June Cover Story: Ken Jeong Is Funnyman Rising

If you think jumping out of the trunk of a car naked was revealing, Ken Jeong, co-star of The Hangover 2, gives perhaps his most intimate interview to date. In this profile by Oliver Saria, the actor, comedian and M.D. talks about the mentor that changed his life, why he hearts his Ho (don’t worry, that’s his wife) and politely addresses the haters.

by Oliver Saria

IT WAS THE WINTER OF 2005, and I had just moved to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career. Prior to that I had dabbled in stand-up comedy and my friend Amy Anderson had asked me to perform for the “Chop-SCHTICK” showcase she was producing at the Friars Club of Beverly Hills. At that point, I was debating whether or not to trade in the trauma of bombing on stage for the relative ease of bombing on paper. That night, I had a decent set, certainly no better or no worse than I had performed in the past. For a second I thought, “Hey, maybe I ain’t so bad at this after all.” Then Dr. Ken hit the stage—by all appearances your standard, somewhat nerdy middle-aged Asian professional, an actual doctor irreverently posturing as a thug. He was a rising comic at that point, and it was immediately apparent why.

He killed it that night. He knew how to balance smarts and vulgarity—at turns throwing up the “West Coast” sign and razzing his patients. He deftly worked stereotypes while simultaneously turning them on their heads, adding unexpected turns to his punchlines.

He giddily lampooned his wife Tran’s last name, Ho (she’s also a doctor)—a joke she probably heard before:

“Get in the car, Ho! Cook me some rice, Ho! …You complete me, Ho.” He commanded the stage like few can.  There’s a rhythm to comedy that goes beyond the simple set-up/punch line two-step, and when it’s done well it transcends comparisons to dance or music; genuinely gifted comics make it seem like they just breathe comedy.

That was the last time I ever did stand up. I knew I could never make it look that easy. And besides, if Ken was the future of Asian American comedy, I knew we were in good hands. People filed out of the Friars Club proclaiming the same thing: “Ken is definitely going to blow up.”

Sure enough, nearly six years later, Ken is everywhere. Last month he hosted the 2011 Billboard Music Awards just days prior to the blockbuster opening of The Hangover 2. This summer he’ll co-star in another potential mega-hit, Transformers 3. This fall he’ll reprise his role as Señor Chang in the third season of NBC’s Community.  Forget the future of Asian American comedy; Ken Jeong is one of the hottest, most sought-after comedic actors in the industry today.

As his stock continues to rise, the fact that he is still a board-certified physician in California seems less and less relevant—an interesting bit of trivia on his imdb.com page, fodder for couch-banter on late-night talk shows.  Yet, his often gregarious, over-the-top characters belie the fact that he is a damn good doctor. His former residency director, Dr. Donald Erwin of the St. Thomas Community Health Center in New Orleans, attests: “Comedy and medicine require the ability to relate to people and have empathy. You have to be good at that as a physician, and Kenny is a naturally gifted physician… The Hangover was a side of him I hadn’t seen before. [But] he doesn’t do anything half-way. In all the years of his residency, when he wanted to be, he was hugely entertaining. Though, [with patients] never at anytime was he flip or casual or anything except the most appropriate, dedicated physician I had seen in a while.”

Some of his critics, particularly in the Asian American community, might find it hard to reconcile this portrait of Ken with some of the characters he has played on screen—not all of them, they’d argue, positive representations of Asians.  But like the man himself, his career can’t be defined by a single role. As he explains in the interview, the key to fulfillment for him isn’t a singular focus on one role—doctor/actor/husband/father/celebrity—but finding a way to blend it all, and still do them well.

Oliver: First, let’s start at the beginning: What were you like as a kid?

Ken: I think I was reserved, and then the people who knew me and I was comfortable

with, I could be more myself—a kind of outgoing goofball.

Oliver: Who would you say is your first comedic influence?

Ken: My dad is really funny. He’s a retired economics professor. He’s just very quick, very funny. Funnier than me, quicker than me. I audited one of his classes [at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University] when I was in college; he just navigated that room like a pro. He was pretty amazing. I think I got a lot of that from him. And my mom, who owned a wig and hat business, she just had an amazing musical ability. She played the piano and sang; just very artistic. I feel like I have elements of both.

Ken Jeong on the red carpet with wife and parents at KoreAm‘s Unforgettable event in 2009.

Oliver: It’s been said that comedy comes from a place of pain. Is that true for you?

Ken: Show me a comedian who claims he doesn’t have any issues and I’ll show you a liar.

David Letterman, I remember, once said in an interview, “You either become a comedian because you [don’t have] enough love in your life or too much love.”

Oliver: So which one applies for you?

Ken: Too much love. I had all the love I needed. But I just wanted to do something else. I wanted to be fed emotionally in a way that I wasn’t with, say, skipping a grade.

I skipped second grade when I was a kid, graduated high school I think when I was 16. I think that for me having a sense of humor about it was my way of dealing with the academic pressure. But I never wanted to be an actor or comedian. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to get into college.  In college, I got the acting bug.  (He received his undergraduate degree from Duke and his medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Oliver: Did you feel like academics stifled you in a way?

Ken: I don’t think I was stifled, I think that I was just worried that I would feel trapped, that I would lose my window of opportunity to do something that I wanted to do. So I split the difference, I compromised.

In the back of my mind, I always secretly wanted to be an actor.

