SXSW Interview: The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng on how Australia shaped his comedy for America

Set to return to Australia for dates in July, comedian Ronny Chieng has been making a name for himself in the USA as a correspondent on the Comedy Central series The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. While at SXSW last week I had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about that role, how it and his time in Australia shaped his comedy and why Australia’s comedy scene is one of the best in the world.

We’re sitting in the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library, which is a hilarious and terrifying exhibition. This has happened a couple of other times before South By Southwest (SXSW) though hasn’t it?

Yeah. We did it in Miami. We did one in Chicago. Obviously we did one in New York. I think we did one more. We’ve done it a few times.

Does it change much where it goes? 

Yeah, we always find new ways to put it together, and things to add. It’s always a different venue obviously, so it’s always cool to see how they fit in into these really cool venues. There’s some really beautiful ones. This one (The Driskill Hotel) looks really cool. It’s very, like look at the American flags and all that. Yeah.

It’s very regal.

The detail! The venues they find for this are awesome. Every time you come, it’s a slightly different experience, which is kind of cool.

You’ve been with The Daily Show for a few years now. How have you found your role within the show to grow over that time? And obviously being with the show from the start of its current iteration, how has the show itself evolved?

Wow, no one’s actually ever asked me that. You’d think by now they would have.

I think, just like I’ll make an analogy to sports. When you form a new team, everyone has to learn, know their role, learn their role on the team. Maybe you’re the three-point shooter and you come off the bench, whatever it is. I feel like three and a half years in now, those of us who’ve been here for three and a half years, we know our position on the team, what we’re playing. And then it’s a question of sometimes playing out of position or doing more than our position.

Creatively, you feel creatively you’re doing something different. But at our base level, we know, okay, this is what we’re here for. These are our strengths on the show. This is what we’re good at. This is what we like doing. There’s two general parts to the job, which is the studio work and then the field work. Those are two very different muscles.

How long can go into a field piece? How long can that process take?

It can take a while. Roughly you would say it’s a month, a field piece, but sometimes it’s in edit for longer just because it’s not urgent, so they push it back. But I would say generally it takes about one month to do a field piece, like all out. You can do it shorter.

Then, you fit in shows in Australia in between.

Yeah, and every field piece is kind of like an indie film. That’s how Hasan Minhaj first explained it to me when I joined the show. He said, think of it like every field piece is like an independent film with a beginning, middle and end, when you’re in the edit. You’re in the field shooting it. You’re writing it beforehand. You’re writing it afterwards. I don’t know how many people realise, you learn so much just doing field pieces. You learn so much about film production. You learn writing, improv, acting, cinematography, editing, sound. It’s a complete film school experience. I don’t think most people realise it, and that’s why all these Daily Show producers, field show producers get snapped up because they’re multi-faceted people. Every job is hard, but the producing job requires a lot of skill sets, just like the correspondents’ skill sets.

I grew up watching Jon Stewart. But both of us  lived in North America as kids. You were in New Hampshire?

Yeah, yeah.

Because of that, do you think that you naturally have more of an American view on things that may have made The Daily Show a more comfortable fit? 

Yeah, I have nothing to compare it to, so I don’t really know if being in America affected us, me, more than it would have if I wasn’t there. Undoubtedly, it did. It always made me more US-centric in my following of politics and comedy sensibilities.

Also, in Australia, we kind of, which is kind of the joke … part of my new show I’m talking about in Australia is how we, in Australia, we always look to America for pop culture and sports references and all that. It’s nothing different. The whole world kind of has context when you talk about America. When you talk about outside of America to Americans, they don’t really have context for what’s going on. I don’t know. That’s a result of exporting culture or geographic, just the way America’s a bit more US-centric.

That’s normal, I think, that I don’t know whether moving to America, living in America, affected that. I think we naturally just look at American TV and sports and politics more.

And how do you find that what you’re doing on The Daily Show is translating within Australia?

I started doing stand-up comedy in Australia, so I got … a lot of my sensibilities and style and so forth come from Australia. I was there for like 10 years. I lived there for 10 years. I was doing stand-up comedy there.

Melbourne is a great place to earn your chops as a comedian.

I think so, yeah. The comedy festival is great. Great platform. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Sydney Comedy Festival. There’s comedy festivals everywhere now, Canberra, Gold Coast just started a comedy festival, I was just there, Brisbane Comedy Festival, Perth Comedy Festival. Yeah, these are all really good platforms. I think as self-deprecating as we are towards our own market, it’s actually like a great place for comedy. You can do your own venues and if you do it right, you can tour on your own name, in your own venues, and people come watch your own show.

They didn’t even really have that here in America. Here, to achieve that, you would have to have high profile in movies and TV. Whereas in Australia, we all did it without TV. There was no TV for us. We couldn’t get on TV to save our lives.

There was Rove. That was about it.

Yeah. The whole generation of me, Matt Okine, Nazeem, Nazeem had TV shows, so that’s slightly different, but Nick Cody, Damien Power, Mel Buttle, all of us, we didn’t have TV. And we managed to have a career doing live comedy and that’s something that’s very Australian. They don’t do that in Canada. They do that in the UK, but in Australia, we have infrastructure for comedy like that, so it’s interesting, yeah.

I hope I answered the question okay.

You certainly did. So to sum it all up, you couldn’t have done it without Australia and you’re now the Stephen Curry of the The Daily Show team.

*laughs* exactly!

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Ronny Chieng has the following rescheduled dates in Australia and New Zealand this July.

AUCKLAND, Bruce Mason Centre – Wednesday 3 July, 7.30PM
SYDNEY, Enmore Theatre – Friday 5 July, 7PM
MELBOURNE, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre – Saturday 6 July, 7PM & 9PM
CANBERRA, Canberra Theatre – Tuesday 9 July, 7.30PM

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah airs nightly on the Comedy Channel on Foxtel in Australia and on Comedy Central in the USA.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.