Albert Lin recently sat down with international comedian, Ronny Chieng to talk politics, racism, and comedy. Fun.
Is satire dead in Trump’s America?
Straight to the hard hitting question. No hello? How was your day? Is satire dead? I mean, in some ways, yes, and some ways, no. Reality is catching up to satire, unfortunately, because reality shouldn’t be near comedy at all. In some ways, there’s a lot of people trying to process what is happening through comedy, and I think it’s making people more engaged, not just with politics, but with satire itself. I think a lot of people turn to satire and comedy as a way of being informed of what’s going on, an entertaining way to learn about the news. And also, people turn to it as a way to process news and what it means. It becomes so much more than just facts. It makes people question things – is it bad, is it serious? Comedy helps dealing with that.
You grew up in Malaysia and Singapore, started comedy in Australia, and you now work on the Daily Show in New York – all very multicultural areas. Have you noticed any differences in the way that multiculturalism takes form in these areas? How do you adjust for that?
No one’s ever thought of it from this perspective. I don’t think people usually consider how people in other countries face multiculturalism. For example, multiculturalism in each country has a different context. So in Malaysia, the majority of people are Malay and Asian, non-white people. In Australia there’s a whole bunch of different people and cultures. So how is it different in each country? It’s very different. In China, and Singapore white people are a minority, whereas in Australia they’re a majority.
To answer your question, there are many differences in multiculturalism across these countries but there are also a lot of similarities. It’s interesting how humans form societies and how common they are across countries. Ideas of nationalism, conservative nationalism, angry nationalism are ideas I’ve seen in every country I’ve ever lived in, in both Asia and Western countries. There’s also a common theme for a push for diversity and inclusiveness in very culture and the struggles faced by second-gen immigrants and even first-gen immigrants is always present. rather than adjusting to the different forms of multiculturalism in each country, I’ve managed to recognise patterns. But I guess you do need to adjust in terms of culture, language and cultural attitudes.
In a bit you did years ago, you mentioned something along the lines of an iPhone being the thing that stood between you and racial abuse on trains. What did you mean by that?
Yeah, so when you’re on public transport, anyone can press record on a phone and think, “let’s all get famous tonight” with the intention of the video going viral. The very threat of going viral for racially abusing someone is something that I think kept me from being racially abused. Unfortunately that wasn’t always the case and sometimes you have to stop people from racially abusing someone else. I’d like to think that the threat of going viral for being racially abused is similar in all multicultural countries. There’s also differences in government, attitudes towards the freedom of speech in different countries and so racial abuse on public transport and being filmed also taps into the whole freedom of speech issue. Some countries are more restrictive than others in terms of freedom of speech and satire is basically illegal in some countries I’ve lived in. Whereas other countries have more liberal views about it.
Speaking about freedom of speech, last year there was a very contentious Fox segment by Jesse Watters. Your response went viral, and I personally loved your response. If you had the chance to talk to him now, what would you say?
I don’t know if there’s anything left to say that I haven’t already said in the piece. There is one joke that I wish I thought of when we were doing the piece, but we did it in such a rush, we didn’t have time for that. It was crazy how we put it together in only one day! The one thing I would say to Watters is, “You really made white people look worse than their stereotype.” And this is the reality. Most people angry about the piece were Asian people and white people. He didn’t just make fun of Asians, he arguably also made white people look bad.
What is it like working on the Daily show?
Sometimes it can feel like an office job, you know, 9am starts and talking about stories, and working in offices on the show for that day. Then we tape around 6:30, 7pm. So it’s almost like an office job because you’re in an office, there are photocopiers, desks, telephones, and all the regular office things. Then, we get to also go out into the field to shoot pieces, and it’s like making a short film. You have to plan out your story arc from start to finish, you have to book in appearances and need to figure out the cinematography. Luckily the Daily Show is fortunate enough to have a large amount of supporting staff who help make the show and deal with production issues and logistics reducing the burden on individuals. The field pieces, feel like a short film, as I mentioned and the studio pieces can feel like a mad rush to meet tight deadlines. If you’re on the show for that night, it’s a whole day filled of writing, re writing, rehearsing and re-writing and then finally taping. While some days are like a sprint towards the finish line, other days can be quieter when I’m not on the show. Trevor Noah and the writing staff however, have to run towards the finish line every single day. It’s a lot of fun and real dream come true to work on the show.
