When I spoke with Ronny Chieng last week he said that “the true job of comedians these days as professionals is to not overreact to other people overreacting,” and I think that’s pretty informative about the man and his operating system. At the time we were discussing the cultural importance people put on comedians and the way the internet can freak out over this or that. But it (and the following conversation) shows Chieng as someone who is aware of the moment and the hype but at ease amidst the noise.
Fresh off numerous high-profile film and TV projects (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, M3GAN, American Born Chinese) Chieng is about to embark on an epic tour of the US at the start of the new year with his Love To Hate It comedy tour (tickets available here). Might he have to find a way to mix in duties as the new host of The Daily Show? Who knows, but he doesn’t seem too concerned with whatever choice the suits at Comedy Central make after nearly a year of guest host tryouts. Chieng, one of the Daily Show‘s All-Star correspondents, is in that chair tonight, as it happens, but this isn’t an interview about what could be considered a very important audition. It’s about a guy who seems to love his job(s), who is humbly taking things as they come, and just trying to be funny and unique while finding affirmation about the non-awfulness of the American public as he meets and greets them on the road.
I’ve had a couple of people associated with The Daily Show tell me that you have said that “the Daily Show correspondent’s job is the best job in comedy.” Do you want the hosting job or do you want to stick with this job that gives you, I imagine, a lot of flexibility to do other things?
I think Jon Stewart set the standard of how much dedication you need for the job to do it properly. The machine of the show is so strong, meaning the support staff and the producers, the writers, the editors. The institution of the Daily Show is probably its greatest strength, because they know how to do that show so well. So you can make a show of news with jokes, and you can get by on that pretty well. You can have a good life, whatever, but if you want to really make that show great, you need a point of view and you need to be very dedicated to the show, anticipating where the culture is right now and commenting on it.
I’m happy with whatever they choose. I still think working at that show is the best job in comedy. I don’t want to speak for the other people working there, but correspondent is, I think for sure, the best job in comedy. You come on, you learn a lot. I think I’ve always said that it’s almost like the Harvard Business School of Comedy. Forget the fame. Even if you don’t become one follower more famous, you learn how to write comedy, you learn how to perform, you learn how to edit, how to produce, how to direct, how to do improv TV production. Every field piece is like an indie film and you have a lot of support. Producers and writers and editors and everyone helping you out, versus this new economy of one person does everything; you are your own cameraman and writer. But The Daily Show is very old school in terms of priding itself on having high production values. So in that sense, it’s the best job in comedy.
I think it’s equal parts ambition and dedication to do what Jon did. Do you feel like you have the want to put that much of yourself into it? Obviously, Jon did it for however long — 14 or 15 years. I interviewed Roy Wood Jr. a few months ago and he was like, “No one should do it for more than seven or eight years.” I think that’s right. I feel like Jon got toasted a little bit because I think he cared so much. Outside perspective, obviously.
I can’t speak for Jon. I think he himself said that he was feeling a little burnt out. I think that’s fair to say. I guess it is a show that you can get burnt out on. It’s every day.
Like you said, you could mail it in, but if you do want to do it right, you have to put so much into it. At this stage of your career, if they came to you and were like, “Do you want this job?” Do you feel like you could do that for the next six, seven years?
I’m lucky that I’ve been getting a lot of cool work outside of hosting a show. You’re right.
That would go away if you have the show.
It would have to be a choice. If they came to me and they asked me, it would be giving up (that work). Yeah, I’m not sure. I’m lucky to be in a position where I’m not just on the show, but outside the show, I’m doing the stuff that I like doing. It would be something I have to consider. I don’t know. It’s hard to answer.
I get that. Also, to your credit, there are ways to answer that question that are campaign-y, and you’re not obviously interested in campaigning.
I’m not American, so I don’t know how to campaign for stuff. I look up to all the other correspondents. All the correspondents I ever worked with I think are much better than me. It’s very un-American, but if you ask me from a pure skillset point of view, all these other correspondents were way better than me. When I first joined the show, I was like, “Man, if I could be 10% of any of the correspondents who’ve ever been on this show, if I could be 10% as good as them, I will be extremely happy with myself.” So that was my goal. So I look at the other correspondents in awe. I look at everyone in awe, everyone currently on the show.
How do you gauge improvement in terms of as a correspondent, as a comedian? In terms of your career, how do you look back and say, “I’m doing something right” or “I need to work on this?”
That’s a good question.
I’m assuming it’s not just from the volume of the crowd.
Absolutely. I think you can divorce art from fame, first of all, and you can definitely divorce skill from fame. So independent of fame, I think fame is a reasonable indicator, but you and I both know that just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good and vice versa. Just because something’s not popular, doesn’t mean it’s not good. So in terms of judging my own, I think good comics have their own internal barometer of a joke that they write and they go, “This is just hack.” Then they know when they’re writing a joke where it’s like, “This is more satirical, this is more elevated. This is the voice I aspire to. These are the kind of jokes and this is the kind of material I aspire to write.”
Sometimes I get lucky. I have a bit that I really enjoy and I’m like, “Man, I hope all my bits could be like this.” I don’t think I’m there yet. I think it’s very much an internal barometer. Standup comedy and being a correspondent, almost two different skill sets. But standup comedy, there is an element of audience response to it. So you can tell when you’re saying something that is getting a good response, but it’s also because of your internal barometer. You know it’s not a hack-y joke, it’s kind of elevated, you’re saying something unique. I think that’s the measure of good comedy is when you’re saying something unique that’s hilarious.
