Backstage With Ronny Chieng: Malaysia’s Comedy Multihyphenate
— 6 September 2023

Backstage With Ronny Chieng: Malaysia’s Comedy Multihyphenate

— 6 September 2023
Randy Lai
Randy Lai

There comes a moment, only minutes into my interview with Ronny Chieng, when I lament not having done the requisite amount of half-arsed internet research.

In an effort to get to the bottom of why so many digital writers have pitched his highly limited run of shows in Sydney and Melbourne (on September 15th and 16th) as a “homecoming,” I completely miss the fact that Chieng — through both his marriage and a decade-long residency — has always remained fond of the nation where he first broke into stand-up comedy.

“It sounds self-serving,” he says, beaming in from a nondescript studio in Melbourne (he’s currently there filming a new Uber Reserve campaign), “But I’m very connected to these cities. The truth is they do feel like home.”

Considering the flow and texture of Chieng’s career, that globally ranging outlook isn’t entirely surprising. A 37-year-old Malaysian entertainer who attended university in Melbourne; has since acted in a range of Netflix and Disney productions; and resides in New York, he embodies the pan-global experience that many of his own fans — particularly those descending from upwardly mobile Chinese diasporas — will feel connected to.

Fresh from a week of shooting with Uber Australia, Boss Hunting spoke to Chieng about how “opting out” of awkward social situations dovetails with his own comedy, the importance of being well-dressed on stage, and why your $20,000 sports watch is less useful than the right pair of underpants.

Editor’s Note: This interview, originally conducted with Ronny Chieng on 4 September 2023, has been edited for length, clarity and in order to reflect his participation in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.

BH’s Ronny Chieng Interview: Comedian, Actor, Correspondent

Ronny Chieng
(Image Credit: Uber Australia)

Randy Lai: Well, I suppose the easiest place to start would be the new campaign you’re working on with Uber. Of all the possible endorsement projects in the world — particularly for a fairly well-known comic, actor, and public figure such as yourself — why choose Uber Reserve?

Ronny Chieng: They had a very funny concept for an ad, and for me that was the number one priority.

It kind of fit what my whole professional persona was about — not putting up with nonsense and not being afraid to leave a situation when there are lots of social faux pas.

RL: Right. So, creatively, a dead ringer?

RC: Well, the other thing was my personal relationship to the app.

The truth is that I more or less use Uber to handle my logistics when I’m on tour all the time. I literally couldn’t get through a full international tour without it. We use it to transfer between hotels and airports in almost any country in the world.

It’s also great for maximising the time I spend on the ground. I don’t enjoy going to a place, doing a show and then leaving — I much prefer hanging out and getting a feel for the city. Having ready access to Uber is a big part of that.

RL: On that note, I wanted to see if you could give us one example apiece (for Sydney and Melbourne) where Uber Reserve might come in handy?

RC: How about [pauses] getting to both of my shows on time?

RL: [Laughs] Well, that’s one way to answer two questions.

Just very briefly — because it’s a question we could spend a lot of time unpacking — how has the landscape for stand-up comedy evolved in Australia since you started performing in 2010?

RC: Great question. There are more comics of Asian and Asian-Australian descent now, which I think is great. In addition, more people have figured out how to “do” stand up well on the internet… which is not an aspect of the skillset that is as obvious as you’d think.

Despite the fact that comedy on YouTube has been around for over a decade (certainly when I first started performing) it’s only within the last five years that a lot of people have figured out how the internet and stand-up comedy go together.

RL: Interesting. Let’s stay in that ballpark area for a bit longer.

For the upcoming shows in Australia, we’re interested in learning a bit more about the themes you plan on exploring — how will those differ from your previous shows?

RC: Well, other than the usual assortment of dumb dick jokes [both laugh] I’m trying to incorporate a little more about Eastern philosophy: how ideas of Confucianism and East Asian values adapt in the West.

RL: Turning to stagecraft — one of the things I’ve often noticed in your previous comedy appearances is a fastidiousness when it comes to clothing.

Is the act of “dressing up” integral to your on-stage persona or is it about personal preference?

RC: I’d say it was more of the latter. Over the course of my career, a visual theme that has proven consistently interesting has been the golden age of American show biz.

Growing up, I’d often watch performers like Johnny Carson or The Rat Pack, but would never see an Asian person in the cultural setting that they inhabited. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll put myself in that setting’ — since I was such a big fan of it.

(Image Credit: Esquire America // Phil Provencio)

RL: Ronny Chieng: Live At The Sands Casino — I can definitely see that. Your great love of slick tailored clothing also seems to crib, at least to me, from the universe of Wong Kar-Wai.

RC: Yes, there was certainly a little bit of that old-school Hong Kong flavour in there. Visually, I’m trying to capture something which feels more classic and timeless.

Funny enough, when I got to meet my hero, Jerry Seinfeld, the one bit of advice he gave was to, “always dress better than your audience.”

RL: I think for a lot of the megastar comics, who came of age in the 1980s, dressing well is tied up with notions of putting on a good show…

RC: Right. The way he explained it was that if you want people to listen, you really can’t be dressed worse than them — it’s important to put in some aesthetic effort.

When you do stand up comedy, context really really matters. Where’s the venue? How big is the crowd? Even something as simple as your appearance plays a role — because this is such a vulnerable kind of performing art.

RL: Let’s talk a bit more about some of your personal style choices. Specifically, watches.

Some netizens might recall your appearance in the Hodinkee Talking Watches series back in 2021. Has your obsession with all things mechanical and time-telling worsened since then? Or do you think you’re in a good place with the hobby?

RC: I think I’ve managed to find an equilibrium. I kind of fell into the whole [watch hobby] during the pandemic. Eventually I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I cannot be that guy who has over half his net worth in watches.’

RL: [Laughs] That’s advice I would have longed to hear from somebody early on…

RC: Right. Also, my wife straight up told me to cool it a little bit.

That being said, I’m pretty happy with the stuff I managed to collect before pulling the plug, so to speak.

RL: On that front there’s a lot we could talk about. Your Speed-Timer with the Bruce Lee dial variant; the heirloom Datejust; the Seiko x Rowing Blazers collab you helped popularise.

But one piece I’ve seen you wear multiple times this year appears to be a modern Rolex Submariner. What is it about the classic, no-nonsense steel sports watch that appeals to you?

RC: I mean, it has to be the daily beater quality, right? That aspect of infinite wearability.

I really believe that — and this goes for things outside of watches — you shouldn’t let your possessions own you. You don’t want to be having anxiety about whether you can put your watch on: its heaviness, fragility, vulnerability to scratches.

Just scratch it up, man! If anything, that will make the object more meaningful when you eventually pass it on — because these things are for sure going to outlast us.

RL: One last question — still very much in the mould of the things we wear. As something of a burgeoning sock entrepreneur, what’s one accessor or smaller item of clothing you think men skimp on at their own peril?

RC: [Pauses] I feel like you’ve given away the answer right there. Socks and underwear are accessories that are incredibly important.

You’ve got to be wearing comfortable underwear. A pair that’s uncomfortable will ruin your whole day. I’ll take a guy with no watch and comfy underwear over a guy with a grail watch and the worst underwear. The guy who’s comfortable is going to outperform the former in any social setting.

As for socks, go buy mine.

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Randy Lai
Following 6 years in the trenches covering consumer luxury across East Asia, Randy joins Boss Hunting as the team's Commercial Editor. His work has been featured in A Collected Man, M.J. Bale, Soho Home, and the BurdaLuxury portfolio of lifestyle media titles. An ardent watch enthusiast, boozehound and sometimes-menswear dork, drop Randy a line at [email protected].


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