How does that compare to Ronny Chieng: International Student, the short show you did for the ABC. There’s always a lot of discussion about international students and where and how they fit into the general university community. In light of that, how accurately did you portray your time as an international university student and how ostracised did you feel as an international student?
Well, firstly, that’s two questions. To answer your first question, we were very lazy on the show, so it wasn’t like the Daily Show at all. Okay, that’s not true. It was just me and this other guy working on the show and writing all the episodes. We had one or two other writers helping out, but it was mainly just Declan and I writing the whole thing, so that was a crazy time. I was working at the Daily Show in the day, and at night I would write with him, because he was in Australia while I was in New York City. So writing it was crazy. Working three jobs at the same time, was one of the toughest things I ever did. Filming it was, comparatively, so much easier. All I had to do was wake up and film stuff, and filming is always a lot of fun when you’re acting. It was still a rush, because time is the most expensive resource in the industry. But yeah, I was doing a show that I wrote from start to finish, so I completely across everything. So in that aspect, it was different to the Daily Show, where we try to figure things out every day and then film at night.
I’ve spoken about feeling ostracised a little when I was doing press for the show. But it’s hard to differentiate, in my experience, feeling ostracised with the normal kind of university angst that everyone felt in their late teens and early twenties trying to figure things out. There’s many layers – just like anything in life, it’s not black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. It’s a mix, it’s grey. So, it’s tough to navigate because everyone’s awkward at that time. It’s an awkward time to be alive, because you’re supposed to be an adult but you’re not an adult, and you’re trying to make decisions for your life, but you’re not quite equipped to do it yet, but you’re still learning how to do that stuff. You’re figuring out what you want to do with yourself, and on top of that you’re dealing with social structures. It’s better than high school, but there’s still a hierarchy of social structures. And then you’re also dealing with being an international student, or whatever subgroup you belong to.
It’s interesting – I don’t think I felt ostracised, but I definitely had ups and down in university, which I think is a part of the experience. I don’t think I know anyone who just had a good time at university, everyone has ups and downs. You meet who you don’t like for whatever reason. You meet people who dislike you for whatever reason. Maybe it’s racial, maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s national, maybe it’s just you. It’s hard to point your finger and say one thing like this is why people hated you, or this is why you had a bad time or a good time, or whatever it is. Life is very complicated. I think a lot of western countries have a lot of Asian international students at universities or high schools.
Higher education is one of the biggest industries in Australia right now, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not a new thing; Asian students have been going to Australia, the UK, America for education for generations now. A lot of Asians will go back home – not everyone stays, for whatever reason. They go back to, forgive the term, but they went back to where they came from. And I feel that there’s just all these people who come and go, generations of people, come and leave, they have a great time, and some have a bad time, whatever it is. It’s just a story that is so under-told, so I felt that regardless of the good or the bad, it deserves to be brought to light. I don’t know if ostracisation stems from being an international student, but it’s part of the Australian story that should be told and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can tell that story.
As a fully qualified lawyer and a Chinese man, what advice do you have for people who are passionate about performing arts but are also studying something completely different?
Well what are you studying?
I’m studying Tax and Psychology, and doing this for fun.
Well, there you go. That’s how you do it, right? You’re trying to figure it out. First of all, I think I’m legally obliged to mention that I don’t have a practicing certificate as a lawyer. It’s actually illegal to hold yourself as a lawyer without it. I did pass the Victorian bar, I did my qualifications, so I can get my practicing certificate whenever I want to. I currently do not have one, but you are correct to some extent because I did go to law school, and get all the post-grad qualifications.
