In Australia: Wednesdays, 9pm, ABC
It’s a given that pretty much every actor and comedian in the anglophone world now heads off to the US to seek their fortunes; what’s less acknowledged is that they often temporarily return to their home countries, reputation enhanced by the experiences abroad, with greater star power than before, able to carry their own home-grown series.
Ronny Chieng is one such world traveller. He’s doing quite well for himself in the US on The Daily Show as a correspondent, but last year he returned to Australia to develop a comedy pilot for ABC, Ronny Chieng: International Student, based on his experiences of coming from Malaysia to study law in Australia. That did well enough to not only get a series but attract the attention of Comedy Central (US), who are now co-financing and airing the series later in the year.
The series proper continues where that pilot left off, with Chieng still living with a bunch of other Asian international students in the ‘International House’ of the campus, while hanging out with Australian gal pal Molly Daniels (Upper Middle Bogan). Added to the mix is new arrival from the US Patch May (Home and Away), who’d really like International House to be like a US frat house.
The humour stems largely from jokes about Asian culture, some stereotypical (eg Tiger moms who know no boundaries), some surprisingly fresh and novel. Episode two (Asian Rules Football), for example, sees the nerdy Asians suddenly the darlings of the legal faculty’s Aussie Rules football team thanks to their awesome kicking skills, acquired from hours playing a game called ‘jianzi’, ‘capteh’ or ‘da cau’ (depending on whether you come from China, Malaysia or Vietnam), meaning they can avoid being tackled for the entire game. Ever seen that before? No, me neither.
But mostly the show mines some regular university comedy staples – the clapped out old lecturer who brings his personal life into everything, including his lectures; the overly politically correct staff; trying to maintain the correct distance from one’s parents, particularly when girls are around; and trying to be cool while studying hard.
Chieng maintains more or less the same blunt persona he’s crafted on The Daily Show, but here he’s less in control and more perpetually frustrated by everyone around him. He’s also by no means the bluntest of the group, meaning that he’s often the peacemaker of the piece.
A tamer, more Australian, more Asian version of Dear White People, the show benefits considerably from May and Daniels’ characters providing sounding boards to explain cultural issues to – I almost understand Aussie Rules now, which is something I never thought would happen. It also provides plenty of chuckles, if not outright gaffaws.
Ronny Chieng: International Student isn’t an A-student but it’s a good B at least, having enough elements of truth, enough freshness and enough laughs that it’s worth giving a try.