Ken Jeong Pounces into Primetime with “Dr. Ken”

Dr. Ken on ABC, starring Albert Tsai, Ken Jeong and Krista Marie Yu. (©ABC/Danny Feld)
Dr. Ken on ABC, starring Albert Tsai, Ken Jeong and Krista Marie Yu. (©ABC/Danny Feld)

Ken Jeong feels a great weight of expectation on his narrow, slouching shoulders. His sitcom Dr. Ken, which premieres October 2nd on ABC, is, along with Fresh Off the Boat, one of the first major network sitcoms to feature an Asian American family in over twenty years. Dr. Ken will be the first to feature an Asian American family in a major network sitcom to be taped in front of a studio audience.

I recently hung out on set with Jeong along with the cast and crew and a handful of bloggers. Lunch was on offer. Jeong was supposed to be eating, but instead he held forth at length about the show’s place in Asian American history and his determination to make the show good. “If it sucks,” he said with a seriousness unexpected for someone who became famous in The Hangover for pouncing crotch-first into Bradley Cooper’s face whilst nude, “it actually hurts us,” referring to the Asian American community.

What Jeong’s alluding to is the expanse of time that’s elapsed since the last sitcom about an Asian American family, Margaret Cho’s sitcom All American Girl—also on ABC—went off the air in 1995. Cho was famously traumatized by her experience because of the network’s insistence on fitting her irreverent comedy, and indeed her body, into a number of constraints. But where Cho was denied control of any kind, Jeong in fact finds himself in the opposite position. In addition to starring in Dr. Ken’s title role, he’s also the show’s co-executive producer and writer.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that All American Girl’s failure dangles over Jeong’s head as a measurable threat not only to his career, but to the “community” at large. It’s a shame that he feels this so sharply. Belief in an aesthetic standard that stands apart from politics and identity sometimes betrays a form of internalized oppression. We’ve all been guilty of this at some point: when an Asian American production or actor hits the mainstream, we brace ourselves and pray that it/they won’t suck. The writer and stand-up comic Jenny Yang calls this the “rep sweats,” a term she coined last year with Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu and his wife Joanna Lee during the premiere of Fresh off the Boat.

ABC's "Dr. Ken" stars Ken Jeong as Dr. Ken. (©ABC/Michael Desmond).

ABC’s “Dr. Ken” stars Ken Jeong as Dr. Ken. (©ABC/Michael Desmond).

The show is based on Jeong’s pre-celebrity life as an actual medical doctor in Los Angeles, which he frequently mined for material as a stand-up comic. The show offers a familiar set of Friday night sitcom shticks. Jeong’s character Dr. Ken Park would rather dish out insults than compassion in response to his patients’ complaints, which gets him into trouble with his off-kilter boss Pat, played by Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall and NewsRadio). Ken’s therapist wife Allison, played by Second City alum Suzy Nakamura, keeps him grounded. Ken and Allison are both employees of the same HMO, so work-life transgressions ensue.

Meanwhile, back at home with their two kids, Ken struggles to scale back the insensitivity he’s known for at work while Allison struggles to maintain her role as the level-headed one. Their children Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and Dave (Albert Tsai) variously require more and less guidance and attention than it would seem.

The show will inevitably be compared to Fresh off the Boat, despite Jeong’s insistence that the two have little in common. It’s a fair point, but one key difference is that the parents on Dr. Ken are both Asian Americans rather than recent immigrants, and neither speaks with an accent. Jeong says that future shows will explore the culture clash between Ken’s second generation Korean immigrant background and Allison’s third generation Japanese American background.

Dr. Ken enters a landscape of television programming that includes “diverse” entries like Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Cristela, and Jane the Virgin. Many commentators see this as a remarkable moment for diversity in mainstream media (even though, by the way, it’s not the first). Some have even bemoaned the trend, while others have connected it to a broader American refocusing on issues of race. Still, the appearance of two Asian American-focused shows within a year deserves special note. One wonders: why now?

Jeong says that his show and Fresh off the Boat both owe their existence to the vision of Samie Falvey, executive vice president and head of comedy at ABC. In addition to delivering hit shows like Modern Family, Falvey and her team are in fact responsible for much of the current diversity boom on television, having developed not only Fresh off the Boat, but also Black-ish, and Cristela and the John Cho vehicle Selfie (the latter two were canceled after one season). According to Jeong, prior to Falvey’s intervention, Dr. Ken languished at NBC, which picked up the show in 2013.

