much everyone kind of looks like you. And then you go to Australia where you become a minority. Sometimes racially, sometimes culturally, right. Because I was touring all around Australia towards the end of my stay there when I was doing comedy. I was doing country towns. I was doing big cities, obviously. All around, literally. We did the Melbourne International Comedy Road Show. We were on the west coast of Australia, up and down the East Coast, Northern Territory, Darwin, Tasmania. Everywhere. I’ve done every capital city multiple times, every country, city. The only place I didn’t hit was the middle of Australia. But there’s nothing in the middle Australia, so there’s nothing there. So I met a lot of different people from a lot of different ways of life. And yeah, you kind of — you know, I don’t I feel like I’m some expert in country living or whatever, but what I was trying to do was trying to meet them on their terms, not so much on stage, but just like personally. Offstage, I tried to, you know, learn how these people lived and they learnt to appreciate all the different perspectives that they have. And they were super cool. Like everyone in Australia was for most part, one-on-one very, very cool and friendly and warm.
[18:26] Sinéad Burke: In terms of those different experiences, you know, did you notice a big cultural difference, particularly in terms of how you were treated when you moved from Australia to the U.S.?
[18:37] Ronny Chieng: Yes, but again, it’s hard to compare those two things because I was entering a different phase in my life and a different context. You know, joining The Daily Show, which is such an institution.
[18:50] Sinéad Burke: Do you think that helped for you to be accepted?
[18:53] In America? It definitely helped. Yeah, definitely helped. And also, it wasn’t 100 percent positive. It was probably 90 percent positive, you know, 10 percent, I probably got a little bit of, like — it wasn’t like everyone was super supportive. First of all, not everyone was behind the show when we first started it, you know, you’re trying to replace the pioneer of American satire. So already you’re ruffling a lot of feathers. Plus you’re political. So meaning half the people in a country will hate you immediately before you even start talking. So, you know, you’re dealing with all that stuff. Not to mention the fact that when I joined people didn’t know who I was in America. I mean, not that they know who I am now. But being the Asian person on TV, you’re kind of like the main problem, I think is — and this coming from the Asian community. You’re either too Asian or you’re not Asian enough. You know, meaning you could be saying the exact same thing and the Asian community can hear two different things come out of your mouth. In my case, it would be, you know, this guy’s making us look bad because he’s, you know, he’s got the accent. So one thing we do at The Daily Show, the correspondents traditionally do self-deprecating humor. That’s just how we do comedy at The Daily Show. It’s self-deprecating, you know. We’ll set up a segment, a joke, and then we’ll kind of pivot into our own personal problems. And when you talk about your personal problems, you’re intrinsically self-deprecating, right? And the “problem” is that if you’re a white guy and you’re self-deprecating, that’s one thing. If you’re an Asian guy on TV and self-deprecating, it becomes — why is this guy making dad jokes, for example? Why? You know, so if I make a joke about my dad, it becomes an Asian joke, right? But if it’s no white person making a dad joke, it’s not an Asian joke, you know? So if I make a joke on my dad, on The Daily Show, it becomes like, oh, he’s making fun of how Asian parents are strict and blah, blah, blah.
[20:53] Sinéad Burke: Well, that’s the problem with there only being one or few representations of a minority. That you have to stand for all and every person who looks like you, whether you like it or not. I’m not Asian, obviously, but I have dwarfism. I stand at three-foot, five-inches tall. And one of the things and I’m very conscious of it is that when you take up a space publicly, people assume that your narrative is the same as everybody else’s. Even though you want to do everything you can to liberate yourself from it, that’s just a hat that you have to wear.
[21:21] Ronny Chieng: Exactly. And you get it, obviously, and a lot of people — even the Asian community doesn’t get it sometimes, you know. So they’ll watch it and they’ll be like, oh, why do you have to make a joke about your dad? Why can’t you just be a normal person? You know, why can’t you, It’s like we’re making jokes. Like, if I was white, I’d be making jokes about my dad. This wasn’t an Asian thing. This is just a joking about your dad thing. Stuff like that would come up early on. You know, I think he was still trying to get to know me. And again, this will be in the minority. You know, it wasn’t like I was bombarded by criticisms like that. You know, I think it was a minority of voices would say stuff like that.
