As soon as his character Mr. Chow jumped out of that trunk naked swinging a crowbar in the 2009 comedy The Hangover, Ken Jeong was destined to be remembered. Now, close to a decade since that big break, the comedian known to many as Dr. Ken is set to take the stage at the Paramount in Huntington next week for an evening of stand-up and stories from the man behind the character.
The Asian-American actor of Korean descent is currently basking in the residual glow of his role in the mega-successful Crazy Rich Asians, a film hailed as a sort of coming-out party for Asian filmmakers and actors. The weight of playing a part in a movie of that magnitude is not something that’s lost on Jeong.
“It’s one of the few movies I’ve done where I was happier for the cast and the crew and the director for what came out of it than I was for my own personal gain,” said Jeong of the blockbuster rom-com that grossed nearly $200 million at the domestic box office. “It’s exactly what the director [Jon Chu] called it—it’s more than a movie, it’s a movement.”
And that movement’s effects are lingering, according to Jeong, as Asian-American filmmakers and actors are having projects greenlighted at a much faster clip, as studios are finally realizing that, yes, you can have Asian-Americans lead a movie and net big bucks.
“I think it has raised awareness regarding inclusion. I have two daughters and for them to see a female Asian-American representing them on screen, I cannot express how important that is,” he said. “I don’t have 20/20 vision goggles to look into the past and break down why it took so long, but from my own lens it’s been a series of steps, starting in large part with Fresh Off The Boat in early 2013. The success of that show really helped open this movement for Crazy Rich Asians to step in and it’s no coincidence that Constance Wu stars in both projects. And Fresh Off The Boat still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.”
Jeong made a couple of appearances on Fresh Off The Boat before getting his own sitcom, Dr. Ken, on ABC in 2017. And though his own was canceled after two seasons, the experience of working as a creator, writer and executive producer on the show presented an invaluable set of lessons.
“It is still the most creatively fulfilling project in my entire career. I had a hand in everything and my fingerprints are all over that,” he said, adding that the network gave him a lot of leeway, even though he didn’t have total creative control. “When you are using network money, they have the control. And I’m still so grateful to ABC and Sony to allow me to rent their space to make the show I wanted. It made me better in everything. It gave me a more detailed understanding of how to put a show on TV.”
If The Hangover made him famous and Dr. Ken made him a better creator, then the NBC sitcom Community made him a better actor, Jeong said. Starring as Spanish teacher Señor Ben Chang, Jeong worked alongside comedy and performance heavyweights Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Allison Brie, Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown and Danny Pudi, all pulled together with impeccable comedic writing and from the mind of creator Dan Harmon.
For Jeong, those 110 episodes encapsulate what he calls a “masterclass of comedy.”
“I never really had formal acting school training until I was on the set of Community,” he said. “I learned so much from all of them. I have so many stories and loving moments working on Community.”
But long before Community had him on a primetime network show, Jeong was on a much different—albeit, still successful—path. Jeong graduated from Duke University and earned a medical degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. He became a licensed physician in California and worked as an internal medicine doctor in general practice. That was his day job—by night, he was trolling comedy clubs, deeply invested in his “hobby.”
The performance bug first bite Jeong in high school. He explains that the school would put on many stage performances, including a mock male beauty pageant. Jeong was jolted by a standing ovation from the audience and at that moment the acting seed was planted. Years later, in medical school, Jeong was still performing on the side when he had to made a decision between being a doctor and falling fully into Hollywood.
“It was gut-check time. Do I go for comedy or finish what I started in med school, that was the question,” he said “I had put in so much work to be a doctor that I felt obligated to finish what I had started. So I became a doctor, but still did a lot of stand-up on the side to satisfy that performance itch. I did comedy on BET and kept at it until my agent got me an audition in Knocked Up as, what else, a doctor.”
Fleeing the comfy life of a California doctor for the fickle fate of film was a risk not lost on Jeong, or his family.
“My dad had a nuanced understanding of what I was doing, but he also knew that it was going to be a very rough road in show business. He didn’t deny my talents and he came to all my plays, but he worried about my stability if I didn’t make it in the mainstream,” he said. “But the last thing I wanted was to be in my 20s and not feel happy or fulfilled in my life. I had this thing ingrained in me and I had to go for it. That is why the role it Knocked Up was so huge because it just led to everything else. It was the big break.”
Which brings it all back to The Hangover, the film series that catapulted Jeong’s career to new heights. Released at a time that Jeong calls “the golden age of R-Rated comedies” when raunchy “bro” movies were a dime a dozen, The Hangover shocked the box office, pulling in about $270 million—or as Jeong puts it, “Marvel money.”
“I will gladly live with that role forever,” said Jeong. “It is the best business card ever. I’m forever known as Mr. Chow and to this day people still yell things from the movie at me and I love it. It has brought me an enormous amount of possibility.”
And that possibility lands Jeong on his current stage-show tour, where Jeong channels his influences ranging from Dave Attell to Dave Chappelle to Margaret Cho.
“You’ll see in my stand-up, I’m not jumping out of a trunk naked, I’m not recreating one of my characters,” said Jeong. “I’m not going to give the fans something that they can easily see on their phone. This is the man behind the character. It’s about why I chose to quit my day job, why I stepped away from medicine, how I almost didn’t do The Hangover. It’s a one-man show with some straight up jokes. An evening with Dr. Ken.”
Ken Jeong performs at The Paramount in Huntington (370 New York Ave.) on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m.