The holidays, more than any other time of the year, remind us of just how much unnecessary waste we as a people generate. Double-bagged groceries, toys swaddled in layers of plastic, and packing peanuts are about as American as apple pie. Ronny Chieng is quick to point this out on his new Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, in which he approaches every subject with either contempt, awe or admiration. At the very center of this Venn diagram: American entitlement.
Most of the time during the set, Chieng seems to exist in a perpetual state of annoyance (which he and his wife have deemed a “tone issue”), and that’s when he’s at his funniest. Between his use of repetition and physical affectations (with a particular high point being when he describes what it’s like discussing his career with his wife’s friends), his angry moments become ones of comic catharsis. Chieng takes each subject to its hyperbolic end, and is especially insightful when he discusses American desire for goods-on-demand. He notes that the logical conclusion of our same-day-delivery expectations is for companies to anticipate what we want before we know we want it—which is, essentially, the logic of any marketing exec and why corporations doggedly collect our personal data.
Some of Chieng’s more divisive material revolves around race (cue shock and awe). One of the Chinese comedian’s bits frames Asian people in the U.S. as the cool-headed arbiters who should mediate between black and white communities. The jokes are funny, but in a way the set up feels like a strange repackaging of the “model minority” myth. It also feels uncomfortable in the context of black-Asian conflict within the U.S., stories of which, writer Ann-Derrick Gaillot notes, rest on “the idea that each group is willing to sacrifice the other in order to overcome white subjugation.” During his Netflix hour, Chieng discusses how the United States is not a monolith, as well as the complex history of East Asia, including tensions between Japan and China. However, when it comes to discussing Asian people within the U.S., he reduces them down to one generic group who will get shit done. Not a bad notion to assert, but a reduction nonetheless considering the diverse cultural backgrounds from which these immigrants hail. At the same time, I’m writing this as a white woman, so take this all with a giant, white grain of salt.
That part aside, Chieng accomplishes what he sets out to do during his special. He holds up a mirror to American society, we recoil in disgust, but then he makes us laugh so that the medicine goes down a little easier.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.