By Jason Chen
Photos by Meredith Jenks
The first thing Ronny Chieng does when we meet is apologize. We’re grabbing a coffee near the Daily Show office, and he may be apologizing because the cafe he picked is too crowded to sit, or because he’s (not even five minutes) late. Someone more cynical might see it as a performance for a writer doing a profile, but these un-Hollywood moments keep punctuating the next hour we spend together — when he makes small talk with the Daily Show security guys once we make our way over, when he coos at a colleague’s baby we pass in the hall, when he pulls out his phone to look up the name of this great Taiwanese restaurant when I tell him I’m Taiwanese (it’s 886). You’d almost forget that Ronny Chieng has had, by any measure, a huge 2018. He co-starred in one of the year’s biggest movies (Crazy Rich Asians earned $234 million worldwide), is now in his third year as a correspondent on increasingly essential Daily Show, and, yes, he still travels the country doing stand-up comedy.
“Oh, man, I definitely feel like I’m still working to get there,” says the 33-year-old Chieng, when I ask him what it feels like to be a recognizably famous person now. “It’s ongoing.” What looks like overnight success — of course — hasn’t been. Born in Malaysia, Chieng grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire (his parents attended college there after Ronny was born) as well as Singapore before he attended the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College and earning two degrees in commerce and law in 2009. After college, Chieng pursued stand-up comedy in Australia (successfully, he adds) for six years before landing at the Daily Show as a correspondent in 2015.
“You work at the Daily Show and you get to see all aspects of television-making, from editing and producing to live interviewing and presenting,” says Chieng, “It’s like a masters course in comedy writing.” One of Chieng’s earliest breakthroughs — the first time you may have learned his name — came in October 2016, when Chieng responded with comedic but genuine outrage to an O’Reilly Factor segment in which correspondent Jesse Watters mockingly interviewed elderly Chinatown residents who couldn’t speak English. You can spot in Chieng’s delivery — fast, high-decibel, edged with sarcasm — glimmers of the insecure, hot-tempered Edison Cheng, Chieng’s character in Crazy Rich Asians.
We have to talk about Crazy Rich Asians. The first studio film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, it is now the sixth highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time (surpassing The Proposal and Sleepless in Seattle). It’s impossible to overstate the power of a film that allows for the expansiveness of Asianness: it’s got heroes and villains, nerds and hunks, ice queens and comedic relief, all Asian and none tokenized. In a cultural moment when the Emmys have only just this year nominated someone of Asian descent for lead actress in a drama series (Sandra Oh in Killing Eve), or when a recent study showed that Asians represent only 3 percent of film roles (they’re 6 percent of the country’s population), Crazy Rich Asians’s mere existence, much less success, is a wonder.
“It’s funny how things changed after that one movie,” says Chieng. “You put all this time and energy into writing and acting in this show and all its episodes” — Chieng’s referring to his Comedy Central online series Ronny Chieng: International Student, which debuted last year — “and then you go do this movie for a couple weeks and it doesn’t even compare to the level of recognition. It just shows you the power of films.” I ask him if it’s hard to walk down the street now, but he tells me that no, he and his wife still find it easy to move through New York, doing all the things they enjoy: going to basketball games, riding Citi Bike around town, or eating at one of the many restaurants Chieng has saved on his phone downtown. I’d read that Chieng liked food, but I’m not prepared for the degree of his meticulousness. When I tell him where my office is, he pulls out his iPhone to tell me about a cafe near it, and his Google maps looks like it’s been dusted with confetti: every green saved location represents a place he wants to try, every red one a place he loves. There’s Tia Pol, Greecologies, Two Hands, Hudson Bar and Books, Soho Cigar Bar (“You don’t even have to smoke cigars to enjoy the vibe.”)
There’s a certain regard Chieng has for good taste. You can see it in his clothes — the trim chinos that end right at the ankle, the quality cotton T-shirts, the tailored two-button suits. Lately, Chieng’s taken to wearing the suits for his comedy routines, too; the aesthetic leans toward the classically grown-up rather than a trend with a six-month half-life. “I think the beauty of stand-up comedy is that there’s no right answer,” says Chieng, “but for me, sometimes stand-up can be very stripped-down, and so it’s nice to dress it up and give it a sense of occasion. I want someone to feel like they’re coming to an actual show rather than some guy who just rolled off his sofa.”
Chieng’s even got into selling accessories himself. If you go to one of his shows (or even if you don’t, because there’s e-commerce now), you can get Ronny Chieng socks emblazoned with cartoons of his face. When Chieng first started as a comedian, the merchandise was part of the joke. He would sell Ronny notepads and chopsticks and wristbands but “after a while, I didn’t want to sell any of the nonsense because was only going to end up in a river somewhere, and it just wasn’t my brand anymore,” Chieng says. So he stopped selling merchandise for a while until he decided he could make something people would actually use. Chieng hit on socks and made some with his face on them to sell at his last Australian tour. They flew off the shelves, and now they’ve become a signature. It’s the comedian’s way of reminding people that even though he wears one, he’s no suit. “I like the idea of being very classic or wearing solids and then having just a little bit of a colorful pattern. When I was in the buttoned-up corporate world, you could get away with wearing crazy socks,” Chieng says. “It’s a way of being subtly subversive.”
Jason Chen is a writer/editor at New York magazine. He lives in Brooklyn and spends most of his time wondering whether his dog’s behavior is normal.