Obituaries were written after Jon Stewart took his bow from The Daily Show. All-star alumni Samantha Bee, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore already had their own shows, and Stephen Colbert was trying to fill the white socks and loafers of the departed King of Late Night.
But the obituaries were premature. The new-look Daily Show, under the stewardship of Trevor Noah, saw a huge boost in popularity among millennials, more ethnic diversity in audience demographics, and dominance of the coveted YouTube honeypot. It was a bold move, and fortune favoured it.
A handful of correspondents were retained from the old regime, but the rest were plucked from relative obscurity. One seemingly more obscure than the others: our very own Ronny Chieng, who’s now a senior correspondent on The Daily Show.
Chieng had been doing the Melbourne comedy circuit since 2009. Along his upward comedy trajectory, he also popped up on a few Australian TV shows that we won’t even pretend to have heard of, which culminated in a pilot of his own, International Student.
Getting the chance to do the Eddie Izzard Gala at the Just for Laughs comedy festival, he happened to share a bill with Noah. “We did a grand total of two shows together, and he complimented me on my set,” he says. Two years later, he got an email from The Daily Show asking for an audition tape. A few months later, a call to audition in person. And a few weeks after that, the job itself.
Chieng’s narrative reads like he’s charmed, but it belies furious underwater paddling. He’s worked to get where he is. Damned hard. And his résumé is littered with awards and nominations.
Chieng loves what he does. “Stand-up comedy is definitely more than a job for me. It’s a passion bordering on obsession,” he admits.
It’s grand to be able to claim that an international celebrity emerged from these shores, but that’s often tempered by the bothersome fact that some just happened to be Malaysian-born. Just how Malaysian is Chieng? “I was born and spent a cumulative 14 formative years regularly moving between Singapore and Johor Bahru. I’m very much a kid of both cities.
“My passport is Malaysian and I lived in JB while initially going through the Singapore education system, before eventually moving to Singapore,” Chieng admits. Scratch that, we don’t care. He’s Malaysian in our books, and Singapore can’t have him.
South African Noah himself made his debut in the Stewart era, and became host just in time for one of the most charged US elections in recent history. As what it means to be American is violently being called into question, what does it feel like being a non-American on the show?
“I met John Oliver in his office a few months into the job to get his advice on being a non-American correspondent on The Daily Show,” Chieng says. On the whole, he’s cool with it. “I think they were looking for a different voice and perspective. The industry awards and recommendations from my peers and people that I admire in comedy definitely didn’t hurt.”
Chieng is also not bothered by criticisms from elsewhere, that of the aforementioned thirty-somethings guided through the ugly post 9/11-world by Stewart. “I’m less concerned about over-analysing demographics and more interested in doing a good show every time, and making sure my own writing and ideas are up to the high standard that we set,” he notes. “Because, at end of the day, what we actually put out there is what matters.”
It’s a good stance to take, but it’s undeniable that those criticisms of thirty-somethings coalesced into a beast of their own. Superstar correspondent Jessica Williams’ recent departure fuelled a second round of thinkpieces on the rockiness of The Daily Show’s boat. Turns out, it was all nothing.
“It’s interesting seeing how misinformation can spread. I know and worked with Jessica, and she’s obviously one of the best ever. What I know was she was in very high demand with great offers, including creating her own TV show on Comedy Central, which was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
“Meanwhile, I think The Daily Show has been good and getting better every time we do it. So this idea of ‘unsteadiness’ isn’t what I see from the inside.”
Chieng also plays down any notion of rivalry between the separate shows that spawned from The Daily Show’s loins, or those seemingly vying to fill the commanding voice of the old Stewart-Colbert juggernaut. But with Bee and Oliver’s own shows doing so well, and even late-night shows focusing on politics at least until November, something had to give. That something was Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, cancelled after just over 18 months on air.
“Seeing any show get cancelled is sad. I think, if you’re in the industry, you want everything to work because it means more opportunity for everybody,” Chieng says. “All the correspondents and production staff are part of the same Jon Stewart family.”
The suffusion, of course, increased with Fusion getting into the political comedy game—home to Bassem Youssef, who was called the Jon Stewart of Spring-era Egypt. So if an Egypt torn by unrest can get its own Daily Show of sorts, how come we don’t have one?
“I think every country could use a Daily Show political satire show to entertain and inform,” Chieng says. “There are a lot of comics who already do satire in their comedy already, albeit probably not in a dedicated show. I think the current laws and political climate make it very difficult to get permission and funding to put such a show on TV.”
If by some crack in the fabric of space-time a Daily Show could be launched here, would Chieng host it? “Sure! A progressive TV show making fun of the political right wing? What could go wrong?”
First published in Esquire Malaysia, October 2016.