We asked Ronny about his new semi-autobiographical series, International Student, and why he chose to came back to the University of Melbourne to film it. “The story took place at Melbourne University, and there’s a certain authenticity with the story that you can’t fake. The stuff that happened was very specifically Australian, and some of it very specifically Melbourne Uni.”
Authenticity is important to the driven comedian, who says, “I think we get hung up on worrying about stories being too niche, but for me niche isn’t a problem. For me authenticity is more a measure of whether it will touch people in the right ways.”
“And then Melbourne Uni is a beautiful campus,” he adds, “so even if I didn’t go to Melbourne Uni, I’d probably want to come and film here anyway. Also, I asked Harvard and they said no. So you were a great second choice: the Harvard of the southern hemisphere.”
Ronny started performing comedy here in 2009, after graduating with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce, an education he credits for teaching him how to “work in teams and learn how to interact with other people,” necessities for his position at The Daily Show. “I’ve never worked on anything that demanding. You have to be smart, funny and fast at the same time, and I’m probably only ever one of those things, on a good day.”
Ronny’s current project lends itself to reflection on his time as a student. His tips for new students? “Don’t go to uni to go through the motions. You need to really want to be there and really want to be doing what you’re doing.”
Of his own time at University Ronny remembers when he wasn’t studying, he and his friends would hang out in the city playing pool and going to cheap restaurants.
“I loved staying near the uni, near the city. That whole Carlton, North Melbourne, Bouverie Street, Royal Exhibition Building area. All my friends were around there, and we had these hangouts. It was great. We took it for granted, and we didn’t know how awesome it was. Melbourne’s actually a really cool city.”
“The thing that made me feel at home was having friends from the same country. We hung out and made new Singaporean friends at the uni, and then I made local friends.”
But while Chieng is quick to point out the value of his social circle, he warns not to compare yourself to peers. “Especially in university,” he says, “it’s important to take your own path. Like, I know people who did Arts, and now they’re dentists. Uni is a great time to experiment.”
Experimentation is the subtext of International Student, says Ronny. “The story is people trying to figure out who they are, and there’s no shortcuts to that. The best you can do is try to not be an idiot, try not to make too many seriously bad decisions, and learn from what you can.”
Finally, we asked whether Ronny thought a new student about to start at university would be worried or comforted by his series.
“People about to go to uni, they’re going to have real college experiences. You know, before I went to the University of Melbourne all I had were the brochures, and I wondered what the other side of it was. I hope International Student shows what that other side is like: it’s crazy, it’s fun, you’re going to meet new people, and it’ll have its ups and downs.”
“So I think they would be comforted… but I mean, it’s not a corporate video. It shows the real side of living at Melbourne Uni, albeit in a heightened way. People will hopefully sense the authenticity in it.”
Ronny Chieng: International Student will air on ABC and iView from Wed 7 June, with it’s US premiere on Comedy Central to follow.