At university, I wasn’t a very good student. I spent a lot of time doing lots of projects. I was very lucky that I got to see a lot of different industries. I contributed to a science magazine in college, so I was scratching the science itch and the magazine publishing itch at the same time. I worked for this guy selling websites so I got to dip my toe in the tech world. I also got to manage events. I didn’t really do much performing, believe it or not. I only started doing stand-up in my final year of university. When I started performing, I didn’t stop, I just kept going.
So my advice would be to keep your options open and to understand that everybody at that age is feeling the same way. You’re not alone, everyone’s trying to figure it out. Everybody’s trying to figure out what they’re good at, and what they like doing, and they’re trying to find balance. Everyone’s scared of the future. Most people are scared of the future, in terms of “if I do this, will I screw up my life?” and make the mistake of comparing themselves to their friends. Very few people are certain of what they want. Those people do exist, don’t get me wrong, but they are in the minority. Most people are trying to figure it all out. Just know you’re not alone, try to experiment with the industries you want to go into. If you’re looking for what you like doing, try to open yourself up to different experiences. That’s what college and university is for. If you’re not sure what you want out of it, learn to deal with uncertainty. That’s a big thing. Especially for Asians – you made it racial with the Asian thing but I think it’s relevant. I think we have a little bit of a harder time dealing with uncertainty. That’s something they don’t teach you at university, so you need to learn that yourself.
Part of dealing with uncertainty is that you never know where the opportunities are gonna come for whatever you’re doing. So, you should do something, that opens the door to something else, that opens the door to something else, that opens the door to something else. And you can’t see the path, which is why it’s so daunting, but that is exactly how progress is made – getting an opportunity and making the most of it. Then another opportunity pops up, and either you move towards a goal that you intended, but sometimes you end up going towards a goal you never even knew you wanted.
Speaking about performing and people my age, how do you feel about the new generation of Aussie Comedians? Like Aaron Chen for example.
I love Aaron, he’s the best. I’m glad you mentioned him – I’m pretty sure I’m getting him to open for one of my shows, I’m not sure which one yet. I’ve known him for a while now, for at least four years now. He’s always been a cool guy, super funny. I got him a cameo on my show and I think he’s super funny. If you have a chance to watch him, please check him out. I think he won best newcomer at the Melbourne comedy fest. On a side note, he’s also a really good guy. Hopefully that’s relevant to some people, but he’s great. I talk to him a lot.
Do you have any advice for young Aussie comedians?
That’s a big question. Where do I begin? I think to be a good comedian you need to be self-aware. You need to understand whether a joke is going well, and you have to understand if the joke isn’t going well. You have to make adjustments. I think, the worst comics are the ones who keep doing the same things that don’t work, over and over again. It’s very hard for people to give you advice on that, even if you’re a good friend. Self-awareness also helps for observations in comedy.
The other thing that I’ve realised about comedy, since I moved to America two years ago, is that when you do comedy, and you’re trying to figure it out, and you’re trying to get better at it which, you know, is exactly what everyone is trying to do – I’m still trying to get better at it. I’m less than ten years in so I’m still very junior in all this and I understand the things that motivate people to do comedy in the first place. I think in the long term, you have to like doing stand-up. It sounds obvious, but if you’re doing it for the perks, if you’re doing it to get money or get famous, don’t do it. I mean, those are all valid reasons, and to some extent we all have those ambitions, but if that’s your sole purpose, it’s going to be very unfulfilling. It’s going to be very tough to keep it up, because I don’t think you can ever be famous enough, you can never be rich enough, so you can never find happiness through that. It’s easy for me to say, now that I’m making money from comedy professionally, but I think to be really good at it, you have to be doing it because you really like doing it. And that’s something that will come with time, as you’ll slowly see.
Stand-up comedy is a tough gig. The only thing that’s going to keep you going on stage is your love for comedy and if you love writing good comedy and making people laugh. That’s ultimately the important bit. Unfortunately, to do that, you need some perspective on it, which requires you have to have done it for a few years to understand what I mean by that. Like I said, it’s easier to say that once you start making money from comedy. When you start out, you might be thinking “well, I’m doing it but I need money to live so, telling me to do comedy for the love of it isn’t enough. I need to be able to live off it.” I understand that perspective; I went through it as well. I’m talking more long term.