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On Set | Ronny Chieng

By Mitchell Kuga

Like much of his comedy, Ronny Chieng’s contribution to our video series “Tell T a Joke” highlights the absurdities of American culture with the prickliness of an immigrant and the timeliness of a news junkie. Born in Malaysia, and raised between New Hampshire and Singapore, the New York-based comedian embodies the perspective of the perpetual outsider peering anxiously through the looking glass. Instead of encouraging him to assimilate, Chieng says, his international upbringing only prompted him to become more himself — stereotypes of Asian submission be damned. “As a grumpy person,” he says, “when someone says that people of your race are not supposed to be grumpy, it just makes me grumpier.”

This disposition has served him well in Hollywood, where he played the obnoxious financier Eddie Cheng in “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), and as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Chieng performs the role of obnoxious journalist, interrogating cryptocurrency and climate change with the same slapstick venom he uses to deride deep-dish pizza (“I said I wanted pizza, not some Italian guy’s dump on a plate.”) At times, his outrage is fuelled by empathy. In 2016, he responded to a racist Fox News segment that mocked inhabitants of New York’s Chinatown by conducting his own on-the-street interviews with Chinatown residents about American politics, often in Mandarin.

Earlier this month, Chieng debuted his one-hour stand-up special “Asian Comedian Destroys America!” on Netflix. He sees the title as a meta-commentary on the West, playing on the word “destroy” as both a term of endearment — You destroyed that set! — and a nod to yellow peril, or the racist fear, originating at the turn of the 20th century, that Asian immigrants posed an existential threat to Western society. “Or maybe I just came up with something funny and I’m just trying to explain it retroactively,” he admits. “It came from Netflix telling me I’m not famous enough and I need a title to get people to click on the icon. Despite the title’s proclamation, though, Chieng sees the special as a test. “I’m still trying to find out if I’m funny,” he says. “Like, am I actually good at this or not?”

Onstage in the special, wearing an amused grimace, he explains why America needs more Asians, and makes the case for an Asian-American president: “Man or woman, we will fix this,” he says, “in a week.” But don’t mistake his pontificating for activism. “I’m just trying to write what I think is funny,” he says. “I’m just trying to have as authentic a reaction as possible to something.” In the process, Chieng shares insights about America that only an immigrant could, or as he sneers onstage: “You’re going to let this [expletive] foreigner teach you about your country?”