Dr. Ken a sitcom written from an Asian-American standpoint

Comedian Ken Jeong has shed his foul-mouthed gangster image from The Hangover films to play a brilliant physician and family man in the TV series Dr. Ken

Ken Jeong (above centre, in doctor’s coat) based his doctor character in Dr. Ken on his personal experience as a general practitioner, a job he gave up to pursue acting and comedy.
Ken Jeong (above centre, in doctor’s coat) based his doctor character in Dr. Ken on his personal experience as a general practitioner, a job he gave up to pursue acting and comedy.PHOTO: SONY CHANNEL

You will be disappointed if you sit down with comedian Ken Jeong and expect Mr Chow - the flamboyantly foul-mouthed gangster from The Hangover films (2009-2013) - to show up.

Instead, what you get is a thoughtful and often sombre man, whose transformation into these over-the-top characters on screen seems even more remarkable as a result.

Just as impressive is the fact that acting is not the only demanding career the 47-year-old Korean American has excelled in.

The physician he plays in his sitcom Dr. Ken - which airs in Singapore on the Sony Channel (StarHub TV Channel 510, Singtel TV Channel 316) on Wednesdays at 8.20pm - is loosely based on Jeong's previous incarnation as a general practitioner, a job he gave up a decade ago to pursue acting and comedy.

The series follows Dr Ken Park, a brilliant but often abrasive physician, as he juggles his patients and his family: wife Allison (Suzy Nakamura), daughter Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and son Dave (Albert Tsai).

One of the few TV shows headlined by Asian Americans, Dr. Ken has also beaten the odds - especially in an industry where Asians are largely consigned to supporting roles or the butt of racist jokes such as the ones delivered by host Chris Rock at the Oscars this year.

The big mantra of our show is to write it from an Asian-American stand point and not from, say, a white person’s point of view. You want the dialogue to be authentic, and how Asian Americans talk on that show is how I talk in real life to my family. 

ACTOR KEN JEONG on his sitcom Dr. Ken

The gag - which traded on tired stereotypes about Asians being mathematics nerds - went down like a lead balloon among Asian Americans. Jeong has joined other prominent members of the community in voicing their disapproval.

Speaking exclusively to The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently, he says that as a comedian himself, he did not react any differently to Rock's humour.

"No, obviously that joke didn't work," says Jeong, who also appeared in the sitcom Community (2009-2015) and movies such as Knocked Up (2007).

As for what can be done about prejudice against Asians, the actor believes the answer lies in shows such as Dr. Ken and Fresh Off The Boat, which flesh out and "normalise" Asian-American characters.

Both series air on the ABC television network in the United States, which has been praised for the racial and gender diversity of shows such as Scandal (2012- present), Grey's Anatomy (2005- present) and Black-ish (2014- present).

"We're the only network that has not one but two Asian-American families on TV, and I think we're doing everything we can from our end," Jeong says.

But as with any of the series that makes it to air, getting the green light for Dr. Ken was a struggle, reveals the actor, who is one of the creators, executive producers and writers on the show.

"In this business, rejection is 99 per cent of the game and it's not uncommon to have either a script that doesn't go to pilot or a pilot that doesn't go to series. You almost have to assume that, statistically.

"So we were lucky to get it made to series and then to get to do 22 episodes."

Luck notwithstanding, one thing that helped was the slowly shifting attitudes towards diversity on screen, as well as the debut last year of Fresh Off The Boat, inspired by chef Eddie Huang's memoir about growing up in Florida with his Taiwanese-American family.

It was the first sitcom about an Asian-American family since comedienne Margaret Cho's short- lived All American Girl in 1994 and the positive reaction to the show - which has been renewed for a third season - was a tipping point.

"I definitely think that the success of Fresh Off The Boat really helped us get on the air. There wouldn't be a Dr. Ken otherwise.

"So I'm very grateful for that show and to ABC for believing there could be two Asian-American shows on the air."

Dr. Ken has not been quite as well received by critics as Fresh Off The Boat, however, and as pioneers in the portrayal of Asians on screen, both series have come under intense scrutiny.

Huang, 34, denounced Fresh Off The Boat for sanitising the Asian immigrant experience and for having the on-screen versions of him and his family act out typically white stories, something he described as "reverse yellowface".

Asked about this, and whether he is trying to break down stereotypes with Dr. Ken, Jeong says the overarching goal of his show is "to normalise the Asian-American family experience".

"So the big mantra of our show is to write it from an Asian-American standpoint and not from, say, a white person's point of view.

"You want the dialogue to be authentic, and how Asian Americans talk on that show is how I talk in real life to my family. That's very important to me," says the actor, who has twin seven-year-old daughters with wife Tran Ho, a 43-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor.

If the result is deemed not authentic enough by someone like Huang, that is because his upbringing was totally different from Jeong's.

"He had a different background than I did. I think every Asian American has his own journey, so I can only speak and write about what I know and went through as a person who grew up Korean American, has Korean parents, became a physician and then made this transition into acting and comedy. So my journey is unique and I'm writing to that."

Many of the show's jokes and storylines are lifted directly from Jeong's life, especially his seven years practising medicine.

A scene "where my TV wife accuses me of being a selfish dancer, saying I don't dance with her at parties, I dance at her", came from a joke made by his real wife.

Working on the series consumes most of his waking hours right now.

"Yeah, this is my life. Editing, writing, re-writing, performance and promoting - everything comes to me."

But "this has been the most creatively fulfilling year of my career", he says. "Just to have a project that you created, and then see it come to fruition, has been amazing."

Jeong says he is still surprised he has found success in Hollywood - and that he is famous enough to be mobbed when he goes out in public in South Korea.

"To be honest, I'm just grateful that anybody recognises me at all. I'm just a guy who quit his day job less than 10 years ago... I just wanted to be a working actor, and to be able to do something in the arts full time, that was the victory. So everything else has kind of been the bonus."

•Dr. Ken airs on Sony Channel (StarHub TV Channel 510 and Singtel TV Channel 316) on Wednesdays at 8.20pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'The good doctor'. Subscribe