Before he was a correspondent on the hugely popular and influential US comedy program The Daily Show, Ronny Chieng was an international student studying Commerce/Law at Melbourne University. Born in Malaysia, raised in Singapore and university educated in Australia, Chieng made an unlikely leap from law into comedy. Now he lives and works in New York, rubbing shoulders with his heroes on the US comedy circuit.
As a child, what did you dream of doing?
“A computer engineer. When I was three and a half, my dad asked me what I wanted to do. I said I liked building stuff and using his computer. And he said, ‘that means you want to be a computer engineer’.”
So why did you decide to study law, rather than engineering?
“I was going to do Engineering/Law. Nobody knows what they want to do when they’re 18 — you might think you know, but you don’t really know. I chose law because I could get into it. Rightly or wrongly, it comes with prestige.
I was going to do Engineering because I always loved computers and building stuff. But my parents said I should study accounting because that would be a good profession. I’m not blaming them for anything. I was already learning about computers on my own so I felt that if I needed to be formally taught something, it should be accounting. That’s why I studied accounting — as part of Commerce/Law.”
What were your first impressions of Melbourne, Australia?
“It was great! The weather was great. It wasn’t hot and humid like Singapore and Malaysia."
How did you find food that you liked?
“Chinatown. You can’t find authentic Singapore and Malaysian food in Australia. I’ve had maybe one place in Sydney that was legit. You can’t get that taste so we found alternatives. I think Melbourne does Vietnamese, Shanghainese, Thai and ramen really well.
But then again, we came from there — we were looking to eat other stuff. It wasn’t a huge deal.”
I love food. I know all the food in Melbourne. I’ve got a website for food in Melbourne: I’m OK with anything.”
This video contains frequent strong language.
Watch Ronny Chieng at the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. YouTube: TheMelbComedyFest
Are there things that you wish you’d known when you started university?
“When you go to uni, it’s very easy to stick to your own enclaves. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s a good reason for that because you speak the language and you know the same things. It’s a good idea to put yourself out there and meet other people.
I think the problem is people don’t do it because it’s tough — it’s hard to get out of that comfort zone, especially if you’ve got language barriers. It’s hard and 18-year-olds can be mean and cliquey. I would tell myself to try not to mistake these problems with cultural differences. Some of these differences are because we’re just kids trying to figure out our lives.
Also if you’re going to do the degree, do the degree. A lot of people are half in, half out, like ‘too cool for school’. I was one of those people — I didn’t get great grades. Even if you don’t get good grades, it’s OK. Even if you come out of uni knowing what you don’t like, that is also a win. I came out of uni learning that I did not like accounting. For me that was huge.
We’re all different people. We keep changing what we like, what we don’t like. And so, keep that in mind.”
How did you decide to become a comedian?
“I did comedy, at university, for the first time in March 2009. It was a campus comedy competition, which I won. My set was about being mugged at knifepoint, I had some inappropriate dirty jokes and trashed people who run for charity.
After graduation, I couldn’t get a job — my grades weren’t good enough. I wasn’t a PR [permanent resident] and I wasn’t an Australian. It hampers you but it’s not impossible.
I couldn’t get a job. I went to work for free at a small law firm. I was doing comedy at the time and comedy was going pretty well. I would go to open mics in Melbourne and jump on and do five minutes to like two people. I kept doing that. And I eventually got to do better and better shows with more people. While I was doing all that, I was trying to get a graduate diploma of legal practise, which is passing the bar in Australia. So I had an excuse to not get a [paying] job.”
At what point did you decide to put a career in the law to the side?
“See, that never really happened. The whole time I was just waiting to go back into law."
"I did comedy for three years. I was going to quit in 2012. That was the year I did my first one hour show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. And then that show won the Best Newcomer Award. That led to more and more gigs — I got to go to London to do shows. At that point it became like ‘well, something seems to be working here. I can’t quit yet. I have to do another show’. I just kept doing it.”
How does it feel to go on stage in a venue full of people expecting you to make them laugh?
“Trying to make a room full of people who are expecting to laugh, laugh is probably one of the hardest things to do. I always call it alchemy. It’s just you on stage — you’re literally spinning gold out of nothing. I think you get better at it with experience and all that. But it’s tough.”
What’s the best thing about working on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in New York?
“I think it’s fair to say that no matter what you do, you want what you do to matter — whether you’re a journalist or comedian or taxi driver."
Watch Ronny Chieng on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Facebook
What do you like about living in America?
“For specific fields and industries, American feels like the highest level where you can do something. For comedy and television, I feel like this is where cool things get to be made because the market is very big and they have a very mature industry. That’s what I like about being in America. All my comedy heroes are here. I get to meet them and perform with them and watch them.”
Having lived, studied and worked in different countries, where do you call home?
“I feel like I belong everywhere but I belong nowhere. I lived in Australia for 10 years, my fiancée is Australian.
I feel very comfortable there, but I’m also not the most ‘Australian guy’ around. I don’t sound very Australian.
I also lived in Singapore for 10 years. My parents live there. I didn’t live in the expat area of Singapore. I lived in the neighbourhoods in the west side. I went to a government school — I didn’t go to an international school. So I know Singapore as well.
I now live in and work in the US. I feel comfortable here as well."
What do you miss about Australia?
“Australia has a very high standard of living that you can only appreciate if you leave. I think they have a great work-life balance in Australia.
I miss the open air. It’s very easy to get to the outdoors. I think it’s fair to say it’s a little calmer there. I think it’s safer as well — with gun control and all that. I think they’re very 'socialist' — they take care of people in Australia.
Melbourne is an awesome city. I think it’s the best city in Australia — I know that’s controversial. It’s such an easy city to hang out in. If you want to chill out, you can chill out. If you want to go to like a concrete jungle bar, you can go there as well. That’s what I miss about Australia. And my friends there — I miss those guys as well.”
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
“There’s so much I would say.
Try to balance out responsibility with doing something that you like and don’t shift too much in either direction. For example, I did law because I thought it was a good thing to do — not because I loved it or anything. The simple advice is ‘do what you enjoy’. But in my experience, that wasn’t really true either because you don’t know what you like.
I wish I’d known how to persevere with something — even when you can’t see the end goal. Whether you’re doing something creative or investment banking or law, you need to be able to do something without necessarily knowing how you’re going to get to where you want to go. I think that’s a skill set to learn."
"Don’t stress out too much about your love life — it’ll work out. Don’t get too hung up over your crushes.
A lot of the flaws that I had when I was 15 helped me be who I am right now.
I’m probably over-thinking this question.”
This video contains coarse language.