[21:59] Sinéad Burke: But those are the voices that you hear. And, you know, you don’t hear the hundred compliments that people throw your way. These are the things that kind of come into your brain and act as your monologue.
[22:08] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think that’s fair to say that we pay more attention to the criticism than praise. We’re getting better at it, though. I think as a species, we’re learning that the Internet can be bad, and we’re learning how to deal with it mentally. I think I’ve got a lot better way of dealing with it, you know.
[22:25] Sinéad Burke: How do you practice it?
[22:26] Ronny Chieng: Quite honestly? Brazilian jiu jitsu. Like I started doing Brazilian jiu jitsu one year ago, and ever since I started doing Brazilian jiu jitsu, I completely stopped arguing online. Like I’m talking zero. Not snarky, not ironic, not a snarky comment, just literally zero.
[22:48] Sinéad Burke: Ronny, that is not what I thought you would say.
[22:51] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. But I think as people in the public sphere, I think a common refrain I hear is, you know, people always say, like, I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care what other people think. And I ignore it. And I think it’s important to be honest with yourself, whether you’re affected by this stuff. You know, I think the obvious thing is like people see as a sign of weakness if you admit that someone on the Internet affected you mentally. I think admitting it is the first step. Even if you don’t admit it publicly, admitting that some of this stuff does affect you. I think it’s — people are very quick to talk about how much the Internet doesn’t affect them when I think they should be doing the opposite.
[23:26] Sinéad Burke: Well, it’s human nature, right? We are born as narcissistic, egotistical beings. They are literally the stages of our development. So the idea that somebody saying something nasty about us doesn’t affect us is just such a lie.
[23:37] Ronny Chieng: Sure, yeah, and I think that learning to deal with it is important.
[23:40] Sinéad Burke: Huge.
[23:41] Sinéad Burke: We’ll be back just after this break.
[24:47] Sinéad Burke: At the beginning of this conversation, you described yourself professionally as undaunted, but which is very intriguing to me. But when you wake up in the morning, what’s the monologue that goes around your head?
[25:00] Ronny Chieng: Man, can I swear on this?
[25:03] Sinéad Burke: Sure. Fire away.
[25:04] Ronny Chieng: I’m like, fuck, I want to go back to sleep.
[25:06] Sinéad Burke: That’s it?
[25:07] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. Because I’m doing shows every night. So when I wake up in the morning, I’m like, it’s not enough. This isn’t answering your question at all, but I do like stand-up comedy every night. And then you get this adrenaline kick. And so you can’t sleep till, you know, a bit later in the night. And then for The Daily Show, you have to wake up in the morning. So I’m just like ugh. So my first thought every morning is like, “fuck! I need two more hours.”
[25:36] Sinéad Burke: Beside Brazilian jiu jitsu, how would you mind yourself within that incredible cycle?
[25:41] Ronny Chieng: Loving what you do helps a lot. Genuinely loving it. I love doing The Daily Show. I love doing stand-up comed. I love making cool stuff. So that really helps. You know, even stuff like this, like talking to you, is a lot of fun. I kind of suspected it would be a lot of fun. So I didn’t mind like waking up and rushing to this. You know, it’s fun to make stuff. I’m very lucky to be in a position to be able to make stuff. So that’s very motivating. Liking what you do helps. Also knowing how to deal with energy states from other people and yourself. So just from experience, I think you can recognize — so when I’m on stage — I’m by no means a massive comedian yet. I’m only 10 years into it. I’m still learning how to do it. But one thing I’ve noticed is that you recognize the energies of yourself and of other people when you’re on stage, your audience. And when you’ve seen enough different states, you know what it is and so you know how to deal with it. So, for example, if you’re on stage and you personally feel tired, you can kind of draw that memory of, oh, yeah, I know what this feels like. I’ve been tired before on stage. I know how to deal with it. I know the pitfalls. I know the low point. I know it’s going to end and I know how to come out of it. And also, similarly, you know, the audience — let’s say you have audience that’s reacting badly. Like hopefully you’ve done enough gigs where you recognize that, and you’re like, oh, I know what this is like.
