Speakeasy’ Netflix Comedy Special Review
Chieng in Speakeasy.
Photo: Marcus Russell Price/Netflix
Let’s get rid of this: speakeasy it looks superb. The special, Ronny Chieng’s second with Netflix, opens with a photo of the comedian and his wife walking down Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown (to the beat of a Chinese folk song), then diving into Chinese Tuxedo – the trendy Cantonese restaurant which serves as a place of the night. Chieng is dressed in a white tuxedo blazer and black bow tie. Indeed, the whole opening sequence seems to go towards a whiff of nostalgia, referring to an earlier time, to another place: the place bears the name of another restaurant closed for a long time. It’s in a building that once housed New York’s first Chinese-language theater. When Chieng takes the stage, it’s on a small round platform in the middle of the dining room surrounded by red lanterns, candles and potted foliage from more equatorial climates. Shot by director Sebastian DiNatale, it’s a production brimming with iconography – Chinese-American iconography.
It’s a shame, then, that Chieng’s actual material is never as interesting as speakeasy looks. At best, it’s a passable special that appropriately uses Chieng’s particular perspective on American politics. At worst, it’s an hour away from a privileged outsider who taps into Asian American tropes without quite knowing what to make of their meaning.
Chieng occupies a rare position: it is a globally oriented stand-up whose main job is to make comedy out of American politics. Born in Malaysia and of Chinese ethnicity, Chieng grew up partly in Singapore and partly in the United States. By the time he returned to the United States in 2015, he had already toured Australia, New Zealand and Asia. But it was in the United States that he found, in many ways, the grandest stage possible for his work after landing a spot on the team of the Daily show — at a time when it’s run by fellow world-class comedian Trevor Noah.
Both on this show and during his specials, Chieng has a compelling kinetic presence. He often comes off like he’s holding back from grabbing you by the lapels, and there’s a distinct pleasure to speakeasy watching him transcend the small raised circle to assert control of the room. Chieng is better in the first half, which opens with a lament over the “I’m just doing my own research” school of American COVID skepticism. “All those fucking average D students who are at the bottom of the class their entire college career,” he growls, an accusing finger piercing the air. “Stay back!” Do not come to the front for a pandemic because you figured out how to start a podcast. speakeasy is steeped in politically flavored frustration, but its best sections revolve around conceits in which Chieng capitalizes on the gap between the American public and the specificity of his own background: “It’s very difficult to explain Singapore to Americans. ” A beat. “It’s very difficult to explain any other country to Americans.” There are a few tired bits – including a joke about the pill as a way to express the generic differences between men and women, and an early mob work gag grounded in determining which race has the worst racists is comes with such a predictable gain that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it elsewhere.
The special loses focus around half an hour. It’s not that Chieng isn’t able to maintain his momentum for an hour; it ultimately goes nowhere. A long chunk of his distaste for the UK begins with a nod to anti-colonial posturing: “I’m very pro-Brexit,” he begins, stiffening his body and giving off a playful sense of unease from the room. The bit eventually turns into his personal frustrations with working comedy festivals in the UK Which, you know, very well. Some of these stories are quite amusing, but the setup implies that he intends to go further than he does. You keep waiting for him to take the next step, push the line further, and discover something new. At the end, the special feels confusing and strange. Things aren’t helped by the fact that the home stretch is anchored by a sprawling rant about reviews: “Who the fuck reviews comedy without irony?” The section suffers from both a lack of precision – online trolls, professional comedy critics, audience members and Twitter users are all confused in the review stream – and a lack of real insight. . “You can find flaws in anything if you look hard enough,” he says. “You can find flaws in the Mona Lisa. What does that mean?” Yeah OK. But what Is that means?
The most interesting and promising aspects of Chieng’s work have always fallen in the moments when he exploits the advantages offered to him by his biography. He lived as an ethnic minority in several countries and as a majority in one; he took up an artistic profession (already a sin as an Asian) that is historically framed as rooted in American freedom of speech (generally speaking, a freedom not widely held on the Asian continent); he has spent the last decade honing his craft in multiple cultural contexts. Now that it seems to be gaining traction in the US – even catching small parts in boobies rich asian and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — Chieng brings with it a real promise of disruption. Consider how its rising profile might overlap with the current definition of Asian American popular culture, which continues to strive for self-actualization while navigating the space between accusations of white adjacency and black appropriation. How does this relate to someone, like Chieng, who is not an Asian American but an Asian in America?
