Comedy and race, Ronny Chieng talks to Peril Magazine

Comedian Ronny Chieng
Comedian Ronny Chieng

“The Chinese race has taken a beating in the last couple of millennia. We used to be on top, kicking ass, pioneering human innovation. We didn’t steal intellectual property from anybody.

“Once upon a time we invented stuff, real stuff, like we invented paper. Are you familiar with that product? Maybe you’ve seen it around a couple of times? Maybe you’ve read about it, on itself? We did that and we nailed it too, first time, A4, got the dimensions right, just happened to fit every photocopier ever made.”

As a newcomer to the Australian and international comedy scene, Malaysian born Ronny Chieng is already starting to make a name for himself.

It is Ronny’s third year in a row selling out his show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where he also won the Best Newcomer Award in 2012. He has also performed at major comedy festivals in Montreal and Edinburgh, and was nominated for the Best Show at the Sydney Comedy Festival in 2013.

Sitting down with Peril Magazine Ronny talked about the fine balance when doing comedy based on race and ethnicity, as well as the stereotypes surrounding Chinese people and comedy.

“There is definitely a stereotypical image of Chinese performers; they are funny for a certain reason. That’s one of the reasons I do comedy to show that Chinese people can be funny in other ways as well, in our own ways. I mean we can be annoyed at the same things, angry at the same things, silly for the same reasons.

“Just by talking about stereotypes you always enforce it a little bit I think, but I hope that I’m also breaking stereotypes. I try to be as less racial as possible. When you first start out in comedy you do the comedy that comes natural to you, personal experiences, in my case being a Malaysian guy in Australia.

“When you start doing comedy a bit longer you realise that those are considered easy jokes, they are still funny but they are easy jokes.  I think your job as a professional comedy should be thinking of stuff that no one else has thought of, so that’s what I’m aiming for.”

In his final year in a five year law degree at Melbourne University Ronny won an on-campus stand-up comedy contest and after graduating decided to pursue comedy as a full time career. Asked why there is a distinct lack of Asian comedy in Australia, Ronny said “I guess its weird profession to get in to, people have better things to do.”

“It’s just a tough gig to get into regardless of your race. The odds of making it are pretty low already. Most of the Asians I knew were from overseas. So they’ve been sent overseas to study and if your sent overseas to study and you don’t do what you were sent overseas to study it’s almost like considered a waste of all that time and money.

“In my new show I talk about how my parents came to see me perform for the first time. One of the jokes in the show is that, no one will think it’s a waste if you succeed. Everyone loves a winner.”

In Australia, Ronny has also been doing comedy acting work and has appeared on ABC’s It’s a Date, as well as Legally Brown on SBS. He also talks about his experiences doing stand-up back in Singapore where he mostly grew up.

“I started comedy here so my comedy mind set is very Australian, very western style comedy. In Singapore I try and do the same show, of course I mix it up a bit. In Singapore they love the racial stuff, the local references, so if you can do that stuff they enjoy it.  It’s almost to the point that if you don’t do racial stuff they are like ‘when are we supposed to laugh?”

Despite sections of his show discussing topics such as Chinese history Ronny said that he isn’t trying to lecture anyone.

“My primary concern is making something funny. Any message that comes out of that is hopefully a bonus not a negative if it’s a good message. I just thought no-one is ever really talking about this stuff, so I thought let’s give it a shot and that’s what happened.”


—Ronny Chieng’s show, Chieng Reaction is at the Hi-Fi Bar until April 20 and at the Melbourne Town Hall on April 18 and 19. He is also at the Perth Astor Theatre from the 1-4 of May and in Sydney at the Factory Theatre from the 6-11 and 13-18 of May

Jarni Blakkarly

Author: Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly was Peril's Politics and Arts Editor. He grew up and lives in Melbourne. He started working in journalism interning at Malaysian online news organisation Malaysiakini. Since coming back to Melbourne he has pursued free-lance writing while studying journalism at RMIT. He has been a correspondent on Australian politics for Tokyo-based online publication The Diplomat and has had work published across various publications, including Al Jazeera English, Crikey, ABC Religion and Ethics, Overland and The Conversation. You can follow him on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly.