AARON CHEN IS SCRATCHING, rather furiously, at a bug bite on his leg. The 28-year-old comedian has spent the past half hour posing in some bushes at a park in the Brooklyn borough of Bed–Stuy, where he recently relocated. Clearly, the local insects are happy to have him here. “It’s alright, I get bitten everywhere I go,” he assures us, as he heads back into the scrub for another take.
Australia is blessed with many great comics, but Chen is a real national treasure. He’s been performing stand-up since high school—he won the ‘Class Clowns’ competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2012—and while that’s a peak by any measure, his career has only gone uphill since then. His shows continuously sell out and his jokes get just as big a reaction from Gen-Z hipsters as they do their Gen-X grandparents.
“You are a shining beacon of originality for your generation. Be proud,” reads one comment on his YouTube special, If Weren’t Filmed, Nobody Would Believe, which has been viewed almost a million times.
Recently, a role in Kitty Flanagan’s wildly popular ABC sitcom Fisk saw his international following balloon. Now, he’s based in New York and ready to crack the big time. And believe us—he’ll do just that.
ESQUIRE AUSTRALIA: You moved here three weeks ago. How are you finding it so far?
AARON CHEN: It’s like a concrete jungle. But I really like all the food. Like, I love hot dogs—that’s been my favourite thing. The hot dogs and pizza are great.
EA: Is it appropriate to ask if you’re here on a visa?
AC: Yes, it’s actually called an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’ visa. That’s not a joke.
EA: Wow. New York is the epicentre of comedy—was it always your goal to move here?
AC: I think so… New York is really the ‘thing’. It’s such a big scene and there’s so much going on. It’s been crazy already. You’ll go to a comedy show and all these big names will just drop in. Like, I’ve been on two shows in one week where Eric André has just dropped in.
EA: What’s it been like performing in front of an American crowd?
AC: It’s actually quite fun, because people don’t know me, so it’s like a blank slate. It feels a bit like how it felt to do stand-up when I was first starting out. It feels like you have to prove yourself, but you can get these really authentic belly laughs and crowds are very attentive here.
EA: Has that been intimidating—having to prove yourself all over again?
AC: It was at first. But I’m really enjoying it. I think the curious thing for crowds here is that I’m Asian, but I have an Australian accent. I think they find our accent and mannerisms really funny. But also the jokes… they like the jokes. I have had to tweak a few Australianisms though. Like, in this one joke, I had to change Dymocks to Hudson News. And I’ve been writing some new stuff, although nothing too substantial yet.
EA: What’s been inspiring you?
AC: Just moving here, and… what people think is normal in America is so different from what we think is normal [in Australia]. So that’s interesting. I’m still in tourist mode, observing.
EA: What’s one major difference you’ve observed so far?
[Chen pulls out his phone and scrolls through his notes app.]
AC: Oh, one thing that was crazy to me is that you can bring dogs on aeroplanes in America. They’re called ‘emotional support dogs’, but apparently everyone has one. We don’t really do that in Australia. I also wonder, how do the dogs go to the bathroom on the plane? That’s something to look into I guess.
EA: Do many of your jokes start as notes in your phone?
AC: Yeah. When I see, or think of something funny, it will pretty much come to me in mostly joke form. It’s normally all there. And then I’ll go on stage and try it and if it’s not working, I’ll tweak it or whatever. But when the idea comes to me, it’s normally like 70 per cent of the way there. But that just means it doesn’t come that often.
EA: You got married recently.
AC: I did.
EA: Congratulations. Is it true that you proposed by placing the ring in a box of chicken nuggets?
AC: Um, a lot of the mainstream media thought I did. But we actually took that photo of the ring in the nuggets like a week later. We were eating McDonalds and we thought it would be a funny thing to do. I think it was [his wife] Esther’s idea. But yeah, I guess the Daily Mail thought that was my actual genuine proposal.
EA: Fisk has been so successful, especially here in the US. Has its popularity surprised you?
AC: I think no one saw that coming. Not even [creator and star] Kitty Flanagan. Like, I always knew it was a great show and it would do really well, but when it was put on Netflix [in August], it was like the fourth most-watched Netflix show in America. So it feels really nice ’cause I think Kitty worked so hard on it, and she’s so funny.
EA: Your character, George the ‘Webmaster’, seems like he was written specifically for you.
AC: Yeah, I think he might’ve been. They just let me be me. It was really fun.
EA: Do you feel like Australian comedy is getting more recognition on the world stage?
AC: I don’t know. I feel like Australian comedy is always kind of there and then once in a while there’ll be something that really pops off, like The Castle or something like that. I don’t know what it is now, but I think Australian comedy is always good.
EA: I read that as your audience has grown, you’ve pushed yourself to be “objectively funny” rather than “subjectively funny”. What does that mean?
AC: I think it’s just realising more and more that the stand-up comedy I want to do is comedy everyone can find funny. I think back in the day, I could do a joke that worked well in a comedy festival or in a club in Sydney, but then you’d take it to like, the Gold Coast circuit and it would bomb. And it’s tempting to be like, ‘it’s ’cause these guys are a bad crowd’ or whatever. But actually, the challenge is to make stuff that works anywhere, for different types of people. And I think that’s what I want to do with it.