Ronny Chieng talks risky jokes and Netflix special Asian Comedian Destroys America
Don’t get on Ronny Chieng’s bad side. He will rip you a new one, and he will talk about it on stage.
The Chinese comic — who was born in Malaysia, raised in New Hampshire and Singapore, and attended college in Australia — has become known for his passionate takedowns on The Daily Show. The correspondent’s video slamming a Fox News pundit’s racist interviews with residents of New York City’s Chinatown went viral in 2016, and since then, Chieng has skewered everything from corporations polluting the environment to people blaming things on Fortnite. You may have even seen him playing Eddie Cheng, Nick’s (Henry Golding) status-crazed cousin in Crazy Rich Asians.
In his upcoming Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, Chieng once again calls out the nonsense he’s come across in the States in his signature impassioned, profanity-laced style. (You can watch an exclusive clip from the special above.)
He goes after Americans’ constant complaining, anti-vaxxers, people with allergies — the list goes on. But one of Chieng’s greatest achievement in the special is using his angry delivery as a Trojan horse to deliver a pretty sweet message: We need to appreciate the things we have and use our freedoms to help others. Damn you, Chieng — you got us.
EW sat down with Chieng, whose special arrives Dec. 17, to chat about his “love letter to America,” Asian stereotypes, comedic influences, the Crazy Rich Asians sequel, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, I love the name of your title. What was the motivation behind naming it Asian Comedian Destroys America?
RONNY CHIENG: I was going to call it the name of the tour [Tone Issues], but Netflix was like, “Hey, you need something that people will actually click on, because nobody knows who you are.” I was like, “Yo, Chris Rock calls [his special] Tamborine,” and they’re like, “You’re not Chris Rock. So figure out your title.” So what’s more American than coming up with a controversial title to make money? And so I was like, “Okay, if we’re going to make some clickbait title, let’s just go all the way. What’s the most clickbaity, YouTube-style title we can come up with?” That’s how we do it here, as the president has proven. Being controversial is probably more profitable than not. The title is satirical, because the idea that anyone can destroy anything by releasing a video — that kind of evisceration culture — it’s making fun of that.
As someone growing up outside the U.S, you made observations about American culture that I didn’t notice before — like the bit about West Coast vs. East Coast states’ mottos.
The special is actually about how much I like America, right? It’s about me coming into America and liking it here, and coming here because I wanted to come here. So the special’s intended to be like a love letter to America. I’ve been lucky to travel around doing comedy, so I get to see all the different cities and meet different people. It was pretty obvious to me, and sometimes you need an outsider’s eye to notice the most obvious thing.
You also joke about the stereotype of Asian parents wanting their kids to be doctors, but in a refreshing way.
You want to hear from the people who are actually experiencing it, right? I think that’s one of the main points of the special. And that’s one of the visual themes of the special, is American show business. That’s why that set design is like that, that’s why I’m wearing the tux; the idea for me was to put an Asian live performer on a platform and space that they traditionally have not been given in America. For the exact reason of telling these stories, which people might not have heard from that perspective.
Do you have any advice for comedians who want to do material about themselves or their own culture? Are there angles they should go at it?
The reason these jokes work, I think is one, I’m a pretty experienced performer, so I know how to pull it off. Two, I’m also a bit older, I’m like 33-34, so I’ve been through all that. All that stuff, trying to figure out what it means to be an Asian person in Western culture. And three, I think sometimes good comedy, it’s an art form, so sometimes you play with the line. Sometimes you cross the line, sometimes you don’t get it right. But if you’re a professional comedian, you’re playing with fire. I think comedy needs to be a bit edgy to be good, you know?
There are definitely comedians who get defensive when people criticize them for being offensive. What is your take on that?
There’s a logical perspective on that. I’m not going to tell people how they should be watching comedy. It’s subjective. You find the comedy you like. But if you’re a comedy performer, it’s part of the game. You have to be able to take the hits. You’re not always going to get it right. I think self-awareness is an important part, but you’ve got to understand that you’re playing with fire, because a fire sometimes is going to create a beautiful firework display and sometimes you’re going to get burned. That’s how it is. It’s an art form, it’s not a science.
Who were your influences in stand up? Did you look toward any comic when crafting the special?
Bill Burr, definitely. I’m very lucky to have him as the executive producer on this, he’s one of my comedy heroes. Comedy legend Todd Barry, in New York there’s Dave Attell, there’s Dave Chappelle, there’s Michael Kosta. Todd Barry has this great understated sarcasm that I really like. Chappelle is great at telling stories that are very profound and involve history and you learn a lot, and at the end he undercuts the whole thing with some crazy punchline or joke or statement. I was already angry before I met Bill Burr, but I mean, the way he channels it and get people on board with it, I think that’s a useful skill.
Do you have any wild stories from touring? I feel like every comedian has one.
One time I took a Lyft ride from Rhode Island to Philadelphia through a hurricane, and the driver drove me through the night, like literally started at around 12 a.m. And then we got to Philadelphia at 4 am. All the highways were closed — we had to drive through these back roads, and it was crazy. I can’t believe he did that.
You gave him five stars, right?
No, it was kind of bumpy, the ride. So I just was like, “Uhhh. Maybe three.” I told Lyft, I was like, “This guy is one of your legendary drivers.”
So for people who don’t know you from The Daily Show or Crazy Rich Asians, what would you say to entice them to watch the special?
Watch it if you want to see a nice, grateful first-generation-immigrant description of America. Do you want to see some fun stand-up from a perspective which I don’t think there’s a lot of on Netflix? I don’t think there’s a lot of Asian stand-up comics on Netflix right now. There’s Ali Wong, Ken Jeong, Jo Koy, me, might be a few other guys.
Lastly, I’d love to know about the Crazy Rich Asians sequel. Have you heard anything about the sequel; will you be in it?
Oh, yeah. I’m contractually obliged to the sequel. I mean, Google knows more about it than I do. I heard that they want to do something back-to-back. I think they’re working on the script right now. That’s all I know.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.