This evening, the Asian American community ventures into uncharted territory. With tonight’s premiere of Ken Jeong’s newest venture — the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken — two family sitcoms featuring Asian American characters will for the first time be on television’s primetime broadcast schedule in the same fall season. Dr. Ken joins ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, last year’s mid-season replacement of Selfie which starred John Cho and which was cancelled after just seven episodes. Fresh Off The Boat is itself only the second Asian American family sitcom, debuting nearly twenty years after Margaret Cho broke ground with All-American Girl.
Yet, I have to confess: I don’t consider myself a fan of Ken Jeong’s body of work. I find Jeong’s most notable role — the sardonic, antipathy-fueled Leslie Chen of the Hangover films — racially unsettling for its flirtation with stereotype. I was deeply concerned when Jeong appeared in inexplicable Blackface for an episode of Community, a show that featured the comedian as a series regular. I also take issue with Jeong’s overall comedy persona; often, Jeong creates humour through racial dissonance by appearing as an Asian American while acting against expectation. Yet, he occasionally builds that dissonance through unchecked use of hip hop culture and slang; in a recent review of Dr. Ken, Christopher T. Fan recounts how Jeong entertained the writer and other visitors to the set over lunch by describing “his shit” as “on fleek”. Too often, I find myself so preoccupied trying to parse the racial play of Jeong’s comedic style to find the work funny. Thus, while Ken Jeong’s brand of humour is wildly popular and successful among mainstream audiences, it just really hasn’t been “my thing”; consequently, I had planned to pass on watching (and reviewing) Dr. Ken.
I was drawn back into reconsidering my feelings towards Jeong’s work, recently, by his largely unannounced cameo appearance in the independent Asian American feminist and science-fiction film, Advantageous. Jeong’s brief performance was subtle, heartfelt, mature and nuanced, and helped me to see the actor beyond the exaggerated parodies of social maladjustment that he is best known for.
Then, when Fan (who apparently shares my unease over Jeong’s comedic work) wrote in his review of Dr. Ken that he unexpectedly found himself “laughing out loud”, I was intrigued enough to sit down and preview the first two episodes of Dr. Ken for myself.
Fresh Off The Boat‘s debut this week has rocked the Asian American blogosphere to largely rave reviews (read my review). It has spawned hundreds of thinkpieces, many written by Asian American television viewers ecstatic to see themselves, their families, and their experiences included, for one of the first times, among the lineup of primetime television sitcoms.
Sadly, it seems that at Disney-ABC, this new commitment to diversity extends only as far as investing in a single 22 minute television show; when it comes to marketing and community outreach, the corporate powers-that-be have been seriously dropping the ball.
A week before Fresh Off The Boat premiered, some (former) marketing intern tweeted a bizarrely offensive graphic depicting stereotypical caricatures of people of colour beneath the headline “we’re all a little fresh off the boat” (picture after the jump).
Now, the folks behind Fresh Off The Boat are in hot water again for another marketing misstep related to the sitcom. Last month, Disney-ABC (the parent television group that oversees both Disney and ABC Television products) invited a bunch of people to an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles (#ABCTVEvent) to preview and meet the cast and crew of five shows and movies — including a number that intersect with the identities of communities of colours such as Fresh Off The Boat, Big Hero 6, and McFarland USA. 24 bloggers — many of them mommy bloggers — were flown out to participate in this invitation-only junket; not a single one was Asian American.
Call it #FOTBFever. Call it #Huangsanity.
Last night, the hotly-anticipated new ABC single-camera sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat, debuted in a special preview event: the series’ first two episodes aired in a bookend fashion around ABC’s Wednesday night anchor show, Modern Family (displacing for one week Anthony Anderson’s Black-ish); despite its clunky interrupted format, FOTB earned a solid 2.5 rating in the 18-49 demographic making it the second highest ranked comedy premiere this season and attracting better ratings than the most recent episode of Black-ish.
This marks the first time in 20 years that a primetime family sitcom has aired starring an all Asian American family, which is itself an historic occasion for the normalization of the Asian American nuclear family. That impact on the American pop culture (and political) zeitgeist cannot be — and should not be — understated.
