From Melbourne to Marvel: Ronny Chieng on his biggest year yet

Entertainment

Ronny Chieng’s starred in blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. But before that, he cut his teeth on the Melbourne Comedy Circuit. He sits down with Forbes Australia to talk representation in the media, crafting his talent and the problem with Australia’s entertainment industry.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 22: Ronny Chieng performs on stage at Madison Square Garden on November 22, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Ronny Chieng has a few ongoing gigs. He’s a senior correspondent on The Daily Show, a stand-up comedian and a Hollywood actor (though like many of his peers, he’s on strike). But one thing that certainly is not on his resume is: fixing the world’s problems.

Yes, he’s a Chinese-Malaysian man. No, it’s not his job to solve Australia’s – and the world’s – diversity issues.

“I’ve kind of given up trying to fix anything in Australia,” Chieng says. “That’s why I’m not there anymore. I mean, I’m here to tell jokes and say what I want to say, and I’m lucky that people get behind me, but I’m not here to fix anything.”

Though, arguably, through his comedy, he kind of does. In his 2022 Ronny Chieng Takes Chinatown special, the 37-year-old goes on a mission to save an Asian restaurant and “become a Chinatown hero”. He interviews stars like basketballer Jeremy Lin, Hollywood star Simu Liu and badminton player Bryan Yang and shines a light on representation in the media.

“They wanted to hear from someone who looked like me and experienced life in Australia like me, meaning, an Asian guy in Australia who is a little bit more abrasive in his observations.”

Ronny Chieng, comedian and actor

“The more I realise my role and my strength in it, it emboldens me. I don’t need to have the moral high ground. I think it’s my job to point out things that are broken and I hope they get fixed, but it’s not my job to fix it. I’m not the Prime Minister of Australia.”

Though that’s not the only reason he left. Though Australia’s film industry is growing (a total of 162 drama screen productions were made for $2.29 billion in 2021-22), Chieng says it’s difficult to tell authentic stories in Australia.

“Even if you’re a white person, there’s a blockage somewhere in Australia. And it’s even harder if you’re not a white person, because you’re not part of the majority tribe. At a certain point, it gets shut down. No matter what the intentions were going into a project.”

He points to Marvel, which moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Sydney in 2021, until at least 2026.

“We can make billion-dollar franchises here. We have the on-screen talent, like Chris Hemsworth, and the crews, like the cameramen, sound and makeup – they’re all world-class. But the execs are not Australian. We’re not making it local. So where is the problem coming from? Is it the decision-makers? Is it the producers? The executives?”

This sentiment is echoed by industry executive Matthew Deaner, who told Forbes Australia earlier this year: “My concern is that unless we solve some structural challenges, the number of projects will decline as the policy spotlight fades. We need to look at establishing stable, long-term opportunities in Australia.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 16: (L-R) Ronny Chieng and Hannah Pham attend the “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” World Premiere at El Capitan Theatre on August 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

In the last year alone, Chieng starred in the horror flick M3GAN, comedy Joyride, Mel Brooks History of the World Part 2, Doogie and The Young Rock. But he’s also been in blockbusters Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and of course is a regular on The Daily Show.

But before all of this, Chieng cut his teeth at the Melbourne Comedy Festival after graduating from the University of Melbourne with a law and commerce degree. And there, he found a highly engaged audience. In fact, Chieng just sold out Aware Super Theatre with 6,500 tickets – the biggest show he’s ever headlined.

“They [the audience] knew I developed in Australia. I went to uni there, so they gave me that hometown love even though I don’t sound or look like a typical Melbourne guy,” he says.

“I think that’s why it resonates. I can only speculate, but there was stuff that I thought should be said that I wasn’t hearing anyone else say. They wanted to hear from someone who looked like me and experienced life in Australia like me, meaning, an Asian guy in Australia who is a little bit more abrasive in his observations.”

They said, ‘You got a job. If you think you deserve it, then great. You’re there. But if you don’t think you deserve it, well you’re there anyway. So you may as well just do the best job you can.”

Ronny Chieng, comedian and actor

Abrasive is a good way of putting it – Chieng gives scathing reviews of everything from politics to Fortnite and talks like he’s constantly angry. Even Liu in the Chinatown special says to co-host David Fung, ‘It’s great to see somebody leaning in, instead of going on stage and shitting on everything all the time’. But, shitting on things is kind of Chieng’s bread and butter.

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 08: Correspondent Ronny Chieng on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” LIVE one-hour “Democalypse 2016” Election Night special on November 8, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Though, that’s something he’s crafted over time. He loves making people laugh; airing out his frustrations is his way of expressing that.

“When I was about three to four years into comedy, I went to go and watch it again as an audience member. And I remember being in the crowd and thinking, people are coming here, looking to escape whatever is happening in their lives. That kind of made me empathise with the crowd more. So, when I’m on stage, getting irritated at something, I started bringing the crowd with me more, instead of just yelling at them.”

And it helps having good mentors along the way. He was loathe to name-drop the industry juggernauts that supported his growth (name-dropping is “gross”), but says he did get some good advice from either Will Anderson or Tom Gleeson – he couldn’t remember which – about imposter syndrome.

“They said, ‘You got a job. If you think you deserve it, then great. You’re there. But if you don’t think you deserve it, well you’re there anyway. So you may as well just do the best job you can.”

And that saying about never meeting your idols? Eh, he did, it was great. “Just make sure you’re a good person when you meet them.”

Chieng is on strike so can’t talk shop about current and future projects, but stand-up is for sure here to stay.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 10: Ronny Chieng joins SAG-AFTRA members as they maintain picket lines across New York City on August 10, 2023 in New York City. Members of SAG-AFTRA and WGA (Writers Guild of America) have both walked out in their first joint strike against the studios since 1960. The strike has shut down a majority of Hollywood productions with writers in the third month of their strike against the Hollywood studios. (Photo by John Nacion/Getty Images)

And Brazilian jiujitsu, which is his current hobby. It’s perfect for travelling, “Every city has a school”. And though he doesn’t know if he’s quite ‘made it’ yet, his advice for others trying to ‘make it’ is this: be a team player.

“No matter how much of a solo sport this can feel like, nobody can do any creative endeavour by themselves. You’ve got to know how to be collaborative with other people.”

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