It was surreal finally getting to meet Ken Jeong at the recent screening of “Dr. Ken” at the Japanese American National Museum’s Center for Democracy Forum sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, of which I’m a founding member.
Before the event started, I introduced myself to the comedian, who told me he’d read of my writings about him and thanked me for the support. Jeong even went as far as saying how much he appreciated my advocacy for Asian Americans and that he would’ve felt that way even if he wasn’t in show business.
Instead of watching the pilot — which was going to air in a week and a half — the actor offered the second episode, “The Seminar.” Although it got off to a rather slow start (the recorded laughter from the live audience was a bit too much for its average-stature jokes), it soon developed a good rhythm. In it, Dr. Ken Park (Jeong) has received his third complaint and must attend a seminar to teach him better bedside manners.
His long-suffering male nurse (the hilarious Jonathan Slavin, who was so good on an overlooked ABC comedy a few years ago, “Better Off Ted”), winds up working for another doctor, and in a face-off, both physicians try to prove they have more affection for their male nurses than the other. I won’t ruin it, but at the screening, the great set-up and execution drew huge laughs.
In another subplot, his wife Allison (the versatile Suzy Nakamura) is stuck eating dinner with Park’s stone-faced Korean immigrant parents, who don’t seem to like her. Many consider this episode better than the pilot, which got mixed reviews even among Asian Americans.
Mainstream critics have not been kind, with both The Hollywood Reporter and L.A. Times comparing the cranky Dr. Park with Dr. House, concluding Jeong is too over-the-top in his performance. The Times said House still showed heart despite treating people badly, and that Dr. Park wasn’t a likeable character. Yeah, and “House” was a drama and “Dr. Ken” is a traditional multi-camera live-before-a-studio-audience sitcom! Apples and oranges, people! Sigh.
Apparently, neither writer found the doctors/nurses stand-off funny. They’re on another planet from me. It was hilarious, and not being a broad comedy fan, I’m a tougher critic than most.
In any case, the show only received a 26% approval rate on Metacritic, where the tastes of multiple reviewers are compiled. Whereas “Fresh Off the Boat” has become a favorite of the critics (though I have to admit to being underwhelmed by its first three episodes this season; I didn’t enjoy seeing the racist Shaquille O’Neal on Tuesday’s episode. At least he didn’t break into any “ching chong” gibberish as he once did while taunting Yao Ming), not so the case with “Dr. Ken.” At least so far.
Still, that didn’t seem to matter when the show debuted last Friday night. At 8 p.m., Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” managed a 1.2 rating in the 18-49 age range, but all the publicity around “Dr. Ken” helped it do even better, up to a 1.5 and 6.7 million people. Not only was it the second-highest 18-49 rated series (next to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” which followed it), it was the highest-rated scripted show, beating out “Hawaii Five-O” and “Blue Bloods.” And it boasted the best rating in that time slot in three years.
That helps, because all of the 8:30 ABC series of the past three years (“Cristela,” “The Neighbors,” “Malibu Country”) were cancelled. Last year, “Cristela” debuted higher than “LMS” too but quickly fell behind its lead-in and wound up the ABC series with the lowest 18-49 average rating.
During the Q&A, Jeong said he oversaw the writers room, honing every joke to make sure it worked, and the showrunner (executive producer) seemed to defer to him about how the scripts were coming along.
Although Jeong’s real-life wife is Vietnamese, he’s willing to make the Allison character Japanese American because that’s what actress Suzy Nakamura is. He also wants to discuss the differences between Korean and Japanese Americans, and not from how the typical white writer would, approaching it from old World War II animosities. So I’m looking forward to see how Jeong works it.
The actor admitted that after he made the decision to quit his medical practice in 2007 to try to make it in Hollywood, he wasn’t offered anything… until “The Hangover.” Despite the controversy over his Leslie Chow character, Jeong said he wants to be judged on what he does now with his fame, especially since he has more control over his current series than anything he’s ever done before where he was just a hired gun.
During the Q&A, I told those in the audience that we needed to separate what Asian American performers do that make us feel uncomfortable from that which is offensive, racist, and stereotyped. I told the actor that I felt uncomfortable when he took off his clothes in “The Hangover,” but it wasn’t offensive, racist, or stereotyped — it couldn’t be because no one had ever done it before!
I should’ve prefaced what I said next with: “When you take your roles or make guest appearances, are you mindful of how what you do might impact the Asian American community, or do you believe you’re an artist and your only obligation is to do the best job for whatever the situation calls?”
