Ronny Chieng on The Daily Show – and other Aussies on American late night TV

If you’ve ever wanted to break into American late night TV, but were worried it would never happen because you’re not American, then there’s some good news: not being American doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore.

The very British John Oliver is all over HBO with his investigative news comedy show Last Week Tonight, Englishman James Corden just took over the very late slot from Scotsman Craig Ferguson, and South African comedian Trevor Noah was the unlikely replacement when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. Yes, all the barriers have been broken down in late night. (Unless you’re a woman.)

The revamped Daily Show brought with it a number of new correspondents, as many of the old guard had also left, including veteran husband-and-wife team Jason Jones and Samantha Bee. One of the new faces greeting was Australian Ronny Chieng.

If you’ve not heard of Chieng, it felt like he was right on the verge of becoming a household name in Australia. In addition to his comedy festival shows, he’d appeared in ABC2’s Little Britain riff This Is Littleton, SBS’s Legally Brown, and Peter Helliar’s It’s a Date. The sort of shows that give way to a radio show or a fill-in spot on The Project.

Getting a gig on The Daily Show, a show that is firmly cemented internationally as the gold standard of news comedy, is no small thing, and Chieng is the first Australian to even come close.

And yes, we’re including Dan Ilic, who was famously fired from Al Jazeera earlier this year when he was caught using studio equipment to make himself a Daily Show audition.

As a side note, it’s interesting how much traction Ilic got for that story (articles about his firing appeared in Mumbrella, TV Tonight, Pedestrian and even The Australian). Especially considering that, given how The Daily Show audition process actually works, this might not have been the epic coronation it first appeared. According to every correspondent who’s managed to score a gig on the show, including Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams, Hasan Minaj and Ronny Chieng himself, the actual audition process goes like this: you submit a tape, and then if they like the tap, they call you in to the studio to do a desk piece and a greenscreen piece. Ilic was, according to the reports, asked by the producers to submit a tape, but clearly nothing eventuated. We can’t really fault Ilic for riding the wave of publicity that he got. After all, “Comedian auditions for Daily Show” sounds far more impressive than “Comedian sends mail to popular show”.

But we digress.

Chieng isn’t the only Australian to crack the late night Comedy Central late night slot. When The Colbert Report ended, its replacement was The Nightly Show, a “minority”-themed news show that focused on the systemic oppression of minorities in America. The show, which took a very long time to find its own voice but seems to have finally settled into a consistent and enjoyable rhythm, often features three guests talking the issues of the day with host Larry Wilmore. To make up the numbers, there’s a rotating roster of the show’s writers who get on-air time, from former Daily Show showrunner Rory Albanese to head writer Robin Thede to the show’s obvious breakout star Mike Yard.

And yet there seemed to be zero fanfare when Australian comedian David Smithyman first appeared on The Nightly Show. Partly because The Nightly Show took more than a commercial break to find its feet and nobody bothered sticking around, but also because nobody had heard of David Smithyman. It actually took us literally hours of googling to find out what his name was, and we’d seen all the episodes he was in.

Smithyman was an odd one. With a weird accent we wouldn’t have picked as Australian if they hadn’t flagged it upfront, and a strange energy that didn’t seem at ease plugged into the “We now cross to gay Santa Clause”/”Joining us now is a divorced squirrel” format the show enjoys. He now seems to have disappeared from the show. Whether this is because he’s scored a writing gig on Fresh Off the Boat, or whether he was just quietly disappeared from the show (wherefore art thou, Shenaz Treasury?), it’s not clear. But it’s very strange the way Australia, so keen to embrace and promote and cheer for and then turn against any Australian who makes it big overseas, completely missed Smithyman.

But the parade was certainly held for Chieng, followed by a patient wait for Chieng to actually make an appearance.

The show was quick to introduce the other two hires Roy Wood Jr and Desi Lydic, but took its time with Chieng. It could be strategic, but it’s more likely practical: Chieng appears to have had a number of long-standing tour commitments to fulfill, and has been frequently tweeting from around the world in the month-and-a-half since the show returned to air.

His first appearance was a strange to-camera tech piece that riffed on the idea that Chieng just wanted his father to love him. Following that, as well as a brief cameo in a correspondent-heavy sketch, Chieng’s next proper appearance was the traditional Daily Show field report.

The premise of the report was that Chieng, a foreigner, has been told that the USA’s voting system is the best in the world, and is all gung ho and excitable during interviews with experts, until he finds out that the system is actually fucked. It’s as standard a Daily Show field report as is possible, which is probably a good thing. Proving that he can fulfill the standard remit of the correspondent is a smart move this early on, and watching him dry hump an outdated, overpriced voting machine (“For $6000, I expect to be able to fuck it”) certainly got a laugh out of us.

The most interesting thing about that report – at least, from our perspective – is that there was no mention of Chieng being Australian. In fact, there was no mention of it in his other appearance either, which is strange because that’s usually the first thing they do. Trevor Noah is getting a lot of quality mileage out of his South African heritage, and even Jason Jones and Samantha Bee would exploit the fact that they’re from Canada if an outsider perspective was needed to make a gag work.

What they did emphasise was Chieng’s actual heritage. He may have started his career in Australia, but Chieng was born in Malaysia, a fact that is underscored in this field report. To be fair, the joke in question – Chieng mocking of the electoral office using a 56k dialup modem, something his “grandmother in Malaysia” wouldn’t even use – would not have worked if he’d mentioned Australia. Sure, disfavourably comparing any country’s internet to Australia’s woeful network is funny, but Americans don’t know that. Malaysia having superior internet is funnier for reasons that should be self-evident. (Racism. The reason is racism.)

It will be interesting to see if they ever mention the Australian connection. Chieng is The Daily Show’s first Asian correspondent, and with shows increasingly pressured to show diversity (and diversity beyond the white-black dynamic that often shuts out Latinos and Asians), there’s a lot more to be gained from drawing a line under the Malaysian connection. They can probably get away with it, too. Unless you’re the Sherlock Holmes of linguistics, able to tell from the slight lilt of the vowel which part of the Southern Hemisphere you spent you early 20s in, nobody’s going to be scratching their head wondering why they’re not making bloomin’ onion jokes.

(References to Bloomin’ Onions – a dish served at the US chain Outback Steakhouse –are the staple go-to Australian reference for Americans, like “lucky charms” when they’re talking about the Irish. Even high-minded comedy shows like The Daily Show still favour gags about countries that need to be explained to the people they’re actually about.)

So Australia hasn’t quite planted a flag in the US late-night expat invasion just yet, so we should perhaps be gracious and give Malaysia some credit for its coup. This is the Asian Century, after all.

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1 Comment

  • Billy c says:

    Ronny doesn’t consider himself Australian. Wasn’t born here. Didn’t go to high school here. I’d happily claim him if he wanted to be