[27:09] Sinéad Burke: I can bring them back.
[27:11] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. Either I can bring them back or it’s not the end of the world. Like if this gig sucks, like, I’ve been there before.
[27:17] Sinéad Burke: And there’s gonna be a better one.
[27:18] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, there’ll be a better one. And so, you know, you just kind of through experience you recognize these different energy states. And so you can be critical without being emotional. Because you’re like I know this sucks and I could’ve done a better job here. Or sometimes it’s like, man, there’s nothing I could’ve done. This was a setup for failure, or these guys suck, or whatever it is. Whatever the problem is you’ve felt it enough times. And I say “energy state” because a lot of it is in the vibe, you know. You can’t really pinpoint like it was this lighting, or the stage was too high or whatever. It’s sometimes just the energy. I know what this is. The collective energy. You can feel it. So recognizing the energy state helps. Being able to recognize that. And having experienced enough stuff where you can kind of remember what it is and be less anxious about what the outcome will be.
[28:05] Sinéad Burke: Well, it feels like you have some sort of agency in it, right, that you don’t feel powerless. You feel like you can actually do something about it, or at least acknowledge that you have no control. When we were talking about The Daily Show, it was interesting to me that you were saying that, you know, because it’s political immediately, 50 percent of the audience don’t like what it is that you have to say. But when you’re looking to write a new script, or you’re writing something for stand-up comedy, is there ever topics for you as a standup comedian that you think, you know what? This just isn’t something that should be funny or should be proffered for humor?
[28:40] Ronny Chiengr: Yeah, I’ve been able to think about this a lot more lately. And, you know, I think stand-up comedy is an art form, it’s not science. So being an art form and not science, there’s no there’s — no hard answers. You know, there’s no equation you can plug into and go, yeah, this is right. This is wrong. This is funny. This is not funny. You have to feel it out. And as a professional stand-up comic, in my brain — just the way my brain works, or has been trained to work, or just maybe how is naturally works — is any topic you give me — especially if you say you shouldn’t joke about this, in my head, I’m like, well, how do I joke about this? You know, in my head, I’m trying to solve that puzzle. And I might not necessarily ever express the jokes that I’m thinking my head, but that’s where my brain goes. I think good comedy is edgy. I think it pushes the edge. Sometimes it crosses the line. It doesn’t have to always cross the line.
[29:34] Ronny Chieng: And sometimes you get it wrong, you know. You don’t always get it right. If you get wrong and then you go pull back or whatever it is, you know, if you’re going to play with dynamite, you better be spot-on. If you’re to play with dynamite in public, you know, if you’re going to put this out there as your name, this is the jokes I’m saying on like a TV gala or something professionally you’re putting out there. Then yeah, you better be spot-on. Otherwise you’re going to blow it up. You’re gonna hurt other people, you’re going to hurt yourself.
[30:01] Sinéad Burke: How do you get to be spot-on?
[30:02] Ronny Chieng: And that’s the million dollar question. You have to test it out in rooms. So, you know, for example, if I have a joke which I think is controversial, I’ll try to figure it out in my head. I’ll figure it out on paper. I’ll try to figure out all the angles. And then at some point, you have to go to the audience and test it, you know. And you’ve got test it. And then if it works in public, with strangers who are not invested in your emotional outcome, then there’s something there. You figure this might work. And then for me personally, I’ll go ask people who I’m joking about. I’ll be like, hey, is this OK? Like, if I got a joke about black people asked, Roy Wood Jr. like, is this OK to talk about in this context? And because he’s a comic and he’s a black person, he’s very keyed in. Roy Wood Jr.’s the best, he’s a really cool guy. And he’s very smart and he’s a good, great standup comic.
