Give a warm welcome to the second network show this year featuring an Asian American family.
Less than a year ago, it was hard to say whether Fresh Off the Boat – the first network how to star an Asian American family in over 20 years – could gain a wide enough audience to stay on the air, let alone get picked up for a second season. But this fall, there will be not one, but two Asian American families on primetime TV.
Dr. Ken is a new ABC multicamera sitcom starring Korean American actor Ken Jeong that is loosely based on the actor and comedian’s career as a physician before he found success in Hollywood playing outrageous characters in The Hangover trilogy and NBC’s cult hit Community. The show revolves around his character’s professional and personal lives, and the humor comes from his no-nonsense approach to work (he straight-up tells one of his patients that his problem is he’s too fat) as well as to family (where tough love is a bit more difficult to execute).
As Albert Tsai, who plays Jeong’s TV son, Dave, explains: “Ken is a know-it-all, which is funny at work, but apparently it doesn’t work with his kids at home.”
It also doesn’t work with his TV wife, a psychiatrist named Allison, played by Japanese American actress Suzy Nakamura. “I love that she talks to him as if she can’t hurt his feelings,” says Nakamura, who viewers may recognize from her roles in The West Wing, Go On and Modern Family. “She stands up to him in a way that is simultaneously loving and challenging. And not only do you need that as a character to play off Ken but also in relationships in general. You need people who love you to tell you the truth.”
Jeong has been developing Dr. Ken with a team of writers and producers for the last two years. “I was looking to attempt my own vehicle, which is the ultimate, the brass ring,” he says. “But I’ve learned that entertainment is not a science. It’s the opposite of medicine. It’s not exact, and in my experience, you don’t plan for anything. It just happens.”
It was only this past January that ABC approved the script for the pilot; the pilot was filmed in April, and it was picked up to series in May. The show premieres October 2.
Nakamura remembers taking part in a reading for Dr. Ken years ago, before she knew whether the pilot would be made, let alone that she would land the part of his wife. “I was really happy for Ken,” she says, when she heard ABC was interested in creating a show around Jeong. “I could totally see him leading a show.”
“It’s a dream come true,” says Jeong, who also serves as Dr. Ken’s executive producer. Though he’s had glimpses of the behind-the-scenes process of a network show, having this couple that loves each other and the children, but also has fun together.”
Jeong, Tsai and Foley shot an episode of Hot in Cleveland together last year, and Tsai, who many remember from his scene-stealing role on ABC’s Trophy Wife, was impressive enough that he didn’t even have to audition for the role. The Taiwanese American 11-year-old describes his character Dave as “a smart and energetic boy who has some interesting hobbies.” In the pilot episode, Dr. Ken tries his hardest to dissuade his son from performing mime at the school talent show, for fear that he will become the laughing stock of his class, but Dave does not listen. “When he wants something done, he won’t let anything get in the way,” says Tsai. “He’ll just go for it.”
That said, the one Dr. Ken is most worried about is his in- dependent teenage daughter Molly, played by Yu. He even goes as far as to secretly install a tracker in his daughter’s phone, to the horror of both Molly and his wife.
Yu, who was a competitive ice skater before she became an actress, enjoys playing a young woman who’s trying to figure out who she is. “Growing up, I personally wasn’t confident enough to put my foot down and assert myself to my parents, but that’s why Molly is so fun to play,” says the Chinese American actress. “I totally relate to that [father-daughter] dynamic.” She laughs. “It’s like, ‘Dad, I love you, but stop embarrassing me!'”
Though the shows are very different, Jeong considers Fresh Off the Boat a game- changer for Asian Americans. “If it weren’t for Fresh Off the Boat, there’d be no Dr. Ken,” says Jeong. “And if it weren’t for shows like All-American Girl and Sullivan & Son, there’d be no Dr. Ken.”
“I remember when All-American Girl was on TV,” says Nakamura, of Margaret Cho’s 1994 show that was met with some disappointment from the Asian American community and only lasted for one season. “I really did look forward to seeing people that looked like me and my family on TV – though they didn’t talk like me, because they commented a lot about being Asian, which I never do. But I know All-American Girl would’ve been a completely different show if Margaret Cho was given some creative input. She took a hit for everyone who followed her.
“But now, Ken is a producer on the show, so he has a voice in content,” she continues, “so I see Dr. Ken as a work and family show, through the lens of an Asian American family, as opposed to an ‘Asian American show.'”
“I don’t think any Asian American goes into entertainment wanting to be a spokesperson for the community,” says Jeong. “You go into entertainment because you want to act. But the fact that ABC will have two Asian American family sitcoms this season is amazing. What they’ve done is normalize Asian American culture.”
Because in the end, Dr. Ken taps into something that appeals to everyone. Tsai sums it up best: “Most people don’t like visiting doctor’s offices. But I can assure you that Dr. Ken is the only doctor you’ll want to visit, because laughter is the only prescription.”
This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.