One morning in early October, Ronny Chieng showed up to work at The Daily Show’s office, just like he had every Monday to Thursday since he was hired as a senior correspondent in September of 2015. Except, that day would be different. A video that aired the previous night on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor was making the rounds online. It was an on-the-street interview segment called “Watters’ World,” in which Jesse Watters—under the guise of humor—went to Chinatown in Manhattan, New York to get a sense of how Chinese voters felt about Donald Trump. In the five minute clip, Watters managed to run through every basic Asian stereotype and find time to stick a microphone in front of an elderly woman who clearly didn’t speak English for the sake of embarrassing her on television.
When Chieng—who is of Chinese descent—saw the video, he processed it in two ways. “As a comic, I was like, this is just lazy comedy,” Chieng says. “As an Asian person, I was like, this is fucking garbage.” As a stand-up comedian himself, Chieng understood that sometimes comedy can cross the line and offend a particular segment of people. But this was nothing but a segment meant to draw out all the stereotypes people attach to Asians. Also, Watters has a track record of embarrassing people without context. “There’s no substance,” Chieng says. “His stuff is outright malicious, which is why we were like, fuck this dude. He’s not a comic who misspoke one time—he’s got priors.”
There were protests outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News. Statements were issued from several organizations and community leaders denouncing Watters’ news segment, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and NYC City Council Member Margaret Chin. The Asian American Journalists Association, along with community leaders, met with Fox News executives at a private meeting at New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America.
The day after Watters’ segment aired, Chieng went with a camera crew to Chinatown at eleven in the morning and spent three hours filming, actually talking to Asian Americans about this year’s election to show that they’re American citizens with informed thoughts and opinions. The video aired that evening on The Daily Show, and according to Comedy Central, reached 23 million people on Facebook.
Seven years ago, Chieng couldn’t have imagined he would be the person to deliver a response for Asian-Americans, let alone be in New York with a job that he calls a dream come true. Born in Malaysia, Chieng spent a part of his childhood in New Hampshire, where he would watch Seinfeld and tell his mom he wanted to do stand-up like Jerry one day. “Then I didn’t do anything about that for twenty years,” Chieng says. His family moved to Singapore, and later, Chieng went to study law at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
In his final year of law school, Chieng signed up for a stand-up comedy competition on campus. His five minutes on stage won him first prize, and soon he started getting comedy gigs around the city on a regular basis. He started doing shows at the Melbourne International Comedy Film Festival, which led to an invite to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. In early 2015, Chieng traveled to Los Angeles to audition for acting roles during pilot season, and also made an appearance on The Late Late Show. When he returned to Australia, his agent informed him The Daily Show wanted him to audition. By September, he was preparing his move to New York.
How Chieng ended up breaking out on The Daily Show feels improbable, but a closer look at his stand-up material shows he was well prepared to respond to Jesse Watters. In his first stand-up special, The Ron Way, he makes plenty of personal observations about being Asian, joking about normalizing the word chink into a socially acceptable term, and vowing to make Chinese people cool again. When his statement draws laughter from the crowd. He responds: “You’re snickering, but you have no idea.”
Most of the one-hour set focuses on the dynamic of being Asian in today’s world, offering a perspective that outsiders might not see. It also tackles the typical stereotypes associated with Asians. Chieng initially shifted away from doing those type of jokes because he felt it was too easy, but after a while on the comedy circuit, he realized a balance was necessary. “At some point, you have to talk about who you are,” he says.
Recalling his comedy career, Chieng tells me about performing in Hong Kong once in front of a crowd filled with expatriates from Australia. Many of them were obnoxious, the type of hecklers who were less friendly, who decided they wanted to enjoy the comedy show on their own terms, even if it meant interrupting the stand-up comedians on stage. It was one of Chieng’s first brushes with being uncomfortable with an audience, but he understood the mindset of the ex-pats and why they felt compelled to assert themselves during the show. “It’s not racism,” Chieng said. “There’s this undercurrent of superiority that we’re here and we can do whatever we want.”
It’s this undercurrent of superiority that is often pervasive in news segments like the one Watters did, where an entire group of people can be ridiculed and embarrassed and then people simply turn around and say, “Why are people so uptight? It was meant to be a joke.” That’s what people who don’t fundamentally view other people on the same level say. That’s what superior people sound like when they talk down to people. I know how you should feel better than you. These people hover over you, and make you feel like your anger is misguided even though you’re in a situation you never asked to be in. People are often not able to see the other side of things, of why things can be offensive, which is why Chieng’s response to Watters mattered.
Chieng received messages from all around the world after the video went viral, thanks to a translated version of the video which got passed around in China. There’s one particular message that stuck with Chieng afterwards, a letter from an Asian American who wrote in about his experiences growing up. In the letter, the fan explained to Chieng that the most offensive comments he received growing up were never from the stereotypical, redneck racist that many people believe can say the most vile things. They were always from the pop-your-collar, rich white guy who would say something in jest, in the guise of a comfortable social setting, and then wonder why anyone would be offended. It was that undercurrent again.
For his part, Watters issued an apology on Twitter: “My man-on-the-street interviews are meant to be taken as tongue-in-cheek and I regret if anyone found offense.” It’s an apology Chieng does not accept. “The tongue-in-cheek thing is unacceptable,” Chieng says. “If you keep doing it over time, it builds up this shitty attitude. That’s why I said ‘fuck you’ as an Asian person [to the Watters video]. This guy keeps saying, ‘Hey it’s harmless, it’s harmless.’ Well, fuck you, because it affects people and people spend their whole lives living with these tongue-in-cheek jokes. I think the guy who wrote me that letter is who I did the video for. It’s those people who’ve been through that.”
Having spent just over a year living in New York, Chieng is still figuring out the dynamic as an Asian in America. “I think when people talk about race relations in America, they talk about African-American and white people,” Chieng said. “Asians are not often brought into the conversation. But there’s a historical legacy of issues between them. It’s hard to be like ‘What about us?’ But we are a little underrepresented.”
He was encouraged by the response to the Watters video as further proof that Asians want to bring awareness to a lot of issues that have bothered them for awhile. But Chieng has also received his own share of criticism. When he first debuted on The Daily Show, many viewers called in to complain about Chieng’s accent, mistakenly thinking he was doing a parody of what an Asian would sound like. “Sometimes, we want Asians in the media but we don’t want them to talk about being Asian,” Chieng tells me. “For me, that’s interesting because I’m from Asia. If you want me to be on television but I can’t be Asian, I’m not being true to myself.”
For now, Chieng is focused on contributing to The Daily Show, a Monday to Thursday grind. On his off days, he’s a regular at The Comedy Cellar, and he’s also writing for his upcoming television series International Student, based on his personal experiences at law school in Melbourne. When it comes to The Daily Show, Chieng doesn’t plan on becoming an Asian outrage correspondent, but he’s ready if anyone like Watters tries that shit again. “When it’s appropriate,” Chieng says, “we will go for it.”