Ronny Chieng on the Appeal of #YangGang and Asians Getting Political

Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America! Still - Publicity - H 2020
Marcus Russell Price/Netflix

The 'Daily Show' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' star has a new Netflix comedy special, 'Asian Comedian Destroys America.’

Ronny Chieng first burst into the national consciousness in October 2016 with a Daily Show segment skewering a racist Fox News segment set in Chinatown. Chieng, who had then been a correspondent at the Comedy Central staple for exactly a year, went viral with his expletive-laden, hilarious and cathartic rebuttal, and since then has become known for his blunt, cantankerous style.

That seeming irascibility is front and center in Chieng’s Netflix comedy special, Asian Comedian Destroys America, released Dec. 17. In the hourlong set, the Malaysia-born comic — who played brash and snooty cousin Eddie in Crazy Rich Asians — sounds off on all manner of American quirks, from its abundance (particularly of fast-food napkins) to its impatience (whether it’s the two-hour shipping time of Amazon Prime Now or the refusal to wait for the next subway train) to the idea that, just maybe, an Asian president might be the solution to all its ills.

Chieng spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the double meanings behind his show’s title, his parents’ surprising journey from Malaysia to New Hampshire and the most striking cultural differences he’s observed as an immigrant in America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come up with the title of your special?

I had a tour name [Tone Issues], but Netflix asked me to come up with a snappier name that people would click on. Their point was, "Your profile isn't big enough for people to click on [your special] just based on your name."

They didn't force me, but after reconsidering I thought, "Well, if you want a clickbait title, let's just go all the way and make it like a YouTube clickbait video." It became kind of a satirical title making fun of the idea that anyone can destroy anything based on, like, an online video, and also the fact that the special isn't about destroying America. If anything, it's a love letter to America. And also, the double meaning that "destroy" in comedic terms means "to do very well."

You were born in Malaysia, but you were actually partially raised in New Hampshire. How did that happen?

My parents went there for college very late in life. They had two kids and in their late 30s they went from Malaysia to community college in Manchester, New Hampshire. They graduated, did their masters, and then they were good immigrants and went back to where they came from and didn't take any jobs from any Americans.

How did they land on this school in New Hampshire, of all places?

My dad was running his own business and it didn't do so well, so he wanted to go back to school and was looking in the newspaper for university courses. Back in those days in Malaysia they would advertise overseas courses in England, Australia, America. And he just settled upon this community college in New Hampshire. He had the high school qualifications, which back in those days wasn't a given, and sent in his A-level results, and they accepted him. He went first and figured it out — without the Internet.

A lot of your special is themed around observations about America from an outsider. What was the first really strong observation you noticed about American culture? Your riff on abundance made me very self-conscious about napkins in restaurants.
There is a lot of abundance. I think people take it for granted a lot of times. Napkins are just a prime example, but the way we treat food here, especially in New York City, is kinda weird. The bodega buffets? Come on. That's just straight into the garbage every day.

I think in America, people are rewarded for being boisterous. The way we do business here is pretty aggressive. Like, if you arrange a meeting with people in a professional setting and don't ask them for anything, people are like, "Why are you wasting my time?"

It can get confusing working with people in China when they're like, "bu tai fang bian” ["it’s not convenient"] instead of just saying no.

Outside of America, you have to read between the lines a bit. We'll be a little more ke qi ["polite"]. In Asia, "no” means yes, "I'm not sure" means “please go for it,” “I don't want it” means "I expect you to offer it to me." In America, it's like, "If you ask me to go for it, I'm just going to take everything."

You have this whole segment on state mottoes. Do you feel that, generally speaking, immigrants sometimes know more about this country than native-born do?

(Laughs.) In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. If you're an immigrant to this country, you've seen more. You've seen outside of America and when you come I think you do some research, whereas if you grow up in a place you don't really do research on your own place as much. But if you're American, you understand the nuances of America more than an immigrant would. There's something to be said about unspoken local knowledge of a place, as opposed to researched local knowledge.

You also have a segment about needing an Asian president. Although you never mention him by name, you were one of the first people to interview Andrew Yang on TV. You kicked off that segment last March by joking that his platform only needs to be "being Asian." How much do you think that's part of his appeal for some of his Asian supporters?

I can't speak for everybody, but for me personally, I think there is some excitement in seeing an Asian person run for higher office. Isn't there some excitement, whatever his political leanings are? Here's a good guy who's running, and now he's more than just a fringe candidate. He's a pretty mainstream candidate at this point. Regardless of what happens at the end, I think he is inspiring to a lot of young people. I think there are a lot of jaded Asians, but if you're a young Asian kid, imagine seeing that and going, "Oh yeah, I could run for president." It was a punchline before. It was a joke. I know, because I wrote that joke.

Why do you think his campaign has come as far as it has?

In my opinion, he’s speaking about 21st century problems and suggesting 21st century solutions. He seems to be a technocrat, kind of pragmatic. In my special, I’m half-joking about an Asian president just being a pragmatic solutions guy. I think people are responding to that, the idea that he's not ideological. He's just solutions-focused, and his solutions are progressive. He's not a career politician, so there's a lot of overlap between him and, dare I say, Trump supporters. He's appealing to the same group of people who are displaced by technology. He's speaking to a problem, namely the loss of jobs, and actually speaking realistically about why that's happening. He's trying to tell people, "Listen, it's not immigrants. It's the freaking robots taking the jobs, the automation."

How significant do you think it is to have Asian people like yourself and Hasan Minhaj tackling politics?

I focus more on the work, so I don't really stop to pat myself on the back, but now that you mention it, I guess it is significant. I'm very lucky to have a platform to discuss this stuff on The Daily Show. Someone has to represent this perspective, and I'm lucky to be the person to do it. You don't have to be Asian to talk about these issues, but you need someone with that perspective, hopefully as many as possible.

You're representing an Asian perspective to the general audience, but you could potentially also be helping Asian Americans become more politically engaged.

Yeah, maybe. I'd like to see the stats, though. I feel like people are more engaged than you would assume. Especially the younger people. I think the last stat I saw was that the Asian American vote is the fastest growing. I know that's a measure of acceleration, not actual impact, but that's significant, I think.

The idea that people are very apathetic, I thought the same thing, and then I went to Chinatown to do that Jesse Watters [Fox News] piece. I thought, one, no one would know about it and two, no one would want to talk about it. But the opposite was the case. People were lining up around the block to talk to me.

Do you write jokes for an Asian audience? International? American?

No, no. There's no separation. I don't want to pander. I'm not going to just talk about Asian stuff to get Asian people on board or not talk about Asian stuff so that white people get on board. I talk about what I want and hope everyone gets on board. If they don't, then I don't work on that joke.

On a serious note, I also want to talk about Australia and what's happening there. You went to college and law school there, and you’ve been vocal about criticizing the leadership for the fires raging on the continent. [Editor's note: Chieng didn’t mention it, but a source tells THR he also has donated to fire relief.]

You don't want to blame people for natural disasters, but instead of taking the advice of the professionals in the fire industry, the leadership in Australia ignored them and didn't bolster the firefighting force. They cut funding and basically have been really bad on climate change issues. You can't even say that they did everything they could and something terrible happened. It was more like, They weren't prepared, and then the worst happened. I lived there for 10 years, so I saw this generation of leaders who benefited from free education and free health care, and tried to end it for future generations. They killed the Great Barrier Reef, they fucked up the national broadband network. These guys, they're not people with a lot of foresight.