Once I got into residency, that changed my life. My residency director in New Orleans [Donald Erwin] said to me: “I know you want to do comedy, but you have the potential to be a great physician. Have you ever thought of about blending both? You can not only use your comedy to help your medicine … but you can also use your medicine to make you a better comedian. Have you ever thought of it that way? This experience would be good for you, and you would have a unique perspective in comedy that no one else in the world would ever have.”

It’s because of him I wasn’t miserable as a physician. I found a way to love what I did. I found a way to enjoy it because of my comedy and because I had a director that actually nurtured and encouraged me to keep doing comedy while being a physician. It actually made me want to be a doctor even more.

Oliver: Since you mentioned it, you’re probably the best person to ask:

Is laughter really the best medicine?

Ken: If you’re talking about chemotherapy, you know, I may recommend Adriamycin. If you’re talking about feeling tired today, I might recommend The Hangover.

Oliver: Speaking of which, The Hangover made huge stars out of everyone in it, including you. When you guys shot The Hangover 2, what if anything had changed?

Ken: Nothing. And that’s what I loved about it. The chemistry between Todd Phillips, the director, and the actors—me, Bradley [Cooper], Ed [Helms], Zach [Galifianakis]—we didn’t change. We’ve always been about the work.

Fame and fortune will be up and down. But I think watching Todd Phillips interact with his actors is the reason I wanted to be an actor, why I wanted to do the business. You do it for the rush of finding out the best way to shoot that scene or to improvise that scene, the nuances involved that maybe a lot of people may not even appreciate.

Ken Jeong reprises his role as Mr. Chow in the blockbuster sequel Hangover 2. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Oliver: Last summer, you won an MTV Movie Award (Best WTF Moment) for Mr. Chow’s infamous nude scene in The Hangover. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I actually got choked up while watching the MTV Movie Awards, but your acceptance speech which you dedicated to Tran, really hit home for me as the son of a breast cancer survivor.

Ken: Oliver, please give [your mom] my love and my thoughts and my prayers. I really mean that. You can’t quantify the pain and suffering that a loved one goes through with cancer because you’d rather have it yourself.  [The night of the MTV awards] I was an emotional wreck, just overcome with happiness. Remember [Tran] was 35 at that time. You don’t get breast cancer when you’re 35 typically. And we had twins. And this is the type of cancer that if the chemotherapy worked, then she would be cancer-free—it’d be a cure. If the chemotherapy didn’t work, unfortunately, it would progress and it would be fatal. We were at the two-year point that she was cancer-free, the chemo had stopped it. It just happened to be on that day and I was sitting besides Todd Phillips and Bradley Cooper, the people who were with me during the darkest of times. So it was something that wasn’t planned. It just happened, and I was just really overcome with emotion. And what people didn’t know was that, as soon as I went backstage, I was crying in the back for, like, 30 more minutes.

Nothing that I will ever do as a doctor or as an actor will ever, ever equal what my wife has done to conquer breast cancer and the strength that she had and how calm she was. She took care of the kids every day even on chemo, even when she lost her hair, even when she was sick, even when she was tired. And we were so blessed to have [our daughters] Alexa and Zooey; we were so blessed to have them in our lives. They were only 1 year old. They didn’t know that Mommy was suffering, and they were just two bundles of joy—so therapeutic. They were like adorable little Prozacs.

Ken Jeong with wife Tran at KoreAm’s Unforgettable 2009

Oliver: Tran was receiving chemo treatment when you shot The Hangover; obviously it’s a very sentimental movie for you.

Ken: Well, to me, that movie was therapeutic. It was cathartic. Also, Chow was a meta-joke, I actually spoke—and only Tran knew this—Vietnamese in the movie twice. [Tran is Vietnamese].  I wanted to do something to make Tran laugh while she was recovering from her chemotherapy. So Mr. Chow is a love letter to my wife, and I’m so proud of that character. And the moment I stopped worrying about what other people think, it was liberating. You stop worrying about what other people think and you just worry about the stuff that matters, which are your loved ones.  I think that some people in the Asian community who criticize other Asians and their choices, I do think that there’s a role in that, but I also think that as [director] Justin Lin, who is a good friend of mine, told me, people need to contextualize their criticism.  I think the Asian community should stop looking at things as black and white and look at [an artist’s work] as a blend, and as a hybrid, as a mosaic, if anything.  I might go back to being a physician 10, 20 years from now, you never know.  All I know is that I’m doing what I love to do now.

The next generation of Asian American artists will come at you in ways you never thought about. I think what we’re doing collectively is good for the Asian American community. And we’re challenging everybody to think.

Oliver: Tran is also a physician and continues to practice medicine.  Is she comfortable being in the spotlight a little bit more given your acceptance speech and your Mother’s Day letter to her that appeared in the Huffington Post?

Ken: She has no desire for the spotlight at all.

She’s a lot like Derrick Rose—who I did a commercial with for Adidas—they’re both mellow cats, and they’re just really solid people emotionally.  And very secure. She’s such a secure person; she makes me a more secure person. There’s so much trust between us. She’s my best friend. She’s my everything and I do everything for her. And I always run everything by her. Yes, including being naked in The Hangover. She’s my partner in crime, man. How many people in life can have a partner in crime that just loves you unconditionally? I’m so lucky to have that.

Oliver: I assume Tran keeps you connected with your old life as a doctor. Does that help you deal with the pressures of Hollywood?

Ken: All my close friends are still the doctors I made friends with during residency and at Kaiser, you know?  That’s who we still hang out with. I think that does help. I think it does help that it happened to me a little bit later in life, and that it also helped that I had a completely different life and I still have my foot in the door of that life.