Ronny Chieng on Andrew Yang: “There aren’t enough Asian people in positions of power”

The "Daily Show" comedian on telling jokes for Americans, the retro feel for his Netflix special, and Baby Yoda

By Hanh Nguyen
December 16, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)
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"Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!" (Marcus Russell Price/Netflix)

Although comedian Ronny Chieng co-starred as the status-hungry Eddie Cheng in “Crazy Rich Asians,” he’s best known for his candid and energetic commentary and field pieces on “The Daily Show.” In his new Netflix comedy special “Asian Comedian Destroys America!” Chieng continues to look at America through the lens of an immigrant and professional joke teller.

Chieng’s affection for America is apparent in the special, as is his acknowledgment of its idiosyncrasies. He rants about bizarre state mottos, the American right to complain about everything, the nation’s obsession with Amazon Prime delivery, and the New York City subway. He also weighs in on why America needs an Asian president, a bit that killed at a recent event for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

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“It was [written] completely independent and it just fit,” said Chieng. “He's not just in the race, but I think he's doing quite well in the race. He's outlasted a lot of people who were way higher profile and projected to definitely beat him.”

Although Chieng is not yet an American citizen and therefore can’t vote in our elections, he’s comfortable being labeled part of the Yang Gang.

“I liked that he was an Asian guy running for office and I think there's not enough Asian people in positions of power. I think he has a lot of good ideas and he doesn't seem like a psycho, which is a low bar, but yeah, I like what he's saying and I like what he represents as well,” said Chieng.

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Despite the rise of stand-up comedians like Chieng, Ali Wong, and other Asians in entertainment, representation still matters, especially when Asians still read as “foreign” to many in America. One of his breakout pieces from “The Daily Show” occurred in 2016 in response to a tone deaf and racist segment on Fox News that exoticized Asian culture in New York’s China Town. It’s still baffling how such a piece made it to air only a few years ago:

That segment occurred just before the 2016 election, and now Chieng is still with “The Daily Show,” creating topical content weighing in on the various candidates and the state of the country. In his everyday life, he’s not asked to discuss politics as much as his entertainment persona would lead one to believe he would be.

“Sometimes, but not a lot. Occasionally I get asked about it. I think a lot of people respect me enough to not demand answers from me just because I'm in that comedy industry,” he said. “Also I don't think a lot of people are trying to talk about politics quite honestly because you get bombarded with it all day. I don't think I've actually had an intense political conversation.”

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Read the rest of the interview with Chieng below to learn about his Netflix special, his thoughts on America, Andrew Yang, and even Baby Yoda.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Although some people would know you from “Daily Show,” Netflix is a different platform. Did you want to create content that was an introduction, more and separate from your identity from “Daily Show” for this?
I started doing stand-up comedy and I continue to do stand-up comedy. All throughout “The Daily Show” I continued to do stand-up every night in New York and on weekends I'll tour standup, so if anything, it's really “The Daily Show,” which is different to my stand-up, but the stand-up has been usually pretty – I don't want to say consistent because obviously my voice has changed as I've matured as a comedian and as a person, so I think my voice has gotten a bit more mature comedically, but if anything it's not that I'm consciously trying to separate myself from “The Daily Show.” It's that “The Daily Show” was a separate thing to what I was already doing.

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How do you then see your evolution of comedy from when you started?
This year I'm 10 years into comedy, so I'm still a baby, but I'm still learning how to do it. I definitely helped myself get better. I think what happened was I was doing okay in Australia. I was pretty quick. I was decent at finding my voice, but I moved to America when I was 30 years old – so four years ago – and I knew it right then. I could feel myself kind of maturing as a person and as an act. I'm lucky that that happened right when I joined “The Daily Show,” so it was kind of like the right time.

I went through two years of trying to figure out where I wanted my comedy to go, and part of that is the age I was at. I think 30 is kind of like a tipping point age for everybody, but also being at “The Daily Show” also helped that because you're surrounded by all these really talented comedians, and producers, and just the institution that it's like the Harvard Business School of comedy. You learn so much, you meet so many people, so that also kind of helped me I think find what I was looking for in terms of . . . feeling like you're maturing as opposed to having to catch up with it. . . . [At] “The Daily Show” naturally, you can't help but get better at comedy there, right, because you're performing, you're writing, you're editing, you're directing, you're doing field pieces, you're improving – so all that stuff.

A good example is at “The Daily Show,” one thing I never did before I joined the show was like, "Okay, this joke is funny, but what are you trying to say?" You know? That idea of “What are you trying to say with it?” is something I never really considered until I started working there because it's one thing to come up with something that makes people laugh, but then you also want to ask yourself what are you trying to say with this joke, if it's something that is just something that you genuinely want to say, and if so, then awesome because that means you hit it. If it's not, then you need to be careful because you don't want people, or at least I don't want people laughing for the wrong reasons.

