Ronny Chieng, comedian

I’m six years in and I feel like I’m in a good place ...

It’s almost midnight in Canada and comedian Ronny Chieng is only just launching into his set of interviews for the evening. This comes after spending the first part of his night entertaining the jolly hordes at the invitation-only Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. Six years ago, with his head buried deep in commerce and law textbooks, it would have been impossible for the university student to imagine he would soon be spending his nights like this. But after nailing his very first stand-up gig by taking out first place in a university comedy competition back in 2009, a very different career path unfolded before Ronny. Now the multi award-winning comedian is touring the world, selling out shows and opening for his comedy heroes. The talent will be bringing back his hit Brisbane Comedy Festival show You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About for one show only at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Saturday November 7. In the lead-up to his return, The Weekend Edition put in the call to talk pre-show nerves and vomiting.

How has your international tour been going so far; have you been dazzling the Canadians with your wit?
Yeah it’s been going ok! It’s a little different to what we’re used to in Australia because it’s not one-hour shows, usually you do ten-minutes slots. I’ve been pretty lucky, I just opened for Bill Burr, one of my comedy heroes, and I got to do the Jane Lynch Gala.

It’s exciting to hear you’re coming back to Brisbane in November – what can you tell us about your show You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About?
Well I did the show earlier this year at the Brisbane Comedy Festival and it went really well, it sold out two theatres, so we thought we’d bring it back. It’s the same show, but more refined, it’s like an encore season. It doesn’t really have much of a story but the title is pretty self-explanatory – I like to put a little double meaning in it – I’m talking about people who don’t know what they’re talking about but I’m also referring to myself. So in summary, no one knows what they’re talking about!

Is it the kind of show we can bring our grandmas to, or are they safer left at home?
Yeah you can bring grandmas! I’m not sure if they’ll get some of the tech stuff but I don’t think it’s an offensive show, it’s not dirty or anything …

You recently sold out a bunch of Comedy Festival shows here in Australia and you’ve got gigs coming up in Edinburgh next month and London in September – does it feel surreal knowing that so many people around the world think you’re hilarious?
Yeah I guess it does! I can’t believe people come to watch this. I can’t believe people come to watch this in Australia. So yeah, it does blow my mind.

Do you ever get nervous before you get on stage, especially at those sold-out shows?
Always! At the solo shows when I do a bunch in a row I can get some rhythm so I get less nervous, but gigs like I did today at the Jane Lynch Gala and opening for Bill Burr – that stuff makes me nervous!

Do you have any pre-show rituals to help get rid of the nerves?
Yeah, I vomit a little bit in my mouth, and then I swallow it back, and I drink a lot of water and pace around, and if people try to talk to me I yell at them … I need to keep to myself before shows, that’s how I deal with nerves.

Do comedians get that same feeling musicians and actors talk about when they’re ‘in the zone’ on stage?
Yeah, you get in the zone in a couple of ways. The way I see it, there are three forms of being in the zone for comedy. One is when you know your material so well and you hit your marks, when you’ve got your timing and delivery and intonation and wording – everything is on point. The second way you can be in the zone is if you’re doing so much you have like an out-of-body experience, which is bad. You’re doing the act but you’re not even thinking about it, you’re thinking of something else and you can see yourself on stage almost, so you have to quickly snap back into the moment. That’s a bad kind of zone. And the third one is just firing, when you can improvise on the spot and everything you say is funny. For whatever reason, your synapses are on fire. 

You were born in Malaysia and raised between Manchester, America and Singapore – what can you remember from your childhood?
It was cool, those were my first memories growing up, with snow and in a small apartment but at the time I thought it was huge. The thing about time is that when you’re younger, time passes really slow because it’s relative, so one hour when you’re four years old is a LONG time. That’s what I remember. I remember days being longer – it felt like forever – and now an hour passes by really quickly because you can compare it.

What were you like as a kid? Were you funny even back then?
I don’t think I was funny … It’s hard for me to tell though, you should probably ask my mum! 

Your studied commerce and law at The University of Melbourne – were you planning to do that as a full-time career, or was that the back-up while you pursued comedy?
Oh no, I was going to do that – I’d never thought about doing comedy. I just did a gig at the university, it was a comedy competition and I won it, and then I just kept getting more and more gigs.

And now here you are!
Yeah, six years later I’m opening for Bill Burr! It’s crazy.

Looking forward, what would you love to be doing in 10 years’ time? What’s the big dream?
I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve been able to do some pretty cool stuff already, like I’ve opened for Dave Chappelle, I got to go to Just For Laughs, I got to do Melbourne Town Hall during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I think there’s still more cool stuff to do but it’s hard for me to speculate on ambitions like that, but what I know now is that I’m six years in and I feel like I’m in a good place. So that’s my ambition I guess – just to keep making cool stuff. I don’t want to do anything that’s lame or that I don’t want to do or that I don’t find interesting. There’s always push and pull backs, but I’m in a pretty good zone now where I do have more control.

Catch up … there’s a cool Korean fried chicken and beer place in Melbourne called Gami.
Drink … Bar Americano. It’s a little hidden bar in an alley in Melbourne. It’s one of my favourite places to go during Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It’s quiet, there’s no music, it’s standing only, it’s very small and it’s a nice place to talk.
Be inspired … I’m on tour a lot and in every city I go to, there’s a cool spot. Lately, I’ve been feeling quite in harmony with going into nature – I’ve been climbing up peaks, like in Montreal there’s a mountain near the centre of the city and I’ve been climbing up that.

Image by Kristian Dowling.


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