Ronny Chieng is one of the few comics to bring an Asian perspective to the Just for Laughs stage. He is playing the Just for Laughs festival as part of his Tone Issues Tour but you can also see him on The Daily Show and in Crazy Rich Asians, his first role in a major motion picture. 

I had the chance to speak to Chieng over the phone. Being half-Asian myself, I know about the expectations Asian parents often have for their children so I asked if his family had different hopes for him career-wise. Chieng appreciated the question because one of his very first jokes at Just for Laughs addressed that.

He spoke of being sent to Australia to study law but he was a poor student. He became a comedian because he couldn’t get a job in law, and comedy ended up paying better. He even said that he didn’t tell his parents about his new career directly – they found out about it when he appeared in the local press in their home country, but they’re okay with his career choice now.

Since Chieng now works in America and a lot of his comedy is political, I asked him if he thinks Trump is good for comedy. He feels it’s fair to say that Trump is good for comedy.

“He’s bad for life, bad for the planet, and bad for the country, and bad for mental health everywhere. At The Daily Show we talk about him every day, so I’d be hard-pressed to say he’s not good for comedy. Would I want that? No, I would rather have someone else – he has more cons than pros for the comedy world.”

Though Chieng doesn’t like the Trump Administration, he doesn’t feel that comedians working in America should feel obligated to criticize it in their comedy.

Great stand-up, in his eyes, comes from really authentic points of view and pandering to trendy topics if you’re not personally passionate about them is not going to make for good comedy. 

While comedians shouldn’t feel obligated to talk about it, he feels that everyone – comedian or not – has an obligation to say something if they feel that something isn’t right.

Chieng’s comedy centers a lot on being Asian in predominantly white countries so I asked if his work was more about dispelling stereotypes or just about laughter. At first he joked that it was about making money, but then said that he is about fighting stereotypes or at least give them a little more nuance. 

“If there’s a stereotype, I would like to explain why that’s a stereotype and maybe take the stereotype to another level – explain the full story behind the stereotype or break the stereotype altogether if I feel a stereotype is unfair. I try to address it because I feel like no one is talking about it in society. I wanted someone to talk about it when I was growing up so that’s the kind of comedy I do. I hope I do the kind of comedy I wanted to see.”

While a lot of Chieng’s comedy is about lived experience, he does research on occasion to make sure he knows what he’s talking about. When it comes to his favourite topics in comedy, he said it’s mostly things that make him angry, saying he has an hour of such examples in his Just for Laughs show.

Crazy Rich Asians was Ronny Chieng’s first film role, so I couldn’t help asking him about it. Chieng loved doing the film because it was shot in Malaysia and Singapore, where he’s from, which allowed him to see family and friends during filming. 

The film was considered ground-breaking because it supposedly opened the door for more Asian characters in film when Hollywood still didn’t think it was possible. While Chieng doesn’t consider the film to be the be-all and end-all of films featuring Asian characters, he thinks the fact it was so well-received is amazing. 

“What the movie was really good at was not over-explaining Asian things and showing Asian characters as complete three-dimensional characters with complicated needs and wants. Some of them are good guys and some of them are bad guys, some of them are in between, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they have complicated lives. I thought that was very useful. I think it also established a baseline for Asian storytelling moving forward. I think there’s no context for Asian stories usually in the West, so a lot of movies can’t be made because there’s no baseline understanding so I feel like Crazy Rich Asians is a very good baseline story for Asian people in the West.”

There have been criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians as only showcasing paler-skinned Asians. For example, Filipinos like myself tend to be darker. Chieng sees the problem in the fact that in North America, Asian is considered a single voting block despite the diversity in Asian nationalities and cultures among the Asian diaspora. 

“You got Koreans, you got Japanese, you got Burmese, you got Thai, you have Filipinos, you have Malaysians, you have Chinese people, not to mention Chinese Indonesians, Chinese Malaysians, Chinese people who live in Japan, Chinese people from different parts of China with all the different dialect groups. Then you have the same number of people Americanized… and each of those groups are very distinct cultures. To expect one movie to cover the entire diaspora of Asia is an unfair burden placed upon it by Western views of what Asia is,”

In terms of criticisms that the film only showcased wealthier Asians, Chieng considers the movie satirical and that it showcases the extreme wealth that’s in Asia right now because that’s how the West experiences Asia in 2019.

Ronny Chieng is playing Just for Laughs from July 23 to 25. Check him out.

I had completely forgotten that Carrie Fisher was in The Blues Brothers. The 1980 cinematic masterpiece, that is, not the sequel that should simply have been titled Why?

Both films, though, did warrant a mention by Fisher as she hosted her Just For Laughs Gala. So did politics in Hollywood when it comes to older women, something she has first-hand experience with.

She also spent quite a bit of her time on stage talking about, well, what do you think? Star Wars, of course. This was, after all, Princess (now General) Leia herself, doing comedy in Montreal.

I’ll admit I had to restrain myself from going all-in with the Star Wars puns when starting this review. She was, after all, an icon of my childhood. So…not so long ago, Sunday night to be precise, in a galaxy a few Metro stops away, Carrie Fisher was a Force to be reckoned with onstage…

There. Done. Now on with the show!

