Published Jul 23, 2019Comedian Ronny Chieng is walking outside, and the hustle and bustle of New York City is coming through loud and clear over the phone.
Originally from Malaysia, of Chinese descent, Chieng has lived in places like Singapore and New Hampshire and earned dual law and commerce degrees from the University of Melbourne. He's been in New York since he started as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah some four years ago, and rightly has a rather worldly perspective.
"Canada reminds me a lot of Australia," Chieng says, when asked about returning to Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival for shows between July 23 and 25. "It's socialist, people know how to take care of other people. It's got that chill, European vibe. But for me, yeah, it reminds me of Australia."
As he's recounted more than a few times since he began pursuing standup in 2009, Chieng got into comedy because he wanted to be an attorney.
"There was a comedy competition at law school and I signed up to do it. Every year I would sign up and then chicken out and then my final year, I showed up.
"It's nerve-wracking every time you do it, but especially the first time," he says of standup. "I didn't think I could do it, but that final year, I thought 'It's now or never.' I remember being nervous all day and doing the show at night. Halfway through, I forgot something and it felt like five minutes, but it was actually more like three seconds. And I ended up winning the competition."
There seem to be some parallels between the way lawyers and comedians conduct themselves. In particular, each tend to be strong orators who must use their wits and evidence to compel judges, jurors, their colleagues and audience members to see their points of view.
"I've been answering these questions for ten years and that's the first time I've heard someone put it like that," Chieng says. "The competitive aspect — no one's brought that up and it's an interesting thought. With law, we like to think it's about outwitting the opponent, but the real day-to-day practice of it is not really about outsmarting someone else. It's more about who can do the most mundane thing the quickest.
"So the kind of matching wits in, like, A Few Good Men, 99 percent of the time it's not that at all," he explains. "It's not much of a matching of wits that carries law into comedy, but there are a definitely a love of words and explaining an argument. Because I think really good comedy is making an argument and a lot of times, it's a warped idea or premise that is contrary to common society's belief. But then you say it and make an argument with your own internal logic. That's the kind of comedy I like and that would be a parallel."
In the twisted, dark comedy of contemporary American politics, lawyers have made up a good chunk of the rogue's gallery of spokespeople and experts. Whether it's Michael Cohen or Rudy Giuliani or any number of 24-hour news talking heads, the world has encountered a number of weird lawyers.
"Yeah, I think lawyers are generally pretty weird," Chieng agrees. "You've got a mixture of type A personalities and they have a high opinion of themselves. You've got ego and basic levels of intelligence. But I mean, comedy has the most weirdoes of any profession.
"But if you're asking me about this current administration, I think there's a bunch of weirdoes representing America right now who, quite frankly, aren't the best of the best. In any industry, you want the best of the best representing you. That's not always possible for various reasons, but in government, it's quite rare to see this many people who are this incompetent. I don't think anyone with money and in their right mind would hire any of these people to do any work for them."
When prodded for his own opinion, as a law graduate, comedian and media satirist, about how these legal figures seem to be getting away with their overt hypocrisy and brazen bending of the laws to make their points, Chieng says this cuts to the heart of the matter.
"What you just asked is really the million dollar question in America right now. What we're seeing is really testing what America is. Is it a country where the rhetoric does or doesn't matter? We keep seeing these people saying ridiculous things, but on the ground level, to some extent, the country ticks on. Banks are open, people wake up and are going to work.
"So, it's a very weird time and there's a real disconnect in terms of what plays out in the media and what's happening on the ground level. And so, it's interesting trying to figure out what that means. Does it mean that the media isn't real? Does it mean we should care about rhetoric, because it does effect people on the ground level in a way that isn't tangible? Is there something intangible building on a practical day-to-day level?
"The cynical people often argue that it doesn't matter who you vote for. Do the past four years change our minds on that? Like, it does matter — symbols matter, who represents you does matter. These are important questions that need to be answered."
See Ronny Chieng at Just for Laughs in Montreal between July 23 and 25.
Listen to this interview with Ronny Chieng on the Kreative Kontrol podcast on Apple Podcasts or below: