“Did you guys hear about this TV show Man Vs. Wild?” It’s 2010, and triple j are airing the best moments from the RAW Comedy Grand Final the night before. In this routine, Ronny Chieng describes survivalist Bear Grylls peeing into his own mouth in order to prevent dehydration in extreme environments. “He’s drinking and drinking and when he’s done he goes, ‘That’s how you survive. Man 1, wild 0.’ I’m watching this at home thinking,‘I’m pretty sure wild just kicked your arse in that one. Anytime any man has to drink his own urine – I think that’s a loss for mankind as a whole.”
Laughing dangerously, I had to pull over. I was hooked. Who was that guy?
Chieng’s comedy career began at the prestigious University of Melbourne law school. Every year at the university’s campus comedy competition, Chieng would sign up only to chicken out the day before. In the last year of his degree, facing a potentially laborious life in law, Chieng finally showed up to the competition – and won. Just a few years later, Chieng is one of Australia’s most popular comedians. Well, he’s technically not Australian, but we’re claiming him anyway.
“You know how they put the bracket ‘(UK)’ after international comedians? I’m getting the bracket ‘(AUS)’ and I’m always like, ‘Hey guys…’” he laughs. “It’s just that factually, I’m not Australian. If I get citizenship one day then maybe. I’m a Malaysian dude. I don’t even have permanent residency in Australia. I’m in a weird zone. I started my comedy here and obviously I live here, so a lot of my comedy is very Australian. At the same time, I’m also very not Australian. I wish I could pin it down. I’m happy to be claimed. I’m like a free agent, I’m happy to be claimed off waivers,” he laughs.
“I used to do a joke about how in Australia I’m the most Chinese dude, and for some reason in Malaysia or Singapore I’m the whitest dude there. This voice doesn’t belong anywhere.”
However, Chieng’s spent so much time in Melbourne that last year he launched an online guide to the city’s best bars and restaurants. “Surrounded by idiots who can't decide where to eat?” the site asks. Imokwithanything.com references one of his routines where Chieng criticises friends who handball responsibility for choosing a restaurant by saying, “I’m ok with anything”.
“The back story to that was I going through some rough times in early 2012,” Chieng explains. “Relationship problems, I didn’t know what was happening with my stand-up and all that. I was living in Melbourne, feeling down. What I did to cheer myself up was I took the time to explore Melbourne by myself. I got really familiar with the layout and I’m not 100 per cent with Melbourne, but I’m pretty high. I’m like 90 per cent familiar.
“What I would do was, when there were visiting comics from overseas, I would send them this email, ‘Here’s a list of places to go in Melbourne if you want’. I didn’t want to pressure people to hang with me. But during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival people are here for a month. They need to know the places to go. So I would send this email around and then eventually I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna make it into a proper website so everyone can see it.’”
The site offers tips on favourite dishes, as well as the occasional threat: “If you go here and get drunk and ruin the place by being a dick the Korean mafia will get you and then I will find you and destroy you. Be a good person here.”
“There’s some threats in there because some places are sanctuaries,” he says. “Some places thrive on the obscurity. It’s so cool because no one goes there. I was a little scared of mentioning them because I want to preserve that vibe. I was scared if I mentioned them then too many people would go. But then I’m kind of worried that if no one goes there, it’ll close down,” he laughs.
At the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, there are really two levels of selling out your shows. One of them simply means your room is full. The other means that your demand is so astronomical that you’re moved to a bigger venue. The latter rarely happens, although Chieng finds himself upgrading almost every year. In fact, his popularity has grown so enormously that even Bill Burr invited Chieng to open for him both in Australia and in LA.
“Bill Burr was so encouraging and friendly,” he enthuses. “We got to spend some time together. After the show he would invite me over for a drink at his hotel and he’d give me some guidance. Most of his advice was – and I’m gonna paraphrase here – work hard and get good at your own thing and don’t worry about the politics of it. If you get good enough, all that stuff will happen. People want to see good acts, so there’s no conspiracy or anything. He said if I ever need help getting gigs, he’ll vouch for me, which is huge in comedy. If Bill Burr vouches for you, you can pretty much get any gig.”
