At JFL NorthWest, comedy gets new colour with Ronny Chieng and Vir Das

The standups' unique—and gut-busting—takes on race stem from living around the globe

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      No one thought much of Ronny Chieng’s humour—or apparent lack thereof—when the law-and-business grad entered a standup contest on a whim during the final year of his studies at the University of Melbourne in 2009. But that didn’t stop the Chinese-Malaysian comic from going for broke. “Yeah, I was actually the only one who thought I was funny,” Chieng deadpans, on the line from the Canadian Embassy in New York City, where he’s in the process of obtaining a visitor visa for the upcoming JFL NorthWest comedy festival here in Vancouver. “I told my two best friends that I was doing this competition and they told me not to do it…and I didn’t listen. That’s been a real motto in my life, to be honest.”

      Prior to hopping on-stage that fateful evening and delivering a set that involved bits about the “very Melbourne” incidents of getting mugged and playing footy (that’s Australian football) with his sister, Chieng had zero experience with standup outside of watching “the usual guys” like Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters, the latter of whom the now New York–based comedian recalls was huge during his college years. Nevertheless, he killed, and when he couldn’t land a legal job immediately after postsecondary, Chieng pursued comedy. It’s been a nonstop ride since, with the brutally blunt funnyman earning the best-newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2012 and performing at major fetes in Canada, the U.K., and parts of Asia shortly after.

      But how does the erratic world of standup compare to the rigid fields for which Chieng, who stars in his own Comedy Central series, Ronny Chieng: International Student, spent much of his early 20s painstakingly cramming? “Doing comedy is intimidating, period,” the 32-year-old states. “It’s a difficult thing to do to go on-stage and try to make a group of people, who are expecting to laugh, laugh from scratch. It’s alchemy. There are difficulties in that fundamentally.”

      With four sold-out tours under his belt, it appears that Chieng has figured out the formula for success—or at least a method for eliciting enough laughs to keep him truckin’. Drawing on his experiences as a Malaysian-born Chinese man who was raised in New Hampshire and Singapore, educated in Melbourne, and now resides in the Big Apple, where he’s a senior correspondent on the news-satire program The Daily Show, the occasional actor approaches universal subjects, such as dating, dealing with stubborn gatekeepers at the Genius Bar, and the absolutely torturous task of teaching your technologically challenged mother how to delete a YouTube comment, from a derisively angry and distinctly global viewpoint.

      Perhaps best illustrated in a viral Daily Show piece from 2016 in which Chieng responds to a racist Fox News segment that made Chinese-American citizens the butt of the joke, this brand of humour affords the artist—with his outraged delivery and seemingly perpetually furrowed brow—a creative outlet to combat stereotypes and work through what some may consider muddled identity issues. As he pithily puts it in his 2014 special, The Ron Way, “Believe it or not, I am the whitest guy in Malaysia.…In Australia, I’m, like, maximum Chinese.” “I think you and I get it, but I think other people wouldn’t necessarily understand the nuance of that,” Chieng reflects now. “And that’s part of what I do on-stage: part of a point I would try to make is to try to examine the nuances in those situations.”

      India-based, U.S.-schooled Vir Das relishes his “outsider’s” view.

      IT'S A PREDICAMENT that Vir Das, another internationally bred and recognized comic appearing at JFL NorthWest for the first time, identifies with. Born in northern India, brought up in Nigeria, educated in the U.S., and now residing in Mumbai, Das hilariously tackles U.S. and Indian politics (“We have both, in a very poetic coincidence, elected very large, very popular, and very orange leaderships”), religion (“What is a religion? It’s five don’ts”), and his country’s lack of progressive policies (“India is not a bird; birds are free”)—all in the first 15 minutes of his debut Netflix special, Abroad Understanding. Using his Indian accent as “a perspective, not a punch line”, the comedian, musician, and sometime Bollywood actor, who got his start in standup at Knox College in Illinois and now boasts more than seven million followers on Twitter, isn’t afraid to get a little political when he needs to.

      “I feel like I’ve always had the outsider’s perspective within a place,” he tells the Straight by phone from Mumbai, where he’s taking five from an expansive, 44-city comedy tour. “You kind of view places from an outside angle. And I feel like, especially in today’s age of standup, which is reasonably more woke and reasonably more aware in recognizing realistic circumstances…you can’t not talk about these things.”

      One bit in the one-hour recorded show, which alternates between performances in New Delhi and New York, sees the charismatic Das call out instances of subtle and blatant racism in India. The 38-year-old, who describes his standup as “more theatrical than wiseass-with-a-drink”, cleverly sandwiches these topics between more lighthearted themes such as the unsightly nature of Indian food and his newfound desire to be a father, helping audiences to feel at ease before hitting them with scathing, though palatable, commentary. “I think the perfect show kind of meanders between shit you wanna say and shit they wanna hear, you know?” he says. “If it oscillates too much toward either side, either you’re being self-indulgent or you’re pandering, and you don’t want to do too much of either.

      “I read somewhere a really long time ago that a really successful show is measured by quality silences, not by loud laughs and thunderous applause,” he continues. “And I feel like if you can engineer a few quality silences, then you’ve earned the laughs; then you’ve truly earned the thunderous applause at the end. So I will say things that make you uncomfortable.”

      To JFL NorthWest, Das will be bringing his Boarding Das act, which includes bits about feminism, falling in love, mental health, and generally “waking up at the age of 32 and kind of realizing you’re full of shit”, he reveals. He says he’s excited to perform standup in Canada for the first time, considering the country’s large Indian population and its reputation for fostering South Asian talent. “I think Canada kind of led the charge in terms of embracing and encouraging Indian comedy,” Das notes. “Guys like Russell Peters came out of Canada, guys like Sugar Sammy came out of Canada as well. I feel like they [Canadians] have been watching English Indian standup the longest, so I’m looking forward to getting on those stages.”

      Chieng, meanwhile, will have a slate of fresh jokes on hand that are based on his last two years living in and sardonically reporting on the dejected state that is Trump’s America. Although the confessed foodie (“If you have a [restaurant] hookup, please let me know,” he urges earnestly) also spent two months filming the big-screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians in his backyard of Malaysia and Singapore last year, fans shouldn’t expect to hear much about his experience on-set—not yet, anyway. “Huh, that’s a good point,” he says when we inquire. “Maybe that’s something I’ll have to explore.”

      Everything else, however, is fair game. “I’ll do it if I have a funny joke about it, you know?” states Chieng. “That’s really my guiding light.”

      JFL NorthWest presents Ronny Chieng on Saturday and Sunday (March 3 and 4) and Vir Das next Thursday (March 8), all at the Rio Theatre.