At any rate, even though two shows is certainly better than no shows, we’re not exactly faced with a scandal of riches. For almost every reason you think would matter to a major network, it makes sense to put more Asian Americans on the small screen. We’ve heard it all before: Asian Americans comprise the fastest growing “multicultural segment” of the US population, they have a lot of money, they like to spend it, and they’re technology and media savvy. In other words, it’s a scandal that there are only two shows. One almost wishes the culture industry would just stick to a market logic.

The show’s future will hinge on how Jeong addresses the compatibility—or incompatibility—of his particular brand of comedy with the multi-camera primetime sitcom format.

ABC's "Dr. Ken" stars Dave Foley as Pat, Tisha Campbell-Martin as Damona, Jonathan Slavin as Clark, Ken Jeong as Dr. Ken, Albert Tsai as Dave, Suzy Nakamura as Allison and Krista Marie Yu as Molly. (ABC/Michael Desmond)

ABC’s “Dr. Ken” stars Dave Foley as Pat, Tisha Campbell-Martin as Damona, Jonathan Slavin as Clark, Ken Jeong as Dr. Ken, Albert Tsai as Dave, Suzy Nakamura as Allison and Krista Marie Yu as Molly. (©ABC/Michael Desmond)

In the show’s pilot, the scheming and popular Molly—whom Yu plays with crisp, rapid-fire delivery—gets her driver’s license and then appears to have driven to a club in downtown Los Angeles. Despite Allison’s disapproval, Ken’s been tracking her movements through a secretly installed smartphone app and goes off to retrieve her. At home, Molly’s clueless younger brother Dave rehearses for his solo mime performance at his school’s talent show—an idea that Ken ridicules (drawing more wifely disapproval) just before dashing out the door. Spoiler alert: everything turns out fine.

We all know these character and narrative formulas: A-plots and B-plots, coincidences and misunderstandings, tidy resolutions. We also know how difficult it is to break from them.

As we finished up lunch and the cast settled into rehearsals—Jeong dropping f-bombs all the while (with Tsai most definitely in earshot) and somehow physically filling the hangar-like expanse of Sony’s Stage 28—what I kept thinking was that Jeong’s comic persona has always been about breaking formulas and creating discomfort. I’m eager to see how he navigates the constraints of the sitcom format. He’s optimistic: “My shit is on fleek,” he chirped over his spare ribs and Coke Zero.

As anyone who’s watched Jeong on Community or in his break-out roles in Knocked Up and The Hangover can confirm, Jeong’s shit is indeed “on fleek.” But is Dr. Ken the best venue for the kind of racial performance Jeong engages in when chirping phrases we associate more closely with black teens doing their eyebrows than forty-something Korean American model minorities? One major reason why Jeong is as funny as he is, is because he generates a unique mixture of racialized cognitive dissonance.

If Dr. Ken is going to succeed, it’ll require Jeong to depart from a trademark style grounded in improv, physicality, and over-the-top, buffoonish send-ups of blackface (which he’s done on Community) and yellowface (i.e. performances of Asian stereotypes)—qualities that don’t necessarily jive with the heavily scripted, multi-camera format, much less primetime television. Jeong’s funniest and most famous roles are famous and funny because they take the most vulgar Orientalist stereotypes to unexpected and uncomfortable extremes (as with his character Leslie Chow in the Hangover films), or because they play with an arch knowingness about racial stereotypes (as with his character Señor Chang on Community). If he’s able to dominate scenes alongside actors like Zach Galifianakis—one of the most formidable buffoons in the business—then it’s in large part because of this racial vocabulary.

All that said, I found myself laughing out loud during the rehearsals that I saw on set. Since my visit, I’ve had a chance to see more of the show. I hope the characters and storylines will take on more of the sinister and macabre tones that I think really set Dr. Ken apart from most sitcoms I’ve seen. Hint: “sinister” describes Molly; and “macabre” references something crazy that happens to Pat’s fingers mid-season.

At one point in our conversation with the cast, Jonathan Slavin, who plays Clark, commented to Tisha Campbell-Martin, who plays Damona on the show—and who’s recognizable to every millennial as Gina from the 1990s television show Martin—that her role as Gina inspired an entire generation of young black girls. Campbell-Martin then turned to Krista Marie Yu and Albert Tsai and said, “That’s going to be you.” Whatever happens to Dr. Ken, there are going to be many more Kristas and Alberts in the future.

Christopher T. Fan

Christopher T. Fan is a co-founder of Hyphen magazine.

Editor’s Note (9-30-2015): The original version of the article has been updated to clarify the author’s statement regarding the use of blackface and yellowface.

The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of CAAM.

CAAM is co-hosting a viewing party for the premiere episode of Dr. Ken in San Francisco, 7:30-9:30pm on Friday, October 2 at Origin. For more information or to RSVP, please go here.