Comedian Ronny Chieng is a mighty busy man. At home in New York City, he often squeezes heaps of stand-up gigs around his regular appearances on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, stealing away on Sundays to indulge in a bit of Brazilian jujitsu and brunch at Aussie cafe Two Hands with wife Hannah Pham.
Last year was particularly big, thanks to the publicity blitz surrounding Jon M Chu’s box office-smashing adaptation of Kevin Kwans’s best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians, in which he plays the small but perfectly formed role of ostentatious cousin Eddie Cheng. And before that, there was the 2017 launch of ABC hit Ronny Chieng: International Student, loosely based on his time studying law and commerce at Melbourne Uni.
Currently back in Australia on the comedy festivals round, he takes time out (twice, thanks to a recording hiccup) to chat to us ahead of performing his new stand-up routine Tone Issues in Brisbane. We’ll have to wait until April for his Town Hall-packing stint at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF). While back in town, he hopes he can grab some down time to revisit a few favourite spots in the city he called home for over a decade, and where his comedy adventure began at the pre-reno Espy.
“Because I’m pretty busy, day and night, it’s very important to find relaxing places to hang out,” he says. “A lot of my job is talking, so I’m looking for places which are quiet and have good vibes, and I’m always travelling, so I’m also looking to experience really good food.”
Born in Malaysia, Chieng was raised between the US and Singapore, where his parents still live, though not quite to the ridiculously rich standards on show in Crazy Rich Asians. With the huge hit largely set in the latter destination, filming there was a homecoming of sorts. “I could go to all my usual spots and I discovered some new ones,” he says. “Malaysian Singaporean food, I think, is the best in the world, and it’s very hard to find that flavour anywhere else, so it was great to be there and eat all that stuff I was kinda craving.”
In Melbourne, he’ll often grab a nightcap at cocktail joint Bar Americano. “It’s one of my go-to spots, a late-night speakeasy in an alleyway, very Melbourne, where you can actually have a conversation,” he says. “It’s very cosy.”
If he wants to pick up the pace a little, he’ll take in the vintage arcade games of Flinders Lane hangout Bartronica. For dinner, nearby Supernormal is a fave, as is Little Lonsdale’s Gami Chicken and Beer, and Abbotsford stalwart Jinda Thai. Apparently, he can never get into Cumulus Inc, and when I ask if he’s ever been tempted to chuck a, “don’t you know who I am?” tanty, he chuckles. “I don’t think they care.”
Sharing’s caring in Chieng’s book, which is why he started compiling a list of these hangouts so that he could email to visiting comics heading to MICF. “Eventually I just decided to put it up on my website, because it was a lot easier.”
A pretty humble guy, it’s hard to convince him that he’s doing ridiculously well right now, and not in that faux-modest way deployed by so many celebrities. What he will allow is a little bit of pride in telling his own story, his own way, alongside co-writer Declan Fay in International Student.
“I think authenticity resonates,” he says, before reverting to humble mode. “There was no real competition to tell that story out there, so by virtue of trying to be authentic, you’re already ahead of the curve.”
A billion dollar industry in Australia, the university sector and its heavily marketed appeal to international students offered prime material for a sweetly satirical skewering. His three years and counting stint on The Daily Show has also brought a slightly more socially aware slant to his stand-up, Chieng suggests. “I wasn’t a very political comic going into the show, in fact, I kind of avoided talking about it, because I always kind of saw comedy as an escape from reality, and also I figured I’m not smart enough to really talk about politics anyway.”
Noah clearly disagreed. “Working on the show for three years, you kind of absorb it by osmosis. It’s made me a better comedian.”
Local audiences will soon be able to make their own mind up, but the upgrade from a small room at the Espy to the main space at the Melbourne Town Hall sure looks like success to me. The massive appeal of Crazy Rich Asians, which also featured Australian stars Chris Pang and Remy Hii, also proved, in very easily quantifiable financial terms, that there’s a hunger out there for more diverse stories on both our big and little screens.
With any luck, more will follow, Chieng says. “Hopefully there are more decision makers willing to go ahead and tell these stories from perspectives we haven’t seen too often in the mainstream.”
Ronny Chieng will perform Tone Issues at MICF, April 5-6, you can buy tickets here.
When: Fri 5 Apr: 8.45pm, Sat 6 Apr: 5pm, 8.45pm
Where: Melbourne Town Hall - Main Hall, 100 Swanston St, CBD
For more info or to book tickets, click here.
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Image credit: supplied