Ronny Chieng may be known to barfbloggers as the Malaysian correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and his shit is funny.
Kylie Northover of Melbourne’s The Age writes when asked about places to dine in Melbourne (that’s in Australia), Chieng swiftly sent back a small list of his favourite places – and a link, no less, to his own restaurant website.
Less food blog than a comprehensive list of cafes, restaurants and bars, Chieng’s site, I’m OK with Anything, also features his bio, links to buy merchandise and his agent details, but it’s foremost a comprehensive “guide to eating, drinking and playing in Melbourne city”.
“This is right up my alley,” Chieng says when we meet at his first choice, Malaysian cafe Aunty Franklee, in the city. “I’m all about this.”
Chieng loves his food, and when he moved here from Singapore to study law and commerce, he was shocked at the lack of late-night food options. This only got worse when he started comedy. But he’s seen a shift, and says it’s usually the Asian places that have spearheaded later opening hours.
“That then forces other places to start doing it too,” Chieng says. “When you do comedy shows, you usually don’t finish until about 11pm, then you have this adrenaline dump and you get hungry. There’s Supper Club and a couple of places but it used to be you had to settle for one of those shitty Lygon Street places; it’s good they’re open but the food is usually awful. That’s why I started the list.”
Visiting comedians would ask for recommendations and he would send out an email.
“That evolved into the website; now I just send people the link.”
His site covers brunch, lunch, dinner, late openings and bars, and while he doesn’t rate restaurants as such, he does differentiate between prices and “moods”, like “fancy but not super fancy”.
“Sometimes you feel like a $15 meal and sometimes you feel like a $30 one.”
Chieng is fussy about his Malaysian food, and Aunty Franklee, inside the Exford Hotel, serves the best char kwai teow, a hawker flat noodle dish, he’s had in Melbourne.
“It’s a dish that I judge all Malaysian restaurants by,” he says. “It’s hard to get this taste outside of Malaysia, and this is the best I’ve had.”
Chieng orders that and the Bak kut teh, a traditional pork rib dish cooked in a fragrant broth made with 23 herbs, for us to share.
Starters are not really a thing in Malaysian cuisine, he says.
“And there’s no rules – it’s very informal,” Chieng says. “You can even use your hands. In fact, I’m probably the best dressed person ever to walk in here.”
Born in Malaysia but raised mostly in Singapore, Chieng moved to Melbourne to study and in one of those almost unbelievable scenarios, decided to try out at an open mic night – despite never having harboured any desire to be a comedian – and found, with his deadpan delivery, he was an instant hit.
Was he always funny?
“I don’t think so,” he says, although that deadpan thing makes it hard to tell. “I gave it a try, just to confirm my suspicions, really.”
That was in 2009, in the final year of his studies – and when he couldn’t get a legal job, he chose comedy. By 2012, he’d won the best newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and was already touring the major comedy festivals.
He says she’s “very happy” he got his degrees.
“She’s surprisingly OK – she never once mentioned anything about being part of my stand-up,” he says, again with a tone.
In late 2015, he was headhunted for US comedy news program The Daily Show after host Jon Stewart’s departure. His replacement, comic Trevor Noah, emailed Chieng out of the blue and asked him to come on board as a correspondent. Chieng was on tour at the time, and, as one would, accepted the gig right away.
He didn’t even have time to tell his parents before the news broke in the media.
“I moved straight from the UK to New York – I didn’t even come back to Australia.”
It has been “intense”. “Living in in New York is intense anyway but then with the Trump thing it became even more so,” he says.
On top of the long hours, for many months Chieng was co-writing his sitcom, International Student, via Skype, with Declan Fay in Australia.
“Not to mention I got married last September,” he says.
He married his Australian-Vietnamese fiancee at City Hall in New York, but he’s not getting out of it that easily, with two more “proper” weddings being planned.
“Mum was OK about it but we are getting married again in Melbourne and then again in Kuala Lumpur for my family,” he says. “The Asian wedding is coming!”
He also says no to a beer with lunch, but for less health-conscious reasons.
“The photos will turn out weird if I drink – I have one and my face goes red.”
Much like his character in International Student, one of six comedy pilots shown on ABC last year through its Comedy Showroom initiative, Chieng’s was the first to be made into a full series.
Based “loosely” on his experiences as a student at Melbourne University, it’s a comic look at student life when you’re straddling the cultural divides between locals and foreigners.
It is, Chieng says, an under-explored story.
“It’s all based on stuff that actually happened – I mean, nobody really broke a photocopier, but we had drinking games and I went out of my way to participate in one to get out of my comfort zone,” he says. ” I don’t think you can go through Melbourne Uni without doing a ‘boat race’, for example,” he says of the drinking game in the show’s pilot episode.
When Chieng arrived here, he knew only his sister.
“Usually the international students stick to themselves, but I wanted to make a point of making friends with other students, not just the international ones. I made friends with the locals.”
The series is co-produced by The Comedy Channel in the US, where it will also screen and Chieng reckons despite it being Australian, it will translate to America, where tales of college life are almost their own genre.
As for what lies ahead, Chieng has no definite plan.
“I come from the corporate world where everyone has a five-year plan, but performing arts doesn’t work that way; you just kinda do the best job you can with the gig you’ve got.”
International Student is on ABC, Wednesdays at 9pm, and on ABC iview (that’s the Australian one).