After seeing 147 shows in 2013 as part of the MICF Funny Tonne competition, I became fascinated with ‘hacks’ – clichéd comedy routines that usually guarantee a laugh while being unoriginal. While tempting to many up-and-coming comics, Chieng believes it's a comedian’s responsibility to take unprecedented angles on topics.
“The difference between a funny person and a professional comedian is you should be coming up with stuff that no one else could have thought of. That’s all. When we see hacky stuff, whatever your topic is, it’s still funny. It’s just that anyone could have thought of it in a bar. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but that’s what I strive for, I guess. Even if I say something that’s a pretty well-trodden topic, whether it’s Chinese people or whatever it is, I always try to come at it from a different angle, or at least add to it. I’m not always successful, but that’s my goal.
“That’s another thing Bill Burr told me. He’s not forced to do a new show every year; he says he tries to do one every two years. But the point still remains. He says, ‘Every time you do a comedy special, like a one-hour special, you should be trying to add something to your game so that people can see your improvement.’
“I think what I’m adding to my game is that I’m getting a bit more mature with it and the topics. I think I’m adding voices and performance aspects to it. I’m not a trained performer or actor, so it’s taking me a while to learn that stage craft of not just being a writer, but basically acting onstage. That’s what I’m adding to my game a little bit.”
Following his Directors' Choice Award in last year’s festival, Chieng’s new show is already receiving excellent reviews – and he doesn’t wait until the show to ridicule the audience.
“There’s a double meaning in the title. Ronny Chieng You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About obviously the surface level meaning is telling everybody that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m sick of people saying stuff when they don’t know what they’re talking about. The second meaning is Ronny Chieng 'you don’t know what you’re talking about' – referring to myself. My point being that nobody knows what they’re talking about and everyone needs to shut up.”
Chieng’s hilariously arrogant onstage personality is significantly different to the humble, polite real-life Ronny Chieng. His Twitter feed, however, often vacillates between his split personalities. One of my favourite tweets of his was a swipe at the behaviour of some of his Facebook friends: “When I was at law school I must have missed the class where they taught us how to write our own laws via Facebook status updates.”
“You’re misunderstanding the law and how the Internet, technology and copyright works” he laughs. “But I’ve gotta tell you man, on Facebook I don’t know if I’m an anarchist, but I’m like a libertarian. Anything goes. Baby photos, selfies – I don’t care because I think that’s what makes people happy. You’re not hurting anyone by posting a selfie. Just do it.
“I hate it when people start complaining about that. Man, this is what it is. Selfies and baby photos humanise the internet. I’m very contrarian with the hate. I usually hate on the haters. You know that dress thing? White and gold and blue and black? So that came out, and the postmodern response to that was, ‘Everyone’s looking at this dress but there’s more important issues going on.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah well, shut up. There’s a lot of heavy issues. It’s good to be distracted by something silly. What do you want us to look at? Photos of ISIS beheading people all the time and just look at that? It’s good to get distracted.”
On the topic of social media, Chieng’s facial expression in his Twitter profile is utterly confusing. It’s seemingly a look of disapproval, but I wondered what was actually going on when that photo was taken.
“Someone said I look constipated!” he chuckles. “I think I’m looking at bunch of stupid idiots. That’s the official expression. That’s a great question, I’ve never thought about that. It’s like the Mona Lisa. I’m trying to keep from vomiting, from all the stupidity on Twitter.”
BY NICK TARAS
Photo by Ian Laidlaw
Ronny Chieng is performing his show You Don't Know What You're Talking About at The Forum – Upstairs until Sunday April 19 (except Mondays). The show takes place at 9pm (Sundays 8pm) and tickets are $22 - $34.40. Due to ticket demand on Saturday April 18 he will perform an extra show at the Melbourne Town Hall, Mail Hall at 6pm, and on Sunday April 19 he will perform an extra show at the Melbourne Town Hall, Mail Hall at 4.30pm. His shows on Friday April 10, Thursday April 16 and Friday April 17 have also been moved from The Forum to the Melbourne Town Hall, Mail Hall. See comedyfestival.com.au for more details.