'Watch it before I get sued': The Daily Show's Ronny Chieng on his new pilot

Since being whisked to New York for a role as Trevor Noah’s correspondent, the Australian comedian has been keeping busy with his own show, International Student

In September last year, the week of his 30th birthday, Ronny Chieng was announced as one of the new-look Daily Show’s three correspondents. The Melbourne comedian was whisked away to New York and made his on-air debut with Trevor Noah a month later.

Six months on, speaking over the phone on a fleeting visit to Melbourne, it sounds like he hasn’t had a moment to catch his breath.

It’s pretty intense, he says – which is not to say that he didn’t expect it to be intense, because he did. And it is. He’s not surprised by how intense it is.

“I think I’m getting better every time I do it,” he says of The Daily Show. “I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Working on television at that kind of pace, at that kind of level, with that kind of pressure – that’s new to me.”

Chieng is relaxed about the glitz and glamour – perceived, at least – of working in television in New York. “We’re pretty down-to-earth at The Daily Show. Everyone is pretty sane. We don’t party crazy.”

To hear him talk about the schedule, it’s no wonder. “That’s the thing about The Daily Show – we’re doing four shows a week so we can’t be too precious about what’s going on.

“If it went really well, you go, ‘that’s great’ and you move on to the next show. If it didn’t, you say, ‘oh well’ and you move on to the next show. ... That’s the one thing the show has taught me – to do the best job you can.”

There must be some comfort in the fact that all three correspondents are in it together. Chieng, actor Desi Lydic and comedian Roy Wood joined at the same time, as Noah took the reins of the show from long-standing host Jon Stewart.

It’s a “new era” for the show as a whole, he says. “Every time we do the show, we learn something. It’s a new show and it’s a new host and we’re learning. We care. We give a fuck about what we do. We put a lot of effort into making the show good. Do we experiment? We do. We try out new segments and new formats and new ways of doing things. There’s definitely a concerted effort to try new things.”

Chieng has been trying new things outside of the Daily Show, too: his first comedy pilot airs on Wednesday night as part of the ABC’s Comedy Showroom.

The initiative – the first of its kind in Australian television – asks audiences to choose which of six specially commissioned pilots is made into a full TV series. All six shows – by Chieng, Eddie Perfect (The Future is Expensive), The Katering Show’s Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney (Bleak), Lawrence Mooney (Moonman), Alison Bell (The Letdown), and the Western Australian comedy team Mad Kids (The Legend of Gavin Tanner) – will be available to view on ABC iView from 9.30pm Wednesday.

Ronny Chieng (centre) in International Student
‘You don’t have to be an international student to get this story’: Ronny Chieng (centre) on his TV pilot International Student. Photograph: Supplied

International Student is Chieng’s first production as co-creator, co-writer and star and is informed by his years as a student from Malaysia at the University of Melbourne, where part of the show was filmed.

“We all came here for a few years, we studied, then all my friends left – they went back to Singapore, Malaysia. It almost feels like a dream. I wanted to capture that moment for the record.”

With education Australia’s second-largest services export sector, it’s relatable for many whose stories aren’t often told. But, Chieng hastens to add, he’s “not trying to make a political point with it”.

“You don’t have to be an international student to get this story, I hope, or Asian or a student. This story is about that weird period of life where everyone’s trying to fit in, and it’s OK not to.”

Asked about what he looked to for inspiration, he rattles off a list of some of the best shows on television: Louie (because of the autobiographical element), Community (set at a university – and it’s “very silly”), Scrubs (that absurdist tone), Broad City (its pace and its humour). “I tried to make the best television I could – cool television without ego,” he says.

Chieng’s character Ronny is a version of himself, “exaggerated for comic effect”. But the character of his fellow students hit a little closer to home.

“You should watch the pilot before I get sued and it gets taken down,” he says. “University characters are prime for parody, you know – the self-entitled rich kids to the self-important protestors to the international students.”

Chieng himself existed at the intersection of international students and nerds: “I crossed over a little bit to the Australians, but I could never blend in as well as, like, a local student. But no one fits in at university, right?

“No one really does,” he says, warming to his theme. “You get older and you know who you are better and you stop giving a fuck. You hang around people who are positive and who make you happy, and you stop hanging out with people who don’t.

“Some people become nasty people and some people don’t. It’s as unique as a fingerprint.”

  • International Student premieres on 27 April at 9pm on ABC TV. From 9.30pm, all six pilots in Comedy Showroom will be available to watch – and vote for – on iView


Elle Hunt

The GuardianTramp

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