So I think everything I do, if I push towards those two things, which is being unique and hilarious, I can feel myself get better. So that’s my metric, I think, for being good at comedy.
Are you hard on yourself, do you think? And has that intensified over the years or lessened?
I like to think I’m pretty hard on myself. I think all comics are, though. All the good comics I know. I can’t remember who told me this. I think Sam Morril said this. He was like, “All the good comics think they’re a hack. All the good comics hate their own routines.” They’re just like, “I made them laugh, but this is the same old stuff that I’ve been doing for months now. Where’s the new bit?” It’s almost like only the bad comics will walk on and be like, “I’m the freaking greatest of all time.” Obviously, that’s public persona and then how you feel internally. So publicly if your standup persona is the greatest of all time, then that’s different to how you feel inside. Do you believe your own act or are you just saying that just for comedic effect? So I think all comics are just trying to write better jokes, they feel like their own material isn’t the best. I think that’s a fairly common denominator among all the good comics I know.
Honestly, I think that extends to a lot of creative people.
I hope so. I think if you’re good, you would never be satisfied with where you’re at, right?
In the course of researching I read some of the past interviews and saw some of the stuff you’ve done and the spreads in Vogue; you’ve done some great stuff. Obviously even the poster for the new tour, it’s very nice with a nice suit. It looks like you’re using John Mulaney’s tailor. Do you feel a pressure to be a brand beyond just being, “I’m Ronny, here’s my comedy?”
Not really. I feel pressured to do good jokes and express myself in the way that I want to express myself. So I feel a lot of pressure about keeping my artistic expression, the integrity in it. I want to put out the poster that I want to put out. I don’t want other people to make a shitty poster for me. I think it’s important for Asian people in America to perform in show business with dignity and with class and at a high standard. So I put pressure on myself to do that, that’s why I like to put out my poster materials. I like everything to look slick. I like the show to be good. That’s why I go out every single night in New York City trying to work on this material, because I don’t want to show up and bomb. I want people to go away going, “Oh, that was a really good comedy show.” So I don’t feel pressure about the brand per se. I feel more pressure about my self-expression. You can argue those are two sides of the same coin, right?
No, I think they’re different.
Well, I appreciate that. I hope they’re different too, but I put pressure on the self-expression, not the brand.
I think the brand can chase self-expression, but to me that means it comes from a more authentic place than if you’re just chasing an ideal of what you’re supposed to be as a comedian in 2023, as opposed to being who you are and that’s the vision of who you are.
Yeah, I think so. I think on that note also, what I like to do is I like to go quality over quantity in terms of my output. Less is more, if that informs anything I’m saying. So it’s not that I hate social media or whatever, it’s more that I’d rather put out something good once in a while than having to churn out just average stuff every single day. That’s where I’m at.
That’s a good policy for everybody.
I hope so. Less is more. Quite frankly, I mean a lot of it is because I’m not talented enough to do something great every single day. So I wish I was better at it.
What is behind the title of the tour? Love To Hate It.
I just wanted something cool that was a little bit funny. I’m sure you know, it’s hard to think of titles for things. So I was brainstorming for a few weeks. It’s almost like part of me is like, “Why am I caring so much about something that doesn’t really matter?” It doesn’t need to describe anything.
It does sound cool though. It’s a good title.
It actually ended up being a good title because it actually does describe where I’m at. Sometimes you complain professionally as a standup comedian. In other words, you love to hate it. As a comic, we complain about stuff, but we do it because we love doing comedy.
Perhaps I dug too deep when I read the title. I thought it was some kind of reflection on culture and art because right now I feel like we’re in a moment where everybody just loves to hate everything.
Oh, that too. Thank you. Yeah, I’ll take that.
There you go. Take it.
No, it’s true. The great titles have more than one meaning, right?
You’ve been all over, you lived in Australia for 10 years. This tour is expansive. Going out and seeing the country, just telling jokes to people of many different political persuasions, does that make you a better comedian? A better person, in your opinion?
Yeah, definitely. You hit the nail on the head. I actually talk about it in the show a little bit, about knowing people with extreme political views in America and being friends with them. I get to travel around America. I talk about it a little bit. It does inform who I am because first of all, I am grateful to be here. I had to fight to be here, you know what I mean? So me, every day I’m in America is a choice. It’s a choice by me to be here and it’s also not something that came easy. So it was a challenge and a choice every day to want to work in America and have to prove myself, not just culturally, but literally immigration. I came here on a 01 Visa, which is an extraordinary ability visa. So I had to prove that I had extraordinary ability.
I came here with a lot of gratitude. So part of gratitude is also loving seeing a lot of different parts of America. I love traveling around America and seeing towns and cities that people shit on. I go there and I’m like, “Oh, this is great.” Everyone’s been always really nice to me on my tour. The fans have always been really nice to me for the most part. So I get to meet a lot of people. I meet, obviously different ethnicities, but different political backgrounds as well. They’ve always been cool. I like to think I’ve shown mutual respect back. It’s why I say in the show, I talk a little bit about how face-to-face, everyone in America seems fine. It’s just when you go on the internet, it seems as though we’re always on the borderline of Civil War. But face-to-face, there’s a lot of decency in America. There are more good people than bad people here.