Comedian Nigel Ng will never forget his family’s reaction to the video that made him go viral in July.
In it, Ng, dressed in a bright orange polo shirt and playing a character named “Uncle Roger,” reacts to BBC Food presenter Hersha Patel making egg fried rice and committing what he deems cardinal sins of Chinese cooking: not washing rice before cooking it and using a measuring cup rather than the more informal method of dipping one’s index finger into a pot to measure the right amount of water to add, among others.
Uncle Roger’s reactions — curmudgeonly exclamations of “Ai-yah!” and disgust at soggy rice — instantly resonated online, especially with the Asian diaspora; U.S.-based comedian Jenny Yang tweeted out the video to her 47,000 followers.
“As an Asian person, I’m like, you see her draining the rice with a colander, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is so wrong,’” says the 29-year-old London-based comic. “Then scraping the metal non-stick pan with a metal spoon — that kind of thing and then, like, washing the rice right after you cook it. All together, the shit’s bananas.”
But it’s Ng’s parents — who live in his home country of Malaysia — who had the most memorable reaction. They don’t speak English that well and would have a hard time following most of his stand-up routines, he says. But when Ng’s younger sister sent him an Instagram video of the two watching the video and laughing, he was so moved, he cried.
“They wouldn’t laugh at that many things, but they could understand that,” says Ng.
However, the good vibes were short-lived: “Then the next day, my mom said, ‘Oh, you got 10 million views on YouTube. How much money did you make?’ The most Asian response,” he remembers, laughing.
Whatever it was, it’s enough for Ng to start hiring out a small team to edit and produce his weekly YouTube videos, starring Uncle Roger, a character first pitched to him by his friend and “Rice to Meet You” podcast co-host Evelyn Mok. According to Ng, Mok was working on script for a sitcom and wrote a character with him in mind: a middle-aged Cantonese uncle who works in real estate.
Ng started fleshing out Uncle Roger with short sketches posted to TikTok and Instagram. That has since grown to a YouTube channel with over 800,000 subscribers and longer videos that feature Uncle Roger doing everything from looking for love on Tinder to berating Londonites for having peanut allergies at a Michelin-starred food stall (because “Asians don’t care about food allergies,” he says). It’s a schtick that shares comedic DNA with Sacha Baron Cohen’s fish-out-of-water character Borat, if Borat were Chinese and had an ex-wife named Auntie Helen, whom he dryly refers to as a “lying ho.”
To nail Uncle Roger’s signature look, Ng asked his friends to send him pictures of their dads, which inspired his avuncular go-to outfit: knee-length shorts, a cell phone holster belt and a bright orange polo shirt, of which Ng now owns five.
“I have a teal one for a future video, maybe if I go on a date. I have a striped one, too, which is extra uncle-y,” Ng teases.
“Uncle-y” is how Ng describes his brand of stand-up, which centers on pointed observations about everything from U.K. seaside resort Butlin’s (“It’ll make you pro-global warming!”) to one of his favorite topics, rice cookers. Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, Ng looked up to American comics like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Gabriel Iglesias, partly because they were the ones famous enough to even get on his radar.
“They have to be, like, so big to even get to Malaysia, you know,” he observes.
Ng moved to the U.S. to study engineering at Northwestern University, where he first started performing comedy in Chicago. He then moved to London, to follow a now-ex-girlfriend (not named Helen) and work as a data scientist for various tech startups before pursuing comedy full-time last year. In 2019, he won the Best Newcomer award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has been featured on Comedy Central U.K.
While he says Uncle Roger — with his Cantonese accent, exclamations of “ai-yah,” and love of MSG — plays into a stereotype, it’s the subtleties about him that make him recognizable and relatable, especially to members of the East Asian diaspora. The details, from the staccato manner in which Uncle Roger speaks to the way he props up his leg while sitting (something Ng says anyone who has seen middle-aged men gathered in a coffee shop in Malaysia do), are all inspired from his own experience.
“If people view the video, and they see just a stereotype, then there’s not much I can do to change your opinion, right?,” says Ng. “But if you actually see the things, listen to the things I say and if you catch the little details and stuff, and you go to Asia and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, Uncle Roger does that!’… Hopefully, people will get it, as they get to know more Asian people. Plus, I think a majority of my fans, or at least half my fans, are Asians from Asia. They see their uncles reflected in Uncle Roger. They see their parents reflected in him.”
While the current state of the world means Ng can focus on building an online following, he says he misses being on-stage doing stand-up. He hopes to one day take Uncle Roger on the road and is even angling for a big screen role that could reunite him with fellow funnyman Ken Jeong, for whom he opened up in the U.K. last year.
“I’ll be a janitor in ‘Crazy Rich Asians 2.’ Let’s do that,” he says.
As for what would make Uncle Roger happy?
“Have you seen a happy Asian uncle? An Asian parent who’s happy? I think he’ll forever be this complain-y type,” he laughs, before adding that what makes him happy will probably make Uncle Roger the same. “So, good food. Karaoke, which is what I’m doing after this [interview], by the way. Friends, family, doing the things I like doing, being proud of my work — that actually drives me. So, hopefully, that will drive Uncle Roger, too, because I figured, he’s an extension of me.”