The Frustrating Fate of Ken Jeong

His Hangover and Community characters were so singular that they destroyed Asian stereotypes. What happened with Dr. Ken?

Ken Jeong in Dr. Ken.
Ken Jeong in Dr. Ken.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Michael Desmond/ABC.

It’s a bit of a letdown for ABC’s Dr. Ken to announce itself as the third Asian American family sitcom in history, especially when there’s only a one-year gap between the most recent two. But all the air in the room was taken up by Fresh Off the Boat, which premiered in February and brought Asian protagonists back to the small screen after 20 years—and the Asian American community’s hope it would work where Margaret Cho’s ill-fated All-American Girl went wrong. Even with Margaret Cho herself in a guest-starring role on Dr. Ken, the sitcom feels a bit anticlimactic.

If anything, Dr. Ken illustrates what Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef whose memoir served as the inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat, was talking about when he slammed the show for watering down his life story to make for sanitized broadcast TV—while at the same time showing how unreasonably high his expectations were to begin with. And Fresh Off the Boat, written by Nahnatchka Khan, may be unmistakably a prime-time ABC family sitcom, but it’s nowhere near as watered-down as Dr. Ken.

Khan’s writing might be toothless in the network-TV mold, but it still has a kind of edge to it—an underlying sense that the Huang family’s hijinks take place against a backdrop of their otherness in an unfriendly world. But Huang’s complaint about “reverse yellowface”—the reason why he ultimately quit doing narration for Fresh Off the Boat—fully applies to Dr. Ken: The show, alas, is a formulaic sitcom that uses all the same tropes as white-centric sitcoms but scores “diversity points” by casting an Asian family.

This in and of itself isn’t necessarily the worst thing. Dr. Ken takes place in 2015, whereas Fresh Off the Boat takes place in 1995 in a fictionalized version of Eddie Huang’s childhood. Diversity on TV, especially when it comes to portraying Asian American families, has come a long way since Huang’s childhood, or Ken Jeong’s, or mine. Part of what we want when we ask for representation is to acknowledge that we have struggles that are different from white people’s—but we also want the freedom to just exist as people without having everything be about our race.

I’d still be OK with Dr. Ken if it were just a family sitcom that happened to feature Asian leads; I’d file it under “Asian-led shows don’t have to be groundbreaking to be good.” You can’t expect, and wouldn’t want, every show to kick off with a shouted racial slur that drives the conflict of the pilot episode (note that Fresh Off the Boat’s sister show Black-ish saved dealing with the N-word for its second season premiere).

The problem with Dr. Ken is that it’s a total misuse of Ken Jeong. As a huge fan of Jeong’s previous work, I feel like the worst thing that this actor—who excels at the bold and the outlandish—can do is play it too safe. And all of Dr. Ken’s shortcomings involve playing it too safe. Not unlike the way Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt left me cold with its jokes involving Asian character Dong, Dr. Ken flirts with “going there” but never fully commits to it, leaving its edgy humor feeling awkwardly half-baked.

I loved Ken Jeong in The Hangover trilogy and as Señor Chang on Community because those characters were extreme and bizarre enough to destroyed the boundaries of stereotyping.The Hangover’s Mr. Chow is so insane and over-the-top that he is entirely unrecognizable as any kind of ethnic cliché. Jeong broke away from the “lovable nerdy dork” stereotype that Asian men are so often relegated to and claimed for himself the throne of Andy Kaufman—aggressively, frighteningly, explosively weird.

I agree with Alex Jung when he says in his retrospective on All-American Girl for the Los Angeles Review of Books that Jeong’s best work, and some of the best material involving Asian characters on TV, was as Señor Chang in Season 1 of Community. Within two minutes of his very first appearance, Chang was already a more multilayered character than all the other Asian characters on TV at that time put together—defying one set of racial stereotypes (Asian) by laying claim to another (Latino), aware that his shtick wasn’t fooling anybody, but reveling in the fact he could force people to pretend to be impressed by it thanks to his petty authority as a teacher. He was fully aware of what a pathetic person he was but perversely proud of the power and freedom that came from knowing he was pathetic.

When I heard that Dr. Ken would be about a sharp-tongued sarcastic doctor based on Jeong’s real experience as an M.D., I was hoping for some combination of Mr. Chow’s surreal madness and Señor Chang’s unflinchingly dark humor—our own version of Dr. House, an extrapolated version of Jeong’s misanthropic doctor from Knocked Up. Unfortunately, the writers didn’t “go there.” They gestured toward going there, making Dr. Ken a cranky curmudgeon who makes inappropriate jokes, without surpassing the average level of crankiness of a typical sitcom dad.

