Ronny Chieng may or may not get cancelled. Though if he were to be held at the stake of the big bad Internet, our conversation on an iridescent New York night makes me think he’ll be just fine. “A lot of my comedy is trying to make an argument to defend something that is absurdist. It’s either that or being almost belligerent and countercultural.”
As we speak, Chieng is a picture of friendly insouciance, a decided departure from his stoic persona on-screen. Wearing a T-shirt and cap, our first minute together flies by in a flurried attempt to prop his phone up. It feels like I am on FaceTime with a friend, except this time, it’s the deadpan, furrow-browed correspondent from one of Comedy Central’s most widely watched segments, The Daily Show.
As with all things involved in Singapore and Malaysia’s infamous tug-of-war of invention—chicken rice, nasi lemak, the liberal and correct use of kelong—Chieng finds himself neatly placed in the middle. And though the 36-year-old is Malaysian, Singapore was once his stomping ground. “I was a little displaced in Singapore. I’m from Jurong East and I went to a neighbourhood school, so I was a real heartlander. My friends and I weren’t Orchard Road kids.”
“What I’ve learnt from my parents is the drive to get better at something without over-celebrating my wins.”
Chieng’s decade in Singapore saw him attending local institutions such as Fuchun Primary School and Pioneer Junior College. Eventually, Jurong East’s nascent star left for Melbourne, Australia. His family, however, stayed behind. “When I started doing comedy, my parents and I were living in different countries. What I’ve learnt from them is the drive to get better at something without over-celebrating my wins. To my parents, nothing is really that impressive and it’s the same for me. It’s made me work harder because whatever wins you get are cool, but they don’t really matter.”
This laissez-faire charm is the undercurrent of both our conversation and the majority of Chieng’s seemingly strait-laced stand-ups. In a past life, he was a law and commerce graduate fresh out of the University of Melbourne. His post-graduate waltz, however, led him to the hope-laden walls of comedy clubs instead. After a successful stint at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, Chieng was noticed by South African comedian Trevor Noah, who offered him a correspondent role on The Daily Show.
Today, the New York-based comedian and actor’s repository is one to marvel at. From big screen successes such as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Chieng’s 2019 Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, his brand of humour is whip-smart, cutting and spot on all at once. “The Internet is making people so stupid!” he claims in one snippet from his show. “Who knew all of human knowledge could make people dumber?” When I ask him if he’s ever made anyone cry, he responds with a laugh: “I don’t think so. I don’t recall any of that.”
Touching on topics such as consumerism, the perceived absurdities of living in America, Asian stereotypes and more, he credits comedic greats such as Bill Burr and Dave Chapelle as major inspirations. Burr, in particular, produced Chieng’s Netflix special. “Bill Burr messaged me on Facebook and asked me to open for him in Australia. I didn’t believe it was him,” he shares.
“Dave Chappelle has been really cool to me. He lets me open for him sometimes and he brings me out to his house in Ohio. The way Chappelle does things is very interesting; he brings the whole community into what he does. And that’s something I’ve been trying to emulate. Both Chapelle and Burr are fearless in how they do comedy. They make it look easy. A lot of people think that all you need to do comedy is just to say awful things but that’s not it at all.”
It’s this idea that Chieng has carried forward into his craft. He speaks of his approach to comedy with a considered meticulousness. He possesses a slight disdain for social media and has preferred to take cues from the traditional model of show business. His commitment to niche details such as live ticket sales, he shares, is an ode to his art form. Where Chieng might face different reactions in comparison to his compatriots is, in his experience, as a non-white, Asian comedian. And while he notes that his experiences have been pleasant overall, he also alludes to leaning into a void that existed when he entered the world of entertainment.
“If you’re a non-white stand-up comedian, sometimes when you say one thing about race, or even when you say nothing at all, just being on stage can mean you’re talking about race.”
His roles in blockbuster films Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings support this idea. With both movies featuring a powerhouse cast of Asian actors such as Simu Liu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh, in the world of stand-up comedy, it’s often a less diverse game. “I benefited from people wanting to hear what I had to say because they had never seen someone like me talk about things. I was trying to turn being the only Asian person on stage into an advantage,” he shares. “If you’re a non-white stand-up comedian, sometimes when you say one thing about race, or even when you say nothing at all, just being on stage can mean you’re talking about race. That’s something interesting to me. Sometimes people see what they want to see.”
As we speak, Chieng is gearing up for his Netflix special due to air on 5 April on which he is a producer and creator. His representative, Samantha, tells me that he will be in “a white tux with a bow tie. It’s going to be super stylised, respectful and old school and the location in which he chose to film is really special too.” The special’s title? Ronny Chieng: Speakeasy. When I ask him how he’s feeling leading up to our Mr Vogue shoot, Chieng effuses the same sort of relaxed, amiable air.
“That’s where I get my connection to fashion: the juxtaposition between being dressed to the nines but saying things that most people can’t say. To me, that’s how I rebel against the system.”
We touch on his new-found love of collecting watches—a habit accumulated during lockdown—before his eyes light up again. “Stand-up comedy is a countercultural art form. When you’re countercultural, you’re supposed to dress in T-shirt and jeans and you’re supposed to be fighting against the man. I wear suits because I’m saying some pretty unfiltered stuff. So that’s where I get my connection to fashion: the juxtaposition between being dressed to the nines but saying things that most people can’t say. To me, that’s how I rebel against the system.”
Photography Billy Kidd
Styling Fabio Immediato