Ronny Chieng follows in the time-honoured tradition of lawyers becoming comedians. However, it almost didn’t happen. Chieng, whose show at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival sold so well he had to finish the last week in the bigger Forum venue and perform his final night in the main room of the Town Hall, was going to quit stand-up two years ago in favour of law.
“That was the year I won the Best Newcomer Award, so that’s what stopped it from happening,” he says of 2012. “I was going to quit after that, that was going to be my first and last comedy festival season. I was going to do it and stop but the show hit off and I started getting more gigs … I didn’t go in with any expectations and I didn’t feel like anyone owes me anything, so it’s been a really cool ride so far.”
The Malaysian-born Chieng, who was raised in the US and Singapore before moving to Australia to study, followed his maiden win in Melbourne with a Best Show nomination at the 2013 Sydney Comedy Festival. He has performed twice at the prestigious invitation-only Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Sydney Opera House, and sold out a two-week season at London’s Soho Theatre.
Chieng believes it was law school, and being around highly competitive individuals there, that gave him the foundation on which to build his comedy career. “I was kind of trained in that work ethic and figuring out the best way to approach things, so I think that has definitely helped in comedy and knowing how to conduct yourself in a professional manner,” he says.
“I think a lot of lawyers don’t make as big a deal of it as I do, where I talk about it onstage a lot. Everyone is pretty low-key with it – in fact, most people try to hide it – but I’m the opposite, I keep flaunting it,” he laughs.
Chieng’s stand-up success has translated into a television career as well – his credits including Problems, It’s A Date, Dirty Laundry Live and Tractor Monkeys, all on ABC, plus SBS1’s Legally Brown. “I’ve been pretty lucky to get acting opportunities or personal appearance opportunities. I really like doing both.”
For this year’s comedy festival, he’s presenting his third solo show, Chieng Reaction.
“I usually don’t do theme shows, I just do stand-up because I do a lot of touring comedy in clubs and stuff. So there’s no real coherent theme, but there’s definitely some topics I address in this one. [In] this one I’m going after condescending Apple Store employees; I talk a little bit about my parents and what they think about what I do, because that’s a very common question I get. I talk a bit about travelling. I’m kind of in a weird place, because my profile is getting bigger but I’m not famous – so it’s that weird in-between where sometimes people recognise you but don’t know who you are, so I talk a little bit about that. And that’s basically the show.”