Ken Jeong: Man on a Wire
The Palisadian-Post Visits the Sony Set of “The Hangover” Actor’s Brand New ABC Sitcom, “Dr. Ken”
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Pali Life Editor
It’s Aug. 19 and the stakes are high: comedic actor Ken Jeong can feel the pressure…
With “Dr. Ken,” his first situation comedy since “Community,” debuting Oct. 2 on ABC, Jeong can feel the heat as he soliloquies to a lunchtime round table of “Dr. Ken” cast mates, journalists and bloggers on his set at Sony Pictures’ Stage 28.
There, within the very soundstage where “Married With Children” and “The King of Queens” taped episodes, Jeong tries to impress upon his fellow actors from his show—“Newsradio” alumnus Dave Foley, “Horrible Bosses 2” actress Suzy Nakamura, former “Martin” star Tisha Campbell-Martin, Jonathan Slavin, Kate Simses—and the editors of influential blogs for Center for Asian American Media, TaiwaneseAmerican.org and Angry Asian Man—that his latest enterprise will not suck.
More pertinently, it’s not going to embarrass millions of Asian-American viewers who, after the surprise success of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a ’90s-set sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family that just received a hard-earned second season, are counting on “Dr. Ken” to keep the narrowly opened door of Asian-American presence on network television from slamming shut again.
Jeong has come a long way since his scene-stealing role as Dr. Kuni in longtime Pacific Palisades resident Judd Apatow’s 2006 hit comedy feature “Knocked Up.” The day before, the new ensemble cast of “Dr. Ken” had sealed the deal, taping episode two of the series on which Jeong is an executive producer.
“This is the most say I’ve ever had on anything I’ve done in my career,” Jeong says, feeling the responsibility for the show bearing his name.
“And to be fair, only half his name is on it,” Foley wryly interjects.
As others at the table nibble on catered Chinese food and lox bagel sandwiches, the speed-talking Jeong has the proverbial dais and he’s on a roll in a rush of verbal virtuosity worthy of Mr. Chow, his career-ballooning character in “The Hangover” movies. Except the subtext of Jeong’s talk is no laughing matter: he discusses the oft-pitiful politics of playing Asian-American roles in Hollywood, few and far between and too often cringe-worthily stereotypical. Jeong admits that in 2009 he grabbed the role of Mr. Chow in “The Hangover” (which, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever) “because I had to. I hadn’t done a role in eight months!”
Thankfully, the network behind “Dr. Ken” has been at the forefront of extending the Asian footprint on television, from the failed Margaret Cho vehicle “All-American Girl” in 1994 to Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy” to the recent “Selfie” (starring “Harold & Kumar” lead John Cho) and “Fresh Off the Boat” (headed by Randall Park of “The Interview”). In a full circle moment, Cho guests as Jeong’s sister on “Dr. Ken” this season.
“Now I am behind the scenes and I’m not gonna [expletive] let go!” Jeong says.
“He’s used to just coming in and being the super funny guy or the third banana and stealing his scenes and then going home [and not the lead],” says “Dr. Ken” showrunner Mike Sikowitz. “So in that sense this is very different [for Jeong]. He is number one on the call sheet and he’s the face of the show, he’s on all the billboards. It’s an ensemble show, but it’s no secret: he’s what ABC is selling and he’s what we’re putting out there.”
The doctor-turned-actor credits Samie Falvey, head of comedy development at ABC, for making “Dr. Ken” (inspired by his years as an HMO physician) happen, adding that his show’s creative influence is Dan Harmon, creator/showrunner of NBC’s “Community,” on which Jeong played Ben Chang. Jeong feels Harmon had the right spirit: “They didn’t talk about diversity but they happened to be diverse.”
When someone at the table makes Jeong aware that he’s dropped a few F bombs in front of young Albert Tsai (Jeong’s son on “Dr. Ken”), Jeong jokes how Tsai is actually 21 years old and had been out clubbing the night before. From the empty audience seating above, Margaret, Albert’s watchful mother, who has accompanied her son all the way from their home in San Jose, laughs off the non-incident. Albert, after all, has heard it all before. Besides, Tsai has already worked opposite Jeong and Foley last year on “Hot in Cleveland.”
“He’s our Betty White,” Foley jokes, referencing “Cleveland.”
Nine years ago, Jeong was still working as a general doctor at an HMO when he took a week’s vacation to audition for “Knocked Up.” He suddenly found himself at a table read with Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Kathryn Heigl and Apatow’s actress wife Leslie Mann, even though he was told “you don’t have the part yet!”
“Knocked Up,” which grossed $220-million worldwide, ushered Jeong’s cinematic debut.
“I barely had any lines,” Jeong recalls, but Apatow allowed him to improvise.
“I did a 10-minute rant and I got applause at the end of the thing,” Jeong continues telling the Palisadian-Post.
Thanks to Rudd, Jeong landed the comedically rich supporting role of King Argotron (which, Jeong notes, was originally intended for a Caucasian actor) in the 2008 feature comedy “Role Models.”
(For a behind-the-scenes look at this film, see “The Westside’s Starring Role in ‘Role Models’” [July 30] in the Post’s archives.)
Jeong discussed how, even on a show on which he has producer authority, he has to weed out the cheap Asian gags his writers sometimes propose.
“Writing is rewriting,” Jeong said. “There are 20 versions of the same script every day.”
Count Palisadians DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, creators of another ABC sitcom, “The Middle,” among those excited about their network’s continued push for diversity.
“I’m a big fan of color blind casting,” Heisler says.
“They’re smart to do family shows,” Heline adds, regarding ABC. “It’s great to have the diversity; having different families represented.”
“They’ve become aware that there’s many people out there in the world,” Heisler says. “By being specific, stories are universal. ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is about this Asian-American family but millions of families watch the show and say, ‘Oh, that’s just like our family!’”
Ultimately, Jeong is not so much eager to please as he is eager to exercise quality control and not see yet another show with a prominent Asian-American personality on it fail, especially after the success of “Fresh Off the Boat.” Forget about the Asian particulars of “Dr. Ken,” Jeong says: “Man, I just want this to be funny!”