With the premiere of "Dr. Ken" on ABC’s Friday night lineup on October 2, actor Ken Jeong will join Margaret Cho on a short list of Asian-American comedians who have had a primetime network television sitcom loosely based on their real lives.
“This is the most say I’ve ever had on anything I’ve done in my career,” Jeong said at a press day for the show of his role as co-creator, executive producer, star, and uncredited writer in the writers' room. “It has my name all over it."
“The audience has also changed in 20 years and people want what they see on the screen to reflect the diversity of the world around them."
“And to be fair, only half his name is on it,” quipped veteran comedic actor Dave Foley, who is part of the "Dr. Ken" regular cast.
As Dr. Ken Park in "Dr. Ken," Jeong pulls from his personal experiences as a physician at an HMO--his career prior to being a comedian and actor--as well as his own family life. Jeong's character is a talented but acerbic physician whose humorous comments to his patients sometimes land him in hot water. His home life is filled with domestic situations spinning out of conflicts with his wife Dr. Allison Park (played by Suzy Nakamura) overparenting their teenage daughter Molly (played by Krista Marie Yu) and their quirky younger son Dave (played by Albert Tsai).
“It’s based on my life. It’s based on my work. It’s based on my former life as a doctor. Imagine if you had a show based on your life. You don’t want anyone changing it or fictionalizing it without your approval. Of course it’s not my life—it’s the ‘Dr. Ken Park show,’ not the ‘Dr. Ken Jeong show,’ but [I’m] loaning my name to a studio network,” Jeong told NBC News.
Headlining a television sitcom is new territory for Jeong, after various scene-stealing roles. Jeong's big break came as the memorable doctor in "Knocked Up," but his role as Mr. Chow in the the blockbuster success of the three "Hangover" films, as well as the mainstream popularity of NBC's "Community" featuring Jeong's over-the-top character Señor Chang, is what made him one of the most recognizable Asian Americans on big and small screens.
“It's very different from anything he's done in the past because he is number one on the call sheet and he's the face of the show, he's on all the billboards," showrunner and executive producer Mike Sikowitz told NBC News. "It's an ensemble show, but it's no secret: he's what ABC is selling and he's what we're putting out there.”
'Dr. Ken' Makes Television History for Asian Americans
The premiere of "Dr. Ken" marks an unprecedented milestone for television history: "Dr. Ken" will join "Fresh Off the Boat" as the second primetime sitcom centered around an Asian-American family to air during the same television season.
But while "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Dr. Ken" have been compared to each other, the shows vary in format and style: the multi-camera setup with a live studio audience of "Dr. Ken" is fundamentally different from the single-camera setup of "Fresh Off the Boat." The audience energy and interaction during the tapings of "Dr. Ken" play to Jeong’s stand-up comedy background.
Earlier this year, "Fresh Off the Boat" made headlines as the first network sitcom on primetime in 20 years to star an Asian-American cast since "All-American Girl," starring Margaret Cho.
“What’s different in the 20 years since 'All-American Girl' that makes 'Dr. Ken' possible is that the world has changed,” Cho, who will appear on "Dr. Ken" this season, told NBC News. “The audience has also changed in 20 years and people want what they see on the screen to reflect the diversity of the world around them. But the big difference between my show and Ken’s show is that Ken has control of the show in a way I never did.”
Cho has spoken publicly about the many difficulties that plagued her 1994 show, in which she did not have creative control over a show that was supposed to be based on her own comedy and her life.
“It was very difficult for me because of my age but also because of my gender,” Cho added. “It was not only very difficult to get my own opinions across because I didn’t have the power to tell 50-year old white guys who had done shows before what to do. Being a woman didn’t help, either. And this was more than 20 years ago, so it was really a different time and it was very hard."
'Thriving Under Pressure'
Similar to Cho's "All-American Girl," "Dr. Ken" can be compared to mainstream shows headlined by comedians such as "Seinfeld," "Ellen," "Martin," "Roseanne," or "Everybody Loves Raymond"--all shows loosely based on their stars' stand-up material.
Beyond "Dr. Ken" reflecting his own life, Jeong is aware of and concerned about how the show will reflect back upon other communities he represents by virtue of his visibility.
“This is the most say I’ve ever had on anything I’ve done in my career.”
With few Asian-American depictions in mainstream media, the show carries the burden of representing a community that has only been seen as central characters of less than half a dozen of sitcoms over the course of almost four decades.
“He wants to get it right [for the Asian-American community],” Sikowitz said. “He also has another community--the medical community--which he takes very seriously, too, because he was a doctor and he was a good one. He knows we're not doing a procedural show, but he wants to represent medicine in a responsible way, too. He wants to represent Asian Americans in a responsible way, so he does feel pressure in that regard.”
As showrunner, Sikowitz has a front row seat to Jeong’s real-life performance as a headliner and says Jeong "does feel under a lot of pressure, but I think a lot of it is self-imposed, too, because he's that kind of guy.”
“Anyone who works their way through medical school at the top of their class and is a high-achiever is going to feel that pressure and that desire to get it right. So he does feel the pressure on [many] fronts, but not in a way that's consuming him,” Sikowitz said. “I think it's in a way that he's making sure that he brings his A-game all the time and that he is thoughtful about all the decisions that we make during the course of the day and during the course of an episode. I would say that he is thriving under the pressure.”