Even promising moments in the pilot that look like they’ll lead to Jeong’s inspired madness, like ripping up his doctor clothes to infiltrate the rave, fall flat. The funniest moment of Dr. Ken’s pilot is Dr. Ken throwing his stuck-up-ness to the wind and joining his kid onstage at a talent show in an interpretive modern dance set to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” but in Community, this would’ve been the beginning of a comedic sequence that built and built and built until it reached a sublime level of absurdity. In this show we get to see just enough of Jeong’s wacky dance over the credits for a mild chuckle before we cut to black.

I’m reminded of the unfortunate attempt to rebrand Andrew Dice Clay as a likable sitcom dad with Bless This House or the attempt to give Jeff Foxworthy a sitcom but keep it from being “too Southern” by setting it in a boring Indiana suburb. I understand that a lot of people aren’t fans of Jeong’s shtick, but casting him to headline a sitcom and then watering down his trademark zaniness into a weak impression of Cliff Huxtable seems to me to be a fatal error. It’s a sad day when Señor Chang gets his own show and he ends up being a blander, safer “prickly nerd” character than Sheldon Cooper.

It didn’t help that the pilot of Dr. Ken opened with Dr. Ken flinging a barrage of unfunny, clichéd, and outright nasty fat jokes at a fat patient in order to get him to lose weight—something that’s unprofessional as hell, doesn’t work, and discourages a lot of fat people from seeking medical care.

When Dr. House did that, I was able to laugh (or at least I was for a time, before they stretched it out over eight seasons) because House was a damaged, abusive asshole and we were supposed to be laughing at the way his self-sabotaging misanthropy damaged his own life and relationships as much as we were supposed to be laughing at his patients. But Dr. Ken is a generally decent guy who’s shown to only have his patients’ best interests at heart, and whose casual abuse of them always turns out OK in the end. The show’s refusal to commit to making Dr. Ken a genuine asshole paradoxically makes him a much less sympathetic character than assholes like Dr. House or Señor Chang, who are struggling against themselves.

The sharpest bit in the whole pilot, where Ken goes looking for his daughter at a rave in Los Angeles and gets arrested because he asks an undercover cop to help him “find Molly,” could be predicted from a mile away by anyone under the age of 40. Ken’s family and co-workers are all stock characters—a sarcastic nurse who mocks him, a wife who gently chides him, a mouthy teenage daughter who sasses back to him, an adorable preteen son who is always acting adorable in his general direction. There’s an evil boss played by a tragically wasted Dave Foley, whose evil doesn’t extend far beyond making smug little faces at Ken and panicking comically when he inadvertently makes (extremely weaksauce) ambiguously racist remarks. (It’s a problem for your show when your Dave Foley character simultaneously makes me wince at how much less cool he is than NewsRadio’s Dave Nelson or Scrubs’ gleefully malevolent boss Dr. Kelso.)

In Fresh Off the Boat, every member of the Huang family was much more firmly established as a unique character from the outset, and every family sitcom trope was heightened or undercut as soon as it was introduced. I can’t help comparing how much better, thanks to the dialogue they are given, Fresh Off the Boat’s Emory and Evan are as “funny cute kids” than Dr. Ken’s instantly forgettable Dave. Or how much more mileage Fresh Off the Boat gets from of each one of Grandma Huang’s tossed-off Mandarin one-liners than Dr. Ken does with the cringe-y humor involving Ken’s thickly accented Korean parents. (Although watching Ken’s parents awkwardly bond with his family over how much of an asshole Ken is while he’s absent is one of the few moments that did make me laugh.)

It’s unfair that Dr. Ken immediately invites comparison to “the other Asian sitcom”—a theme, by the way, that Fresh Off the Boat explored with its episode “Philip Goldstein,” whose eponymous “other Asian kid” was played by Albert Tsai, who is Dave in Dr. Ken. But in such a limited pool of sitcoms about the Asian American experience, such comparisons are inevitable. And unfortunately, Dr. Ken also powerfully reminds me of All-American Girl; it’s not as clumsily executed, but it still gives me the same feeling: a generic sitcom I’m being pressured to like because it stars an Asian actor I love, but brings none of what I love about him to the table.