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.
Update: Video replaced with YouTube because it’s easier to embed.
This trailer successfully made me laugh several times, particularly at jokes that seem targeted towards intra-communal humour, which was both surprising and refreshing. I found the jokes about the White people’s supermarkets hilarious, and actually also appreciated the first joke in the trailer about the parents wanting the youngest Huang son to have been a daughter (a joke that challenges the myth that Chinese Americans are universally anti-girls). Also, I couldn’t help but crack up at the overly-litigious reactions of Mom and Pop Huang in the principal’s office.
Middle-class families imagine their stereotypical dinner-time routine as an intimate setting when parents and children might gather over a hearty meal to share funny stories of the day; for mine, as (I suspect) many others, dinner-time conversation is too awkward to be fun. I didn’t care about workplace politics. My parents weren’t concerned about my classroom gossip. Here’s my confession: we really didn’t have much to talk about. Instead, for my family (as I suspect it was for many others), our family-time was watching our favourite family sitcoms over dinner. In some ways, we were inviting the characters of those shows into our lives, to become part of our families, to replace our own (boring) dinner conversation with their (hilarious) adventures.
Since the 1940’s and 1950’s, the American family sitcom has presented an idealized version of the American middle-class family: a nuclear (or oddball) family, facing obstacles with a grin and overcoming them with reaffirmations of love.
Not surprising, therefore, that these images — from Full House and Family Ties and Boy Meets World — are inextricably linked to my generation’s definitions of love, family and Americana. And, from its inception, the sitcom has also been a covertly political tool, pushing our definitions of those very same concepts.
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!