Comedian Ronny Chieng jokingly describes himself as "down to earth," despite having won international comedy awards and sold out shows all over the world. He's opened for legends like Dave Chappelle and Bull Burr, and performed at Montreal's Just For Laughs Comedy Festival twice in the past.
This year, Chieng joins fellow comics Rachid Badouri, Frank Spadone, Ahmed Ahmed, Dan Naturman, Gina Yashere, and their host, Alonzo Bodden, for The Ethnic Show.
The Ethnic Show features a handpicked line-up of some of the best and most diverse voices in contemporary comedy, running July 8–19 at Club Soda.
Tony Hinds: How are you feeling? I know this is not your first time at Just For Laughs.
Ronny Chieng: No, but in many ways, it's still a new experience for me. This is my third time. My first two... most people just came here for two or three days, but The Ethnic Show runs for like three and a half weeks. I'm already really enjoying being in the city of Montreal right now. I'm gonna be here for like three weeks, so I'll get to properly explore it. They have very savvy audiences here. The Montreal crowds are comedy savvy and want to be there.
TH: You live in Australia and perform a lot overseas in Asia and the UK. Do you ever have to recalibrate your set for North American audiences?
RC: Yes and no. You just have to watch yourself with cultural references. I can't speak for the others, but I know they're very high level. I mean, you don't get invited to Just For Laughs unless you're very high level. But for myself, I keep my stuff pretty universal. The nationality of the audience shouldn't really matter and in my experience, hasn't really mattered.
TH: You know, I'm reminded of the first thing I ever saw of your stand up, which was the clip about helping your mom delete a YouTube comment. That's a brilliantly universal premise. By the way, that's literally a moment from my life! You dialed in on that perfectly!
RC: Thanks a lot. And if you remember that joke, there's even a Singapore reference in there, which is where my parents are from, and it didn't even matter.
TH: Exactly! It still works beautifully. How long have you been doing stand-up?
RC: Only about six years. I started in March 2009.
TH: How did you first get on stage?
RC: I was in University in law school in Australia and it was my final year and there was a campus stand up comedy competition. I just joined it because I thought it was something I could do and I just wanted to confirm my suspicions. It was my final year of university and I sort of told myself it was my last chance to do it. So I signed up and won the competition. Then, I just kept hustling for more and more gigs and kept getting gigs and then, six years later, you end up at Just For Laughs. I'd keep getting more and more gigs, better gigs and as I'd get better gigs, I was getting better. Also, I couldn't get a job, so I just kept doing comedy. *Laughs*
TH: *Laughs* And these days, the business of stand-up comedy has become very entwined with podcasting.
RC: Yeah, I do a podcast on my website but I don't do it as regularly as I should. It's not every week, I do one every couple months. I should probably get my game together on that. I don't think it's cheesy or lame... well, because... I don't know... I sometimes lump podcasting into that social media category. Social media can sometimes be pretty lame because you're making five second videos so the audience will come watch a one hour show. To me, I don't think that computes. I think those are two different mediums.
But I do think podcasting lends itself very well to comedy and it helps build an audience because I've seen it happen. I'm sure you know, there are great podcasters, like Dave Anthony or Bill Burr. Essentially, Bill Burr is touring theaters off the back of his podcast. He doesn't really have a TV show vehicle to his name, but his podcast is hilarious! It's super funny. I'm a huge fan of his. It's easier to do and it's the logical thing to do. That being said, it takes time to find your voice in a podcast, just like anything else. It takes some practice. but I think it's a worthwhile product. I'm surprised how loyal of a following you can build through a podcast. If they listen regularly and it's a good product, then they get invested and want to come out to live shows. They feel like they know you.
TH: Yeah, they must feel like they've spent so much time with you.
RC: Yeah, totally. I mean, there are a few guys... one of the examples off the top of my head is Wil Anderson. He's one of the biggest comics in Australia and he hosts TV shows and does stand up. He's been writing a new hour every year for the last twenty years. I've met fans who, despite all his TV credits and many years of stand up, they knew of him but had never came to see him live until they started listening to his podcast. It's pretty interesting to see what actually makes people come out and watch comedy.
TH: I think what you said about social media is common with comedians. Many comics seem to be very reluctant to self promote. Almost like it just feels wrong.
RC: I get that with social media and I'm trying to get better with it. Like, dude, I'm a big computer guy. I'm not a Luddite. The reason why I hesitate to use social media is that I feel it's pretty arrogant to assume people want to know that stuff about me. That's why I always go, maybe I shouldn't be tweeting this or promoting that. Because it feels like I'm interfering with people's lives.
The other side of the coin and I'm trying to get better on this, is that it's your job as a comic to promote. Your job is to do comedy and come get people to see you do comedy. The huge upside is that you can get your stuff out there to more people and build a fan base. It's challenging because you do have to keep creating content on multiple mediums and self promoting. I mean, I'm not just talking Twitter messages. If you have an hour special, you can put it out there and people can buy it and that's cool! That's something no one had before. You have to take the good with the bad, I think.
TH: On that note, when you say good... what have been some of your career highlights so far? Like, any fondest memories?
RC: Oh, I got a couple, man. It probably doesn't mean anything to someone outside of Australia, but the first time I got to sell out this really big venue at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. I don't know what a good analogy is... like someone selling out the Apollo Theater in New York. At the festival, you're already doing like twenty shows. And to sell out the biggest venue after already doing twenty shows, that was really cool for me. I got some pretty cool awards from Melbourne.
Opening for Dave Chappelle. Just meeting him. He's a very friendly, very encouraging, very profound man. Opening for Bill Burr was great. He's super friendly and down to earth and very encouraging. He invited me to his house in L.A. and he's so down to earth. He talked to me like a regular guy. Lots of those money can't buy things. And also the first couple times I was invited to Montreal were really exciting, those were pretty special moments. Getting on The Late Late Show this year. My late night U.S. television debut, that was pretty cool. I've had a couple wins but I'm still grinding away at it. That's the thing, like, there is no American Idol moment. There is no one thing that will just blow you up. You just have to keep working.
TH: Before we wrap up, I have to ask... what was like working with Bob Saget?
RC: *Laughs* Oh man! He was great! I only hung with him very briefly during the show. Super friendly man, could not be more welcoming. I watched this guy on Full House when I was a kid, so this was a huge thrill. And I never do this, but I just had to take a photo just to show my parents. They're big fans of his. Before the show, the promoters told me to keep it 100% clean. Which I have no problem with, I can. But I said to Bob before the show, "So you want me to keep it clean?" He said, "No, say whatever you want, man. I don't give a f***." He just let me do whatever I wanted.
There was something he said that was very endearing. I was supposed to do a ten minute set, but he said: "Do fifteen, seventeen, do twenty minutes, I don't even care. Take your time out there." And then he said: "When you're done, stay out there and get your applause." To be honest, I don't usually care about the applause, especially when I'm opening for someone else. I just want to do my s*** and get off. I'm just there to entertain people while they're still sitting down. But he said: "No, I used to open for Rodney Dangerfield..." I can't remember what he said... he either said Rodney never let him take his applause, or Rodney always let him take his applause. It's one of those two. *Laughs* He was really adamant about it. "Make sure you take your applause, man." That was really cool. He was great, he gave me his email address. *Laughs*
Audiences can also catch Ronny Chieng performing live later this year at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival from Aug. 7–31 at at the Underbelly at Cowgate, and at the SOHO Theater in London, England from Sept. 1–12.
Check out RonnyChieng.com for tickets and more info.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.