But instead, I tried tacking that on at the end of mentioning Jeong making fun of his penis on the ESPYs and how it got a lot of angry reactions online from people who felt he was perpetuating a stereotype against Asian men that’s been around for decades. I didn’t get to my question because Jeong got quite upset and went on a rant. I don’t recall everything he said, but the comedian felt that everyone had a different opinion and people shouldn’t look to any one Asian American as being a spokesperson or representing the entire community.
Rather than try to clarify the question I never got to ask, I let him talk, as he kind of wound up answering my question anyway. After the Q&A ended, Jeong briefly greeted some audience members, but as I was walking down the stairs, he quickly made a beeline up to me with his hand extended in friendship. He apologized for overreacting and offered to have lunch with me. I reiterated my promise to help promote the show and asked him to tell me what he felt was necessary to ensure its success.
Jeong took my business card and promised he’d email me his contact information as soon as he got home, and that he did. But we probably won’t be able to get together until next year since he’s working crazy hours on his sitcom. I can now understand why he took off his clothes on “The Hangover” as an angry outburst against his wife undergoing treatments for breast cancer.
From my limited interaction with him, Ken Jeong is a very passionate and intense person, but he has a good heart. Hopefully, we’ll get to that lunch sooner than later.
Loose Ends Department: Last time I talked about CBS’s reality competition “Big Brother,” I said James Huling, the Korean American contestant, was, according to the “Big Brother” public poll, the second most popular of the 17 contestants next to Johnny Mac. Well, at the season finale, the evil Vanessa (thank God!) was double-crossed and came in third — meaning for all her aggressive game-playing, bullying and crying fits, she got no money for her troubles. Yay! There is a God! Huling, on the other hand, was voted online the most popular and won $25,000.
Ratings Sweepstakes Department: Although the latest incarnation of “The Muppets” did relatively well in uts Tuesday night 8 p.m. debut with a 2.9 rating in the 18-49 demographic (helping “Fresh Off the Boat” open its second season at 8:30 p.m. with a 1.9), last week, those lovable sock puppets fell to a 2.0. Luckily, that didn’t affect our sitcom that much as it only slipped to a 1.7. That led to the third season premiere of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which maintained that 1.7, for once not embarrassing the network.
This week, “The Muppets” fell to a 1.6, but “FOTB” actually improved to a 1.8 (beating its lead-in for the first time — even with the return of the CW’s “Flash” — and threatening CBS’ “NCIS,” which fell to a 2.1) to become the top comedy of any network.
“FOTB’s” going to have to develop loyal viewers without any lead-in anyway because “The Muppets” finishes its limited run in December and come January, “FOTB” will once again have to jump-start the night at 8 p.m.
“Quantico” starring Priyanka Chopra also did well in its Sunday 10 p.m. timeslot despite having to follow “Blood and Oil,” which only brought in a 1.4 rating and 6.3 million viewers. The new spy thriller improved to a 1.9 and 7.1 million. Those who watched the show within three days (“live plus 3”) raised it 63% to a 3.1. In its second week, “Blood and Oil” slipped to a 1.2, but “Quantico” held on to its 1.9, a very good sign.
Coming Attractions: The CW’s sole new entry in the fall sweepstakes debuts next Monday night at 8 p.m. It’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” about an attractive white woman (Rachel Bloom) who leaves New York to stalk her ex-boyfriend from college, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), who’s moved to Costa Mesa. It’s a musical, and the trailer is a hoot.
His reappearance has been teased in trailers for two weeks in a row, but maybe we’ll finally get to see Masi Oka in “Heroes Reborn” this Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Gone Too Soon Department: I was shocked to learn that Dr. Sus Ito — whom I saw in July at a Q&A at the Japanese American National Museum to commemorate the opening of his photo exhibit of pictures taken while fighting with the 100th/442nd — had passed away. At the time, he walked unaided, was about to turn 96, was sharp, funny, and even hoisted up a woman off her feet when hugging her.
His 522nd unit was one of the first to rescue the Jewish concentration camp victims of Dachau. I’m glad he got the accolades — including from President Obama — and that through people like him, the story of the Nisei soldiers has continued across the continents. R.I.P., sir.
End of an Era: It’s been confirmed to me that KoreAm Journal and Audrey Magazine, both published by James Ryu, will soon stop publication. Another company has taken over both entities but will probably only continue on in an online capacity. Ryu will continue to hold his annual “Unforgettable” galas, which bring out the top Korean American celebrities.
For 25 years, KoreAm celebrated the ever-growing depth of talent within the Korean American community with in-depth interviews of the latest who’d made a name for themselves, from John Cho to pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen to football player/“Dancing with the Stars” winner Hines Ward. It must’ve been a great source of pride for the community.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.