You can see some flashes of these questions play out in his two Netflix specials. In particular, there is an early moment in speakeasy what makes the difference between Chieng and most Asians living in the United States – that because of his comfortable roots in Southeast Asia, his international career and his growing success, he has the power to withdraw. It’s a bit fanciful when he false implores the sweet release of nullification. “Cancel me. Cancel me. Do it. to cancel me,” he says, his head tilted slightly forward, working the repetition of his words to a foaming point. It’s a common tactic in his delivery: speeding and chaotic, hitting the same words over and over again to create a deafening sense of saturation. (From its first special, commenting on the supreme conveniences of Amazon Prime: “We need it Prime. We need Prime harder, faster, stronger! This comes from Chieng’s character – marked by a sort of suffocating exasperation with the stupidity of the world. The repetition crescendos, and, when the punchline arrives, it’s a bad trick. “What are you going to do? Cancel me, so I have to go back to Malaysia… where I’m a national hero? And the monetary benefit is totally in my favor?”
The joke returns and folds inwards: Why does he even want to be here in the first place when “half the country has lost its mind, the virus is raging out of control, major metropolitan areas are literally on fire”? — or so said Chieng’s mother in Singapore in a plea for him to leave the United States “I had to tell my mother, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t see what I see,” he says, “that America, for all its faults, is still the country where you can tell dick jokes for $12 in New York. It’s a deeply fun sequence, but the line of inquiry ends where things start to get interesting. What does it mean that “doing this in America” continues to be the ideal despite everything? Chieng constantly gestures towards these kinds of questions, but, on almost every occasion, he fails to follow through.
I can’t help but feel invested in Chieng’s work. Like him, I happen to be a Malaysian of Chinese descent with ties to Singapore and Australia and continue to identify as such despite having emigrated to the United States more than ten years ago. years old – an Asian in America, not an Asian American. My impulse is to see him as a sort of proxy for people like me and, perhaps, a test case that could provide some insight into the state of the diaspora. I feel it even though I know it gives too much weight to a brutal representation policy.
What Chieng and I have in common, and what we don’t, also means that I can’t help but perceive a somewhat conservative bent in his comedy — a meritocracy-obsessed bias that, for me , looks very Singaporean to me. This is found in speakeasy in various forms: in the way Chieng berates America’s COVID skeptics for being poorly educated; in a rant in which he argues that “before you’re allowed to comment on anything online, you should be required to do something with your life”; and in the special’s closing joke, in which he talks about when someone physically assaulted him on the street – then wonders if the perpetrator of a hate crime against Chieng should be praised for being more proactive than the people who criticize him online. “I still respect that woman more than those fucking bloggers who criticize Twitter/Yelp,” he says, “because she was upset about something in her life. She got her ass up to do something. She didn’t just sit behind her keyboard… No, she didn’t like Asians. She went and committed a hate crime. That’s an intriguing twist. That doesn’t work either. hate crime joke like this could become an intentionally absurd provocation, but, given that the track is rooted in Chieng’s extreme sensitivity to online criticism, it seems deeply marred by superficial vanity.
These aspects of Chieng’s work deserve more attention than they get and, frankly, so does my own impulse to see his work in relation to Asian American culture. The problem is that the gains among Asians in the entertainment industry in the United States – let alone the world of comedy – are still a recent phenomenon. It’s almost impossible not to see Chieng’s rising profile as part of the conversation about “representation” and the tensions that come with it. speakeasy is a special that plays with symbols of identity politics, and Chieng is a comedian whose jokes often draw on tropes associated with Asian America. That seems like reason enough to wonder if Chieng actually has anything to say about them – and to be frustrated when he refuses to speak on behalf of anyone other than himself. But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe we should just take him at his word. “Everyone thinks that just because I’m on The daily show, I’m here to save the world,” he says in the special. “I’m not here to save the world, man. I’m here to talk shit, make money and bounce back!