However, in an effort to correct a few over-exuberant headlines and tweets of the past week, let’s also be clear: FOTB is not the first Asian American family sitcom; not the first sitcom to star an Asian American male lead; not the only primetime comedy or sitcom to star an Asian American; not the only currently airing primetime network show to star primarily Asian American actors and to delve deeply into questions of Asian American identity; and — since multiracial Asian Americans are still Asian American — not the only sitcom of the last two decades to focus a lens on a diasporically Asian American family.
Nonetheless, Fresh Off The Boat deserves kudos for being one of the few primetime shows — of any genre — to engage Asian American creative talent at all levels of production: inspired by the autobiography of a Taiwanese American celebrity chef, the show also boasts an Asian American producer, writers, and lead cast. For this reason, FOTB‘s voice (unlike that of many of its predecessors) rings clear as undeniably Asian American, and therefore marks a pioneering moment for the representation of an Asian American lived experience in mainstream television.
For this reason, Asian Americans could not have been filled with greater glee (and a healthy dose of trepidation) yesterday had Jeremy Lin single-handedly led the Lakers to a flawless victory over the Heat while announcing during the game’s halftime show his secret engagement to Taylor Swift below a stadium-cam HBO simulcast of Manny Pacquiao defeating Floyd Mayweather by total knockout victory in the second minute of round 2. All day, my social media timelines were a deluge of breathlessly excited status updates and tweets over FOTB; and, by the second episode’s closing credits last night at 10pm EST, viewers had crowded into live watch parties across the country to watch the series’ launch with over a thousand of their closest friends, and the hashtag #FreshOffTheBoat was a top trending topic on Twitter.
So, was it worth all the hype?
Looks like we’re only brave enough to see an Asian American male romantic lead for 13 episodes. ABC has opted not to renew “Selfie”, the romantic sitcom starring John Cho as a curmudgeonly marketing rep and love interest opposite the flighty, superficial, and supremely unlikable Eliza Dooley played by Karen Gillan; which is a nice way of saying the show is cancelled.
Sadly, this happened before I had a chance to review the series, which I had planned to do. Sufficed to say, I think part of the issue with Selfie — or at least with the pilot — was a fundamental misunderstanding of My Fair Lady. In my opinion, Cho was wasted on a vehicle that was largely not worth his talent.
Fans of the show need not be too depressed: Selfie is only on episode 6 of the first season, and the remaining 7 episodes are still scheduled for air. In addition, Cho appears in a political thriller from producer Daron Aronfsky and starring Lena Headey called Zipper that was slated for release some time this year; Cho also recently completed filming on Get A Job, a comedy scheduled for release in 2015. In 2016, Cho is guaranteed to reprise his role as Sulu in the much-anticipated Star Trek 3. Finally, studios confirm that a Harold and Kumar animated series is happening.
No word yet on the fate of Fresh Off The Boat, the Asian American family sitcom centered around the autobiography of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, which was picked up as an alternate series and which we’ve been promised will appear in the spring schedule.
The news that ABC has made the bold decision to green-light Fresh Off the Boat, a new Asian American family sitcom airing 20 years after the cancellation of All American Girl, has already been making headlines.
And, if the last 24 hours has been any indication, Fresh Off The Boat is hugely provocative. Already, the show has sparked online controversy, specifically from pop culture critics questioning the possible political insensitivity of the show’s name.
This reaction is not surprising: it reflects the critics’ recognition of the term as a historic racial slur referencing new immigrants, coupled with ignorance of how “Fresh Off The Boat” (or “FOB”, pronounced “fob”) has also evolved to reference a core cultural dynamic within contemporary Asian Americana. The term “Fresh Off The Boat” is not uniquely Asian American, but it has strong Asian American connotations and distinct cultural significance for members of our community; in the context of this show, it is obvious “insider” language.
This morning, Alex Abad-Santos explored the meaning of the term “Fresh Off the Boat” for Asian Americans in a great article for Vox.com. The article quotes me in writing:
So let’s start that education process here with the question: what does “Fresh Off The Boat” or “FOB” mean?
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!