[30:50] Sinéad Burke: Do you think every comic takes that path?
[30:52] Ronny Chieng: I think every comic definitely tests it out in public. Yeah. And sometimes you test them in public when you’re still working it out, and then people take that and, you know, put your name on it and you take responsibility for putting it out there. But at same time, like, yeah, that’s part of the process. You know, you work through it. You know, if you’re saying stuff that’s highly controversial and edgy and you’re just trying to get a reaction from people, then, you know, that’s a different approach to this topic. Right. And then you’ve got to own that. And I don’t know if that’s the right way, we all have our different approaches. But I think the idea that if someone comes to me and goes, you can never joke about this, you can talk about this, I’m like, well, as a professional comedian, I’m like, well, is that true? Is there some way we can make this funny? I mean, I’ve heard jokes about horrible subjects that I’ve laughed at and I’m like, oh, wow, someone figured out how to make that funny. So I don’t know.
[31:45] Sinéad Burke: Yeah. For me personally, I find sometimes being at comedy gigs really difficult because I don’t know when my physicality is going to be the punchline. And whilst it’s funny in that moment, it’s the afterwards of sitting in that room and a joke being made about somebody who looks like me and everybody else in the auditorium laughing at it. And me then having to leave that room and actually after an experience that I have paid for, the result being that I feel unsafe. And it’s the permission that that one individual onstage has given to everybody else to think less of me because of something that I had no control over. And that’s obviously very individual experience, but as you said, it’s about finding a pathway to figure out what’s funny and how it can be.
[32:30] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. And that’s a good point. It’s empathy for a crowd is something that I think especially comics should have, you know. Empathy for people who are there and why they’re there. And I had to — I was about three or four years into stand-up comedy, I was doing it a lot, and I now went to go watch comedy for the first time in a long time. You know, I’ve been performing a lot but not watching it. So I went to go sit in a crowd. And that was extremely beneficial for me because sitting in a crowd, you get their perspective is, yeah. People worked a long day. Maybe they had a long week. Maybe they had a bad situation at home or something. You know, everyone has their story, right. And so they come to watch a comedy show to kind of get away from it. So I used to be a lot more aggressive with the crowd. I think probably a little bit more self-entitled with the stage time in terms of like, “yo, you guys are here to listen to me now.” And watching comedy again gave me a lot more empathy for where they are coming from. It sounds stupid to say because most people are the audience, not the performer, but as a performer, like getting that vibe of like, oh, yeah, dude, you don’t know what happened. He might just had a fight at home, you know, maybe he got fired from his job.
[33:42] Ronny Chieng: So I generally don’t like going after audience members, you know, unless they’re being huge dicks. And then, you know, they kind of draw the fire. But otherwise, you know, I don’t believe in kind of abusing the crowd in my show for no reason. But I do want to ask you, though, based on what you just said, I mean, because I’ve heard both sides of the argument for this. And my friend in Australia has this TV show called Taboo where he’s try to use comedy to be inclusive, you know, and meaning he’ll joke about people who have disabilities to them with their blessing. And they try to do a comedy show about it, you know, like they’ll bring audience members and — so meaning that they’re trying to feel included by joking about whatever they’re going through. So I don’t know if that’s — what do you feel about that?
[34:40] Sinéad Burke: For me, I think it still has to punch up. You know, if the punchline is still that — and it equates to something along the narrative of “I’m less than you,” right, I still have to go out and live my life, whatever it is. But if it’s about giving people agency and allowing disabled people to tell jokes about themselves in a way that doesn’t feel disempowering, then great, because humor is one of the languages that ties us all together. But I think if the only way in which to use comedy around disability is to make us feel small, quote unquote, then nah, fuck that.
