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Malaysian comedian behind viral Uncle Roger video on YouTube ‘super grateful’ people love his work

HONG KONG — More than 11.6 million YouTube views can’t be wrong. That’s how many people have watched a comedy sketch posted in July by Malaysian stand-up comedian Nigel Ng.

Uncle Roger (left), a sketch created by Malaysian stand-up comedian Nigel Ng.

Uncle Roger (left), a sketch created by Malaysian stand-up comedian Nigel Ng.

HONG KONG — More than 11.6 million YouTube views can’t be wrong. That’s how many people have watched a comedy sketch posted in July by Malaysian stand-up comedian Nigel Ng.

“It’s been a crazy month,” Mr Ng tells the Post from his London home. “I’m not complaining. I feel really lucky to get this type of success. People say this virality is the result of hard work, but it’s also a lot of luck. I’m just super grateful.”

Mr Ng, 29, appears in the video as Uncle Roger, his outraged and outrageously funny alter ego. He offers a blow-by-blow commentary on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) video guide to preparing egg fried rice. The unfortunate chef, Ms Hersha Patel, is mocked with a variety of exclamations and gestures that range from disapproval to disbelief.

Ms Patel’s culinary crimes include: Measuring the water with a “British” tea cup instead of her finger; failing to wash the rice and – worst of all; draining the cooked rice with a colander. Cue the meme-busting cry: “You killing me woman! She’s draining rice with colander!”

The video, Uncle Roger DISGUSTED by this Egg Fried Rice Video (BBC Food), went viral. “It blew up through Twitter, Reddit, and [Facebook group] Subtle Asian Traits. Then newspapers started picking it up. Then, people started making the memes,” Mr Ng says.

The result is that both Mr Ng and Uncle Roger – a stereotypical middle-aged Malaysian “uncle” – have enjoyed the sort of success that normally takes comedians years to achieve. Mr Ng has been performing stand-up since 2011, although he only went full-time last year.

“As comedians, we work our whole lives hoping for a break. And I feel I am lucky enough to get one,” he said. “When I made this video, I would have been happy with 20,000 views. I had 9,000 subscribers on YouTube. When the video pushed me to 10,000, I was like ‘Yes! That was my goal for the year’.”

Six weeks later, Mr Ng’s YouTube channel has 903,000 subscribers and Mr Ng is adjusting to being recognised on the streets of London. “Not in Western places. Just in Chinatown.”

There are many ways to explain the video’s success, not the least of which is rice.

“To us in Asia, rice is such a staple, we take it for granted. I didn’t even think about how I made it until I came to the Western world,” says Mr Ng. Why did Ms Patel tickle his funny bone? “It was just the way she prepared it. If I showed any Asian person the video, they would find it hilarious that anyone would cook rice like that.”

Much of Mr Ng’s comedy is generated from highlighting the tensions between his upbringing in Malaysia and his experiences in the United States and Britain. “I wasn’t raised in a very Western environment. I went to a Chinese-speaking school. In my group of friends, the goal was to be a white-collar worker: An engineer, lawyer, accountant.”

It wasn’t until Mr Ng moved to the US to study engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois that he told jokes in public. “I wanted to do comedy because I left Malaysia and went to America. I got bitten by the Western, idealist, opinionated, democracy bug.”

Comedy remained a hobby even after Mr Ng relocated to London, where he worked as a data scientist. By 2019, though, comedy had become something like a full-time job: Mr Ng was performing on television and had been nominated for the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, held in Scotland.

This recognition coincided with his decision in January of the same year to produce content for YouTube and Instagram. Mr Ng filmed, edited and marketed the videos himself, his motivation being an entrepreneurial desire to build his fan base and improve his prospects.

“In the comedy industry, you need to sell tickets under your name. You start to get ‘door splits’ where you take 60 per cent of the ticket sales. The more tickets you sell, the more money you make.”

Online platforms have allowed Mr Ng, whether he is working as Uncle Roger or co-hosting the Rice to Meet You podcast with Swedish comedian Evelyn Mok, to retain creative control while expanding his audience.

Television can generate greater exposure for a comedian – but opportunities are limited for a Malaysian comedian.

“I’m Asian. I talk about Asian stuff. There’s not necessarily an outlet especially in Britain to talk about the things I want to talk about,” he says.

In many respects, Uncle Roger is a product of the internet, emerging as a something of an in-joke on Rice to Meet You.

“From the first episodes, I had this very Asian uncle personality. Uncle Roger was a heightened version of that.” Mr Ng also drew on his formative years in Kuala Lumpur. Was there an Uncle Roger in his past?

“Oh yeah, all the time. If you grew up in Asia, you would recognise this kind of archetype. This sassy, condescending uncle who complains about everything, but ultimately is funny and nice.”

Mr Ng and Uncle Roger’s fans include Asian-American comedian Jenny Yang and Ms Patel, the butt of his breakthrough performance. As the video’s popularity grew, Ms Patel was trolled by people online. Did the abuse cause Mr Ng discomfort?

“As it started picking up steam, I did get a bit nervous. I hoped she wasn’t under a lot of attack. Ultimately, the video is just comedy, but you know how the internet is. People get angry really easily.”

The “rice-gate” controversy has a suitably cyber-happy ending. The pair filmed a sequel in which Uncle Roger met his nemesis face to face. This historic encounter attracted more than 5.7 million views. More videos are in the works.

“I was glad she had a good sense of humour about it. We tried to see how we could fix it and use it to our advantage. Hersha’s Instagram and YouTube have grown. She’s a great collaborator. We are helping each other out, which is only fair.”

Ms Ng’s big break couldn’t have happened at a better time. With London’s vibrant comedy circuit decimated by the coronavirus, his online success has provided him with a much-needed financial boost.

“Patreon (a paid membership platform) covers rent. The YouTube ad revenue will definitely keep me going for a bit. But I haven’t bought a Rolex or anything!”

Mr Ng believes online platforms are “the most important thing right now”, and estimates that 200 physical gigs a year earns him a maximum of 4,000 new subscribers for his online platforms. The impact of an Uncle Roger video, though, is theoretically limitless.

“When I am sleeping, I generate new fans, new followers, new views.”

No wonder Mr Ng has invested in help to produce more Uncle Roger videos, a move which frees him up to write more material.

Once a coronavirus vaccine is found, Mr Ng hopes to develop his own stand-up alongside Uncle Roger’s persona. He is canny enough to know that his phenomenal breakthrough will be hard to match. “All this stuff isn’t replicable. I can make another video critiquing another egg fried rice thing, but it won’t do as well.”

He also accepts that, for some, Uncle Roger is an acquired taste. Mr Ng, who is collaborating with Ms Mok and fellow comedian Ken Cheng on a comedy pilot for BBC Radio 4 called Drop the Dead Panda, says he thinks Uncle Roger may be too much for BBC listeners.

“Even having an East Asian show is a big step forward. Let’s not sensory overload them,” he laughs. “They’re not ready for (Uncle Roger) yet.” SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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