SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ronny Chieng has a Netflix comedy special, "Asian Comedian Destroys America!" It launches globally on Netflix next week in which he holds forth about coming to America, being amazed, agog and occasionally appalled, all at the same time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ASIAN COMEDIAN DESTROYS AMERICA!")
RONNY CHIENG: So much content. Oh, my God - so much content on demand, so many screens - the most screens per capita...
CHIENG: ...In the world. Every night in America is like a competition to see how many screens we can get between our face and the wall.
CHIENG: It's like iPhone, iPad, laptop, TV...
CHIENG: ...And then Apple Watch. OK.
SIMON: Ronny Chieng, "The Daily Show" correspondent, co-star of "Crazy Rich Asians" and former Australian law school student, joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
CHIENG: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: You were born in Malaysia, raised in New Hampshire and Singapore, wound up in Australia.
SIMON: How did a law school student become so funny?
CHIENG: I don't know. I wish I knew. In fact, I don't - I'm still trying to figure out if I am funny. That's what this special is...
SIMON: You are hilarious.
CHIENG: ...Like a comedy test. Thanks so much. Yeah. I went to Australia for law school. And I couldn't get a job. And I started doing stand-up comedy. And I was getting more work from stand-up comedy than I was through law. And I just kept doing comedy. And then 10 years later, here I am in NPR studios in New York.
SIMON: I'm wondering if you were often the new kid in class or the new kid, you know - immigrant kid from outside the country wherever you were.
CHIENG: Yeah, certainly felt that way. I first started going to school in America in Manchester, N.H. Then we moved back - we were good immigrants. We moved back to Malaysia. We didn't take jobs. We went back to where we came from. And then I went to school in Singapore. And I changed schools once in primary school, then went to a secondary school, then went to junior college. And then I went to university in Australia. So, yeah, I did feel kind of like a perpetual new kid outsider.
SIMON: I mean, that'll sharpen a sense of humor sometimes, won't it?
CHIENG: I guess so, yeah. I mean, in my head, I don't imagine it made me any funnier. But it definitely made me more - view things more objectively, you know?
SIMON: And that's part of what I enjoyed so much about your special here. There is a moment you deliver a line which sets off a shriek in the audience.
CHIENG: (Laughter) OK.
SIMON: I'm not going to give it away. Let's just say you managed to put ISIS in a punch line.
CHIENG: I'm not going to put it on NPR.
CHIENG: Watch the special.
SIMON: Yeah. Did you hesitate?
CHIENG: No. No hesitation. No hesitation for many reasons. I mean, first of all, that's not the first time I did that joke. I practiced this special quite a bit. I toured around the country before I taped it. So, you know, I think great comedy should be edgy. It should push the line, push the boundary.
SIMON: Well, that's what I - because you gave an interesting interview to The New Yorker, too, where you talked about...
CHIENG: Oh, wow. You did your research.
SIMON: (Laughter). Yeah, that's...
CHIENG: Thanks for doing it. A lot of people don't.
SIMON: I - so I'm told. You say there's a lot of stuff that you try that you probably shouldn't say publicly. Frankly, if you do comedy professionally, that's just the way your brain works.
CHIENG: Yeah. Yeah. That's the case for me anyway. I think, you know, as a professional stand-up comedian, I'm trying to think of jokes all the time. I'm trying to think of jokes about anything I read, anything you tell me. I might not express the joke. But in my head, I'm like, oh, is this - how would I make a joke about this? And especially if you told me, you should never joke about these topics. In my head, I'm like, well, I'm already trying to figure out that - you know, because it's like a challenge to me. It's like a puzzle to be solved.
SIMON: Is that a hit-and-miss process sometimes?
CHIENG: Absolutely. It's an art form. And sometimes you get it wrong. A lot of time you get wrong probably. But as a stand-up comic, I believe you can joke about any topic. But if you're going to poke the dragon, then you better be spot on with what you're saying.
SIMON: I think that's the best explanation I've ever heard.
CHIENG: Thank you.
SIMON: I'm not clear in my mind. You've been married three times, but not really, right?
CHIENG: I've been married three times to the same woman, yes. We had three wedding ceremonies.
SIMON: Was she trying to change your mind, and you were giving her the chance? I'm not sure I understand this. What?
CHIENG: No. It's more that when your families are spread out across the globe as ours are - Chinese weddings are a lot for the parents to kind of brag. And so as part of our duty to them, we make it easier for them to brag. So her family's in Australia. OK, we'll go - we'll have one wedding there for them. My family's in Malaysia. We'll go to Malaysia and have one for them.
SIMON: This is not the most important question I've asked, but does that mean you get gift certificates to Crate and Barrel in three different continents, or what?
CHIENG: No. I specifically said no gifts. But if you must give a gift, give cash money. Cash money only.
SIMON: That actually - that is a Chinese family tradition, isn't it?
CHIENG: Yes. It is. And it's awesome. If you want to save the environment, cash - doesn't create waste, no wrapping paper. You know, I'm not lifting - because I was telling people in the wedding invite - my wife made me tone it down because I was getting too aggressive with it. But I was telling people like, yo, we're having a wedding in Malaysia and in Australia. We're going back to America. So No. 1, I don't want to lug a blender all the way back to America.
Second of all, the power plugs are different, OK? So it's not going to work anyway. I'm going to have to buy the converter - all that crap. Third of all, I'm very specific about what I want, OK? So the blender you're going to get me is probably not going to be the best blender. So don't even try. I know what I want. Just give cash money, or don't give anything at all (laughter).
SIMON: I can't imagine why your wife would tell you to tone that down.
CHIENG: Yeah. That's the toned-down version of that.
SIMON: I find that speech very moving actually.
CHIENG: Thank you. I thought so, too. She didn't agree. But I was trying to simplify the process for everybody.
SIMON: Ronny Chieng, his Netflix comedy special "Asian Comedian Destroys America!," thank you so much for being with us.
CHIENG: Thanks so much for having me. I love NPR, man. I give money to you guys all the time. It's finally paid off. I'm paying for it - paying for my donations here.
SIMON: Oh, well, thank you very much. And, you know, I mean, if you made as much money off three weddings...
SIMON: ...And the special as you suggest - I'm just saying. 'Tis the time of year, you know?
CHIENG: OK. OK.
SIMON: Thank you.
CHIENG: Thank you so much, man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.