It was quite a good show, too. It started off with Brian Posehn nerd-gasming over the host and devoting his entire set to his love of Star Wars and hatred of the prequels (which Fisher wasn’t in…damn, with her absence in Blues Brothers 2000, she’s two for two).

Ronny Chieng (photo Eric Meyer, courtesy Just for Laughs)
Ronny Chieng (photo Eric Meyer, courtesy Just for Laughs)

The non-childhood memory enduing highlight for me has to be Ronny Chieng. The current Daily Show correspondent’s set was focused on Asian stereotypes and how he deals with them.

Australian comic Joel Creasey told a rather funny story about a brief Twitter feud he had with fellow Aussie Russel Crowe. Creasey had very good stage presence, though he spoke a bit too quickly for me to catch everything.

We also got Jim Norton’s sort of defense of Donald Trump (not really, but it was funny),  Cristela Alonzo’s take on sci-fi realism, Celia Pacquola’s interesting view of rings, Nathan MacIntosh with a quite funny bit on the current state of tech and Ivan Decker talking mangos, of all things.

The night, though, clearly belonged to Fisher. Thanks to her HBO special Wishful Drinking we all know that she can carry a stage show. Thanks to Force Awakens interviews and some of her performances over the years (like the one in the aforementioned Blues Brothers) we know she can be funny.

But can she carry an entire standup show as host? Turns out, yes.

While her bit on other Leia hairdoo options may have been a bit by-the-numbers, though still funny, her opening monologue was a solid bit of standup. While some comics tell personal stories and then try and related them to pop culture, Fisher is pop culture, or at least a huge part of it, so she was able to cut out the middle man, so to speak.

And her song about addiction, another subject which we all know that she knows quite well, was a great way to close the show. Self-aware, casual, honest. It was pure Carrie Fisher.

 

* Featured image by Eric Myre, courtesy of Just for Laughs

Just for Laugh’s Ethnic Show markets itself as “the most culturally diverse show of the Festival.” And yeah, that’s pretty much true. The seven comics I watched last night at Club Soda came from a variety of different ‘ethnic’ backgrounds and their sets made sure everyone got a good laugh.

Entering Club Soda with my friend, the one question that I had in mind was “What the hell does ethnic mean anyway?” If you have a look at the line-up, you’ll see that none of the comics are what you would call Anglo-Saxon.

Ethnic, in this sense, does not necessarily have to do with skin color. It’s these people’s experiences as belonging to a minority group in North America that has made them fit the label ‘ethnic.’ And they seemed to be okay with it.

At the very beginning of the show, the host Alonzo Bodden reminded the audience that they would be offending everyone equally. Now, in this day and age, it could be really difficult for comics to talk about sensitive issues like race and ethnicity. To be honest, I’d like to think that it should be. I’m not saying that we should be censoring what people can say; but a comic making jokes about racial or ethnic topics should be self-aware.

After all, when people think about ethnic comedy, what pops into their heads are stereotypes. But there is so much more to the “ethnic” experience than old, cliche stereotypes. If such jokes based on stereotypes haven’t gone stale yet, it’s about time that they did.

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Rachid Badouri

Luckily, you’ll find very little of that in the Ethnic Show and that’s what I really liked about it. Essentially, these comics are telling their own stories about snippets from their own lives. They just happen to be from a certain ethnicity and that happens to colour these stories.

For instance, Rachid Badouri has a bit about parent-teacher meetings. At its core, his story is about a little boy whose father does funny things without even knowing. But because his father is Moroccan, the story takes on a different aspect. Still, the joke isn’t funny because Badouri is doing accent jokes, it’s funny because of how ridiculous the situation is – AND his facial expressions.

I especially loved Bodden’s performance as the host. He really knew how to get the audience excited and involved. In fact, I daresay some of his jokes got more laughs than some of the other acts.

I’d also urge you to pay special attention to Frank Spadone and Gina Yashere. For some reason I could really empathize with Spadone’s jokes about his family. As for Yashere, I’m simply a sucker for the kind of sarcastic Londoner humour she delivers so well.

Ronnie Chieng’s routine was also pretty funny. He told a story based on his observations at the airport line and delivered it very loudly. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t laughing because he was just screaming, but because he was screaming at an imaginary Asian person at an imaginary airpot for eating BBQ pork at the passport line. The way he set up the story made it impossible not to laugh.

I found Dan Naturman’s act a bit drier than the others. I suppose I find the single-forty-year-old-hitting-on-women routine is getting a bit old. Don’t get me wrong, though – I still laughed at Naturman.

All these comics are hilarious in their own way and not just because they do ethnic comedy. I get the feeling that they have bits in their routines about ethnicity, mostly because the name of the show is the Ethnic Show.

In my opinion, the Ethnic Show is all about great comics telling their own stories, but with us putting the label ‘ethnic’ on it.

In between the acts, Bodden kept asking audiences what they were. I think the purpose of that was to push the audience outside of their North American mind-frame. I mean, what is a Canadian, anyway? Most Canadians come from one “old country” or another.

Maybe I’m over-analyzing a great comedy show, but I think the concept of race and ethnicity deserves being over-analyzed. The show got me thinking and maybe it will do the same for you. But even if you’re in it just for laughs (get it?) I promise that you’ll have a fantastic time. Definitely check the Ethnic Show out.

The Ethnic Show is running between July 8 and July 19, twice every night at Club Soda. Check out the Just for Laughs website for more information.