NYT Syndicate/Gabriela Bhaskar

April 21, 2021

Life Lessons From An Evening with Ronny Chieng

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On Saturday, April 18, The Cornell Lunatic, Cornell’s only satire magazine, hosted esteemed Malaysian comedian and actor Ronny Chieng in an interactive Zoom event. Chieng is known for being a senior correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and has an upcoming role in the 2021 Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Over 100 people were present for the evening, and many were eager to ask questions. Chieng coasted through the event with humor and levity, carrying on banter with the host and the audience members who participated. However, he had more than just jokes to say. He also offered students helpful advice on building a career and talked about Asian representation in the media, as well as cancel culture.

Audience members got to hear Chieng’s story about how he became as successful as he is today. Before establishing himself in the comedy circuit, Chieng was a struggling law student at the University of Melbourne in Australia. When asked about how he changed his career to comedy so quickly, Chieng joked that it was his bad grades in school that left him with no other options. He expressed that he did not tell his parents about his comedy at first, but now they are supportive. Chieng said that he understood his parents’ hesitations, but he didn’t let them deter his career. He then encouraged audience members to venture into that creative career with enthusiasm, and parental support will follow: “I think that everyone’s parents want their kids to have better lives than they did. They don’t want their kids to be in their late 30s and be unhappy with their lives.”

When asked whether he felt any pressure to positively represent Asian people in his comedy, Chieng said that, at first, it was not a main creative concern. Upon reflection, he remarked that he entered stand-up because he did not feel represented by it. “I did stand up because I wanted to do the comedy I wanted to see.” He also said he initially found it difficult to talk about race in his comedy, especially as he was often the only Asian guy in the room. Chieng remarked that he does not want to just have racialized material, saying “I didn’t want to be The Great Asian Comic. I just want to be a great comic.” He talked about how he has learned to incorporate material about his life, like Chinese mythology, into his comedy routine in a way that all audiences can understand.

Chieng credited his work on network television for helping him find the balance between politics and humor. Since 2015, Chieng has been a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central and said that prior to this position, he only thought of comedy as a way to make people laugh. However, The Daily Show taught him to combine that with a central message: “One of the big tenants at The Daily Show is: ‘What are you trying to say? This joke may be funny, but what are you trying to say?’” Chieng argued that extra meaning is what elevates good comedy to great comedy. 

While Chieng has appeared in big screen works such as Crazy Rich Asians, he stressed that stand-up comedy is where he feels most comfortable. Chieng believes there is an appeal to stand-up comedy that cannot be replicated on television and he views the process of going to see a comedy show as particularly important. To see a show live, fans must dress up, hire a babysitter, pay for parking and reserve a seat. Chieng argues that this process leads to a unique investment in the show and its humor. He believes that is where most of the misconceptions about comedy lie — when the audience expects instant gratification. To really understand and appreciate live comedy, you must stop thinking from “an internet point of view,” said Chieng. 

Chieng had plenty of advice for aspiring young professionals in the entertainment industry. He shared some advice from his colleague John Chu, the director of the hit film Crazy Rich Asians: “John Chu made me understand [that] if you want to make art on that level, navigating the politics is part of the art.” Chieng values the soft skills in the entertainment industry: collaboration, networking and promoting. He claimed it is just as essential as the art itself. That is his biggest advice to any student or amateur, regardless of their profession: you must tolerate and even make use of the politics in an industry. Otherwise, your art will not be given the platform it deserves. 

When asked about his views on cancel culture from an audience member, Chieng argued that negativity was just a natural part of his industry. “A lot of cancel culture is just people who put their thoughts in public, and cannot handle the backlash.” Chieng stressed that learning to handle criticism is an important skill as an entertainer. Although he still gets affected by negative feedback, he says that every time it happens, he feels less angry and recovers from it quicker. As for getting cancelled, he won’t be worried about that any time soon. “Comedy is on the edge of free speech and self expression,” says Chieng. “I’ve been playing in that space for a while now.”

I found Chieng’s honest attitude and frank manner admirable. As someone who hopes to go into a creative career, his advice was practical and in tune with the realities of an imperfect industry. Although Chieng is aware of the politics and drawbacks of comedy, he still approaches it with enthusiasm and intentionality. I left the event with a revived appreciation for the care artists put into their work, and a desire to replicate that care in my own life.

If you want to hear more from Ronny Chieng, his 2019 stand-up special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, is available to stream on Netflix. 

Ayesha Chari is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at asc194@cornell.edu.