Ronny Chieng Thrives on Conflict in Speakeasy

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Ronny Chieng Thrives on Conflict in <i>Speakeasy</i>

“I’m here to talk shit, make money, and bounce!” Ronny Chieng declares part way through his latest Netflix special, Speakeasy. In the hour or so he spends at the Chinese Tuxedo, he certainly talks some shit, and while we haven’t seen his bank statements, considering Chieng’s appearances in blockbusters like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Godzilla vs. Kong, we’re guessing he’s doing well for himself financially. After a set as entertaining as Speakeasy, though, we hope he’s not bouncing any time soon.

Chieng’s comedy is always intelligent, even though it occasionally veers into the holier-than-thou territory common on The Daily Show (on which he’s a correspondent). It’s still fun to follow along, though, whether he’s ruminating on why D students are now clamoring to be at the front of the class during the pandemic or explaining the complexities of birth control pills. His jokes about contraception are not just hilarious, but also informative—I didn’t learn that gastrointestinal issues dampen the pill’s effectiveness until a few years into taking it. In all honesty, Chieng could be saving someone’s skin here. Also, he gave us the term “diarrhea babies,” and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Some of the special’s most satisfying moments involve elaborate set ups on Chieng’s part, and he’s a master of ramping up the tension in the room. One of these extended bits, all about why Chieng doesn’t like the UK, also manages to incorporate his friend James Acaster’s unfortunate history with Mr. Bean (for more on that, check out Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 by Acaster himself). It’s the type of niche crossover that may not pay off for the entire audience, but lands for comedy nerds tuning in. And that’s not even the actual punchline of the bit, just a nice stopover partway through.

The other carefully stretched out joke, involving which race is the worst, allows Chieng to get adversarial with the audience, which is where he really thrives. He loves a challenge, and his repeated, shrugging statements of, “Cancel me,” are both trollish dares and knowing demonstrations of just how meaningless the notion of “canceling” is.

Chieng’s self-awareness extends beyond the false fear of cancellation and into the art of comedy itself. He invokes “the ups and downs of comedy” so much during the show that it becomes its own joke, but his points about the craft and self-reflection necessary for stand-up hold true. He’s peeling back the curtain on his work and keeping us laughing.

Towards the end of his set, Chieng asks, “Who the fuck reviews comedy?” (This asshole.) He asserts that if you’re looking for flaws, you’re going to find them, because to err is human. It’s a strangely wholesome conclusion from a comedian who usually feeds on conflict.

Chieng’s exquisite joke construction and delivery make Speakeasy a hilarious, engaging watch. Despite claiming he’s just on stage to “talk shit, make money, and bounce,” Chieng consistently takes the time to enlighten his audience, whether about the world at large or ourselves.

Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.