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Before you got aware of that's one of the points of comedy, do you think you were doing that naturally or were you kind of missing the mark a little bit?
I think I was doing that without fully understanding it. I don't think I was missing the mark, although that's really not for me to say, but looking back I think I was pretty good at wanting people to laugh for the right reasons and trying to portray Asian people with sophistication and dignity. Maybe I would miss the mark a little bit comedically, but I think I've gotten better at giving the Asian perspective without being kind of apologetic about it. You know what I mean?

So I think I was headed in that direction anyway and I think moving to America and working at “The Daily Show” accelerated that.

Your comedy is very physical – lots of miming of kneeling, kicking, throwing. When did you realize that was your thing or did you always do that and you've just been going with it?
Yeah, just going with it. I'm not a trained dancer or actor, so all that stuff is what I feel on stage. I just try to execute on what I think is funny in my head. Yeah, the physicality of it. I think also a lot of times I think stand-up comics kind of pride themselves in writing, which is super important, but I think performing is just as important. Performing it and not just relying on well- written jokes. I think both of those are part of the act.

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You tend to also wear suits, which can be constricting to your physical abilities. Do you have to find the right suits? Do you test them out and  punch and kick?
So glad you asked that. Shout-out to Bonobos for making Jetsetter stretchy suits that you can move and perform in.. . . They're like stretchy suits essentially, so you can move around in them and they're very comfortable. In fact, the tux I was wearing for the special was probably the most constrictive thing I've worn on stage, but yeah, I do think about that. Being able to make sure I can move around and I'm not too restricted in my movement.

I find interesting whatever comics are wearing on stage. For example, obviously, like Ali Wong has her look, but then . . . comfort should be a key. What’s your take?
Sure, yeah, but you also want to keep it – you want to respect the audience and not wear like a sweatshirt or something. I just wear suits because I'm trying to keep it classy and maybe I'm not smart enough in fashion, so it's an easy way. It's like with guys it's like a hat, right? You just wear a suit and you look like you know what you're doing.

There was a little bit of the formality in the staging of the Netflix special because, first of all, the Alex Theatre is kind of old school, but also everything else, the music, the whole look.Was that deliberate as far as the formality of it – keeping it classy, but was it also sort of a throwback? It felt kind of old school, like '50s.
My visual theme for the special was I wanted to invoke classic American show business. That was my goal. The idea for me was I wanted to kind of put an Asian performer on a platform which they're not normally seen or traditionally they're never kind of seen, which was that classic American setting, like Johnny Carson [“The Tonight Show”], that kind of vibe. I don't remember seeing many, if any, Asian live performers in that setting, so I was trying to put myself in that setting.

You were born in Malaysia, raised in America and Singapore, and then did university and broke into comedy in Australia. Was moving to America always in the plans, even before “Daily Show”?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I've been trying to move here for a while now. I left America in '93 and I always wanted to move back. I was doing comedy anyway. Even without “The Daily Show” I was going to try to come here. I kind of laugh at how naïve that would have been to try to come here and start from scratch. I'm very lucky “The Daily Show” hired me. They gave me their platform to kind of showcase myself.

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You touched on this a little bit in your special, but is it because America really is the ultimate place for opportunity?
I think so. That's obviously why I'm here. I think a lot of first generation immigrants think the same, especially immigrants like me who we're here by choice. I'm not here because of desperate situations or whatever. We're here because we obviously see something here that isn't available where we're from. You know, where there is higher economic opportunities or creative ambitions, whatever it is. And for what I do anyways, which is comedy and storytelling, I think America does it the best, storytelling and stand-up comedy. I like that everything here is very cutting edge, everything here is at the highest levels. They have the budget to execute ideas, and I think everyone kind of looks to America in terms of storytelling and stand-up comedy. As a comic and a storyteller, it's a dream come true to move here and be able to do that.

Now, you've done tours before. What do you feel was different about this one or is there something that you learned from it that was different?
I'm lucky to be a pretty experienced stand-up. This is my first time touring America, so I learned a lot about America . . . When I first joined “The Daily Show,” I met up with John Oliver to ask him how to be a non-American on “The Daily Show.” He was very generous with his time. I was in his office and we spoke for a couple hours. He told me it took him two years to relearn how to do comedy in America because obviously he was a comic in the UK and then he moved here. He said it took him two years to relearn how to do comedy in America for Americans.

He was spot-on to the day, almost to the same week where it finally kind of clicked for me because you can tell jokes as a non-American in America, visiting America. You can tell jokes, you can chill for like 10 minutes, you can chill for 20, you might even chill for 45 minutes, but ultimately you're kind of like the novelty act, right?

You're like the British person in America or you're the Asian person in America, you're the Malaysian in America. You can tell that perspective, but then I think after six months or nine months people can see through the bulls**t in the sense that you're joking about being a foreigner, but you live here now. You can't joke about being a foreigner. You have to joke about living here.

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I think people understand that subconsciously and they can feel when you're making fun of them in a very nuanced and authentic way and they can also feel when you're making fun of it in a very shallow way. Obviously I think they respond more to the authentic, kind of nuanced way more than the shallow, like surface level observations on America. That's what I believe anyway.

You have been living here about four years now. I know you're technically not a citizen yet, right?
No, no, no. I’ve got green card, yes.

Okay, so do you feel regardless, that you are an American?
That's an interesting question. I don't know. I don't know if I'm allowed to feel that, right? Because I'm technically not. If I were to become a citizen, I think that would be the official. Are you allowed to feel American if you're not a citizen? I mean, I definitely feel like this is home, but because I'm a lawyer I think I'm not going to technically claim citizenship without actually getting it.

How involved are you with “The Daily Show”? While you do comedy, is it just flexible enough that you can always drop in and do something as needed?
Oh no, I'm there every day. I'm there every day because I help write my own bits and also we prepare field pieces, so I'm in the office every day.

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Oh, okay, so you’re watching over democratic debates, and impeachment hearings. Do you find any type of particular person or field has been particularly rich for jokes and is there something that you're like, "Let's not do the easy joke," like let's pull back on this for a bit?
I think we don't try to do easy jokes in any situation, so yeah, I think we do pull back from easy jokes. If it's too obvious, or we feel that other people have done it, or the internet has done it too much, but I think you'd probably have to be a little bit more specific to ask me about like what we pull back from.

If you're asking me if there's anything interesting about this field, there's a lot of people in the democratic field I like. They're pretty inspiring and I'm not just saying that. I listen to some of these people talk and I'm like, "Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense." I feel like they have the best interests of the country at heart. I feel like they seem to be doing it for the right reasons. I feel like they are a great alternative to their incumbent, so yeah. I don't know if you have a specific question about it I can answer, but that's generally how I feel.

Because people know you sort of have to stay on top of this, do they ask you advice about your take on candidates?
Sometimes, but not a lot. Occasionally I get asked about it. I think a lot of people respect me enough to not demand answers from me just because I'm in that comedy industry. Also I don't think a lot of people are trying to talk about politics quite honestly because you get bombarded with it all day. I don't think I've actually had an intense political conversation.

You hosted recently, just in November, an event for Andrew Yang. How did that come about? Are you friends?
Yeah, we're friends. I did a segment on him for “The Daily Show,” and we met. I liked that he was an Asian guy running for office and I think there's not enough Asian people in positions of power. I think he has a lot of good ideas and he doesn't seem like a psycho, which is a low bar, but yeah, I like what he's saying and I like what he represents as well.

Would you consider yourself one of the Yang Gang?
Um, sure, sure. Yeah, I'll join that gang.

For the event, you did a little bit of your act from the Netflix special. It was the part about why we need an Asian president. Was that written when you first developed the act? I'm assuming this was done independently, but it just happened to work really well with his event?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it was completely independent and it just fit. He's still in the running for president. He's still in the race as of this moment. He's not just in the race, but I think he's doing quite well in the race. He's outlasted a lot of people who were way higher profile and projected to definitely beat him, so my point is that, yeah, it's a coincidence that we had a guy who matched what I was saying.

I think in all comedy there's a lot of truth, in good stand-up comedy, there's always an element of truth in there somewhere, and so the things I was saying, yeah, it kind of hit the reality of the situation when he started running. For comedy obviously we had gags for comedic purposes, but I think every good bit has kind of a grain of truth in it somewhere. The idea of an Asian president might be a good idea, I mean, there's some truth in that.

Now let's switch to a more universally beloved topic. I see because I've been stalking your Twitter that you've been watching Disney+. So please weigh in on Baby Yoda because you had some things to say about him.
I love how Baby Yoda looks. I saw a 30-second clip of Baby Yoda pushing some buttons and I thought it was extremely cute. The special effects are out of control. I actually have not seen “The Mandalorian,” but I want to watch it.

I'm like an agnostic Star Wars guy. I like it; I'm not crazy about it, but I am interested in the universe. Apparently the show is really good and Baby Yoda is killing the internet right now . . . I think people don't know that one of George Lucas' only things when he sold the universe was he said, "You can never reveal Yoda's race." That's like a big thing in Star Wars lore. That's why you never see another Yoda. There's one female Yoda. I think it's Yaddle. It's even ambiguous whether she's actually Yoda's species. Yoda's species has always been kept quiet from the man himself, George Lucas. You can't find anything. Yoda's species is a mystery, so Baby Yoda is not only super cute, but for a Star Wars nerd it's like a huge kind of reveal in the lore . . . It's like one of the last mysteries in the Star Wars universe, like, “What the hell is Yoda?” Anyway, so I think Yoda as a baby is a brilliant marketing thing. They'll probably increase their market capitalization by at least a couple hundred million dollars.

Oh, absolutely. It's also probably the one thing that I've heard everyone agree on.
Yeah, it's uniting America.

Netflix releases “Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!” on Tuesday, Dec. 17.


Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and food. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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