In 2014 comedian Ronny Chieng was pretty lucky to be approached by the ABC to develop his own sitcom.
It was a mission he gladly accepted.
And then he threw out everyone’s suggestions to come up with Ronny Chieng: International Student.
“I feel like sitcoms with stand-up material in them had been done. That was the natural inclination by everyone around me: producers and TV execs said, ‘Hey you should put your stand-up in and then cut-away from that,'” he tells TV Tonight.
“Initially my struggle was to be a stand-up in Melbourne while doing University. But sometimes you can get caught up in your own world. No-one really gives a f*** about stand-up comics. It’s not relatable because no-one really does that.”
The result is a comedy based on his experience studying Law and Commerce at Melbourne University. On screen as a Malaysian student he appears smart, driven and competitive, but finds himself as an outsider amid beer-drinking Australians -and even the Mahjong-playing Asians or the blazer-wearing intellects.
“The only story I felt I could tell that other people couldn’t, the only thing unique in terms of television, was the international student perspective. It’s kind of under-represented in television. They make up a huge part of the community in Melbourne. At least temporarily, until they go back home,” he says.
“My friends came here, studied and left. It was almost like a dream.”
Chieng has an atlas of life-experience within him: born in Malaysia, raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, the US and Singapore. But he has no problem in being claimed more locally either.
“You can say ‘Aussie Comedian’ because I started comedy here. So all my comic sensibilities are informed, and continue to be informed, by Australia. Specifically, Melbourne. I’m sure you know the stylistic differences between Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne is a little bit more formal and self-indulgent. So I’m very much informed by a ‘festival-style’ of comedy.”
International Student, the first of 6 new Pilots in ABC’s Comedy Showroom initiative, was co-written with writer Declan Fay (The Chaser, Rove, Problems, Dirty Laundry Live). Produced by Sticky Pictures, it also features Molly Daniels, Hoa Xuande, Dave Eastgate, Laurence Boxhall and Felicity Ward. It is produced by Donna Andrews and directed by Jonathan Brough.
“Pilots are so difficult because you have to set up the universe and tell a story. So you’re juggling so many balls,” Chieng explains.
“We had all these ideas and we had to squeeze them all into the Pilot because we thought we might not get a second chance. So let’s not save any bullets in the chamber!
“If nothing else it’s a cool learning experience.”
“I don’t think you have to be a student to like it, or Asian to like it.”
One of the 6 new comedies will proceed to a full season, based on audience feedback via iview. It puts a slightly competitive edge into the initiative, something of a dilemma for Chieng who knows 4 of the other comedians hoping for good news. He’s not sure Presidential-style campaigning for votes is really his thang.
“We put our heart and soul into the Pilot so you hope people like it. But I can’t beg people to like it. It’s just not in my DNA!” he laughs.
“(I’m more) ‘I hope you guys like this, but if it’s not good enough I can accept it.’
“As far as I know Australia has never had a Pilot season. So it’s cool to give 6 people a chance to tell their stories and see which ones are most likely to be made into a series.
“But I don’t think you have to be a student to like it, or Asian to like it. It captures that time where you’re growing up and you think you know what you’re doing, but you actually don’t.”
“I’m pretty sure it was Trevor Noah”
Chieng must know something about what he’s doing. His star continues to rise following an invitation by US-based comedian Trevor Noah to be a regular on the much-lauded Daily Show.
“I’m very honoured. It’s a very important show, if I do say so myself. I don’t want to get caught in the hubris of how important comedy is but it’s important, especially at this time during elections. It plays an important function in pop culture,” he explains.
“No matter who you are, you want your work to matter. Whether you’re a construction worker, chef, or whatever it is you do.
“Being on this show I’m very fortunate to feel like everything we do, matters. We put holes in people’s arguments or change people’s opinions or (get them to) question things. I couldn’t ask for a better job in Comedy.”
Since joining the Comedy Central show, Chieng has moved to the US, and says the opportunity has completely changed his life.
“I’ve never worked in Television before at this level and pace. I’ve only been doing stand-up for 7 years so I’m still a baby. It’s a very different skill-set being a correspondent on The Daily Show… doing on camera-stuff as well as writing your own segments,” he says.
“I’m lucky I have the benefit of working with people who are very experienced at what they do. So they help me to look good.”
And despite jumping at the chance, the humble Chieng concedes he hasn’t actually asked anybody how he came to be considered for the show. For real.
“I haven’t asked him directly, but I’m pretty sure it was Trevor Noah,” he ponders.
“I did a Gala with him in Montreal 3 years ago. He was very friendly to me, but then we didn’t speak for 2 years. So I’m pretty sure he asked them to audition me.
“What can I say? I struck the lottery, man!”
Ronny Chieng: International Student premieres 9pm Wednesday April 27 on ABC
NB: All Comedy Showroom projects will be available on iview thereafter.