[35:12] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, obviously. I mean, that’s obviously a bad thing. I just think it’s very hard to talk about comedy in abstract terms. Any comedy job, you’ve just gotta be very specific. You got to be like, what is the actual joke and what’s the context of it? I think the generalities, it’s too hard to, you know, then we start theorizing instead of actually — you know, my job is to like do the jokes as opposed to like, you know, discuss the —
[35:38] Sinéad Burke: We can just go on tour together.
[35:39] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, we should. You can analyze my comedy after.
[35:43] Yeah, exactly. We can do a Q&A.
[35:46] Sinéad Burke: I’m into it. Ronny, I want to ask you, what’s it like to live in your body?
[35:51] Ronny Chieng: What’s it like? Right now my shoulder hurts. I’ve been doing too much jiu jitsu, so I’m having a weird shoulder thing right now. I think, you know, when — I don’t know — if this is a racial question, I was lucky that I grow up not as a minority. So I’ve never been self-conscious about my race or how I look. So in my body, I think it’s pretty OK. Yeah, I’m pretty happy with it. I would put my body up against anyone else’s body like pound for pound. Yeah, you could if you rolled the dice and you rolled up my body, I think most people be happy with this body.
[36:31] Sinéad Burke: I don’t think I’ll swap bodies with you today, but maybe tomorrow. [36:34][3.0]
[36:35] Ronny Chieng: Yeah. If you had a roll of the dice and you just rolled up my body, you won my body lottery, yeah, I think you’d be happy with it. You can’t complain of this. Yeah, this is pretty good.
[36:44] Sinéad Burke: Amazing to know. My last question for you, Ronny: what gives you hope?
[36:48] Ronny Chieng: Young people making things. Every time I feel the least bit jaded about anything happening in the world, young people — and that makes me sound so old right now, I’m only 34 — but young people making things is awesome. To see motivated, smart young people making shit — when they’re doing cool things, they have cool creative solutions, when they are pouring their energy and their time and their resources into making one thing, it’s really cool to see. These people aren’t selfish. They’re going to be around longer than us. And they’re coming with really cool ideas.
[37:27] Sinéad Burke: Ronny, it has been such a treat to chat to you. And I’m so looking forward to when we go on tour together.
[37:28] Ronny Chieng: Yeah, please. I can’t wait to meet you in person.
[37:34] Sinéad Burke: And you. And you. Thank you so much for your time.
[37:40] Sinéad Burke: Next week, we’re talking to Justin Tranter, the songwriter behind the best of Selena Gomez, Janelle Monet, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and so many songs that really just make me happy. And we’ll talk about Justin’s journey in the music industry. And their journey of self-discovery and gender fluidity. Tune in for that next week.
[37:59] Justin Tranter: It changed me in a way where I realized this crazy power in not making everything about yourself. Because as the songwriter who’s writing songs for and with other people, it’s not about you. Other songwriters do different things. For me, I approach it as I want to try to get to somebody’s truth as quickly as possible. And I want to create a space that is safe enough and give them confidence to tell that truth. And that truth can be told in so many different ways.
[38:26] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is tied to the conversation that we had at the beginning of this episode, constantly asking about the voices that we’re not seeing, or not hearing. And as I said earlier, the Best Director nominations for the Oscars were missing female voices. And one in particular, Lulu Wang, who I have been so moved by. If you have yet to see The Farewell, please do so. The premise of the film is that Awkwafina’s grandmother is sick and dying. But in China, the culture is that if a loved one is sick, you don’t tell them. You allow their final days to be unblemished with sadness. And Awkwafina travels from her home in the U.S. and returns to see her family in China. And the cultural differences are so tangible and painful and beautiful. If you don’t know of Lulu Wang’s work, I’m not sure exactly what I can say to convince you. But you should absolutely start by going to follow her on Instagram. She is this week’s person you should know. On Instagram, she @thumbelulu.
[39:31] As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.