Ken Jeong plays a doctor in new fall sitcom Dr. Ken (Toronto Star)
August 6, 2015
By Tony Wong
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF.—Ken Jeong may have single-handedly set back the image of Asian Americans in cinema with his portrayal of the hyperactive gangster Mr. Chow on The Hangover.
The effeminate, drug-addled Chow had elements of Charlie Chan mixed in with some early Fu Manchu and not a little Bugs Bunny, all seemingly hopped up on speed.
Now the comic (who also memorably plays Ben Chang on Community) is portraying the most conventional Asian character imaginable: a doctor on the new fall ABC sitcom Dr. Ken.
In this case, Jeong has rare credibility. He happens to be a physician.
“It’s great that the public can accept me in these extreme roles like Mr. Chow and now they get to see me play something a little more grounded, a little more personal based on my own experiences as a doctor,” Jeong said in an interview with the Star.
In a watershed moment for diversity on network television, Jeong’s show is the second Asian American comedy to feature a primarily Asian cast. ABC also debuted Fresh Off the Boat last fall. And it comes 21 years after Margaret Cho’s landmark All American Girl featured a primarily Asian cast. That sitcom ended disastrously with the actress clashing with the network over issues of authenticity.
This time around Jeong, as the creator, executive director and star of the show, says he has “unprecedented creative input.”
The half-hour comedy series is loosely based on Jeong’s life. He was a practising physician with a medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His wife is also a doctor and still works part-time.
In the show, his character’s wife is also a doctor, but a psychiatrist, played by comic Suzy Nakamura. Canada’s Dave Foley ( Kids in the Hall, Spun Out) is a snarky hospital administrator.
Jeong said he used to moonlight as a standup comedian while still doctoring. He overcompensated for the “frivolous” pastime by being a “super serious” doctor. Despite the acting gig, he misses his patients.
“I still keep in touch with them on Facebook,” he says.
His first major break was in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, also playing a doctor. But it wasn’t until he was cast as the diminutive gangster Mr. Chow in The Hangover that he burst into the public consciousness. And he says unapologetically that it is his proudest work yet, despite the fact it deliberately reinforces stereotypes.
Jeong defends his characterization, saying the role is meant to be an ironic send-up of Asian tropes.
“You really play it so hard you actually burst through that stereotype,” Jeong said. “You commit the whole nine yards and don’t apologize for anything. Play it with conviction. I obviously don’t talk like Mr. Chow and I’m not an international criminal.”
It’s questionable whether the intended audience for The Hangover sees the ironic overtones of Mr. Chow — or whether they were laughing with him or at him — but Jeong has sparked one of the more lucid contemporary pop culture comedic creations to be immortalized in film.
“I’ve always considered myself to be the second generation Asian American Fred MacMurray,” Jeong joked at the Television Critics Association conference.
Fans of Mr. Chow may be disappointed with Dr. Ken. There are no crazy, ten-gallon hats and Jeong does not speak in slurs: “We had a crazy night bitches!”
The premiere episode has Jeong installing a daughter tracker app on his child’s smartphone. In other words, he is a thoroughly conventional parent, Asian or otherwise.
Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, which is based on the memoirs of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, the characters do not talk with accents nor are they stuck in a ’90s time warp.
In that sense, Dr. Ken may do more to normalize the image of Asians on TV than Fresh Off the Boat.
It is more a star vehicle with characters who happen to be Asian than a show specifically about being Asian.
Jeong says his show wouldn’t be on the air if not for All American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat and the cancelled TBS show Sullivan & Son, which featured a Korean male lead.
“Each of those shows paved the way,” said Jeong. “And I think collectively we help each other in so many ways. We are all part of something that’s cool, that’s reflecting our society out there.”
In my early review of Fresh Off the Boat I had a problem with the characters never seeming to move beyond caricature (the Tiger Mom, the bumbling deferential dad). It remains astonishing how little the bar has budged in the decades since Cho pioneered Asians in prime time. The archetypes are so fiercely imprinted.
Playing a doctor will not tip the balance much further. But perhaps that’s the point. Seeing Asians in everyday situations making corny jokes like every other sitcom is in itself a step.
As Jeong says: “I think it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Look, I’m very different from Margaret Cho or Randall Park or John Cho. We need to show that there is diversity even within the Asian community. That there is more than one ‘type’ of Asian. If we do just that, then maybe we’ve gotten somewhere.”