Brotherly Love: Ken Jeong and Randall Park Swap Stories as They Swap Shows

Michael Schneider
DR. KEN - "Korean Men's Club" (ABC/Ron Tom)
RANDALL PARK, KEN JEONG, what's worth watching, fresh off the boat
Ron Tom/ABC

Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park and Dr. Ken’s Ken Jeong have known each other since the early 2000s but haven’t often worked together.

Now, though, the pals have engineered a quasi-crossover on their ABC sitcoms: Park guest stars on the April 15 episode of Dr. Ken as the leader of the “Korean Men’s Club,” and Jeong will appear on a May episode of Fresh Off the Boat as the twin brother of Park’s Louis.

Park and Jeong (who is still a licensed MD and was once a full-time doctor) sat down with us to discuss their careers and their groundbreaking sitcoms—the only series in primetime boasting predominantly Asian-American casts.

TV Insider: So this is sort of a trade-off program.
Jeong: Yeah, it's free agency, just like NFL and the NBA. It goes between shows.

TV Insider: It started with [child actor] Albert Tsai appearing on both Dr. Ken  and Fresh off the Boat.
Jeong: That's right. Albert Tsai he came back, he goes, "Yo, man. This is such a dope set.”
Park: Yeah, purely off of Albert Tsai.
Jeong: "I highly recommend getting in on this Fresh Off The Boat action. I highly recommend it." He came as his Fresh Off the Boat character Phillip, with the scarf.
Park: That's him normally, right?

TV Insider: He's really 37, right?
Jeong: Yeah, he's great. We went to high school together. I mean, I was a math club geek and he was like captain of the football team. Whatever. Great character actor.

TV Insider: You guys have known each other for a long time.
Jeong: Over ten years. Through stand-up.
Park: I was running a show at the Ha Ha for a while, and I remember asking you, "Hey, could you do this show?" You said, “of course.”
Jeong: I remember when I started performing at the Ha Ha—that was like '04, '05. I was still working full-time at Kaiser at that time.

TV Insider: Randall, what did you make of Ken when you first met? Here was this doctor trying out comedy.
Park: I was in awe of him. He destroyed every time. Then to get to know him and find out that wasn't just an act but he's really a doctor. For a Korean guy whose parents wanted me to be a doctor all my life, to see that he was doing both, it was mind-blowing and upsetting at the same time. I was just struggling in stand-up and this guy was a master and he was also a master doctor. It made no sense.
Jeong: Another Korean told me the same thing. I kept telling that person, "You know that's not the intended effect. I'm not doing it to medically big time anybody. It's just how everything rolled out." [When I was younger] I would hope even if medicine didn’t work out for me I would still eventually get my way here.
Park: Korean parents or Asian parents tell their kids in entertainment to be more like Ken. You never know if they're talking about the acting comedy thing or the doctor thing.

TV Insider: What was your story, Randall? What moved you to get into this whole crazy acting career?
Park: I was in college and I was writing and I ended up majoring in creative writing and then did graduate. Some friends and I started writing plays and we started doing those plays and that kind of got me into acting. I didn't really pursue it professionally until way later. I was working as a graphic designer doing random jobs and acting on the side. Then just one day, I was 28 when I was like, "I'm going to do this professionally. I'm going to just focus on this."

TV Insider: Did you like standup?
Park: My love for it would wane, you know? It takes ten years to find your voice. Seven years in I was doing it once a month at that point and I was like, "I think I'm just gonna act."

TV Insider: Did you find your voice at that point?
Park: No. I found a lot of other people's voices. I'm sure Ken's voice made it's way into my act.

TV Insider: You started telling people you're a doctor.
Park: "Man, it's tough being a Korean-American doctor. Well, that's my time, guys."

TV Insider: What about you, Ken? You could really hang your comedy on the fact that you were a doctor.
Jeong: It was definitely evolving to still find my voice. II stopped doing stand-up maybe 7 years ago. When I was in college I wanted to act but had not only family pressure to stay in med school, to stay pre-med, but it was also an uncertainty thing. My dad would come to all my plays. He was very proud of what I did. He knew I was talented. But just like me, he was just anxious or nervous about my future. I couldn't argue. I stayed pre-med but it was hard, man. My grades would start going down.
Park: Because your heart wasn't there.
Jeong: Then I did my residency in New Orleans. My mentor residency said, "I'm not trying to move you to be a certain type of doctor at our hospital. I want you to capitalize on your own uniqueness. I know everyone's going to tell you that your comedy and your acting skills will help your bedside manner as a physician but I will also make the argument that your medicine will help your art if you choose to go that route." In my twenties, that blew my mind. It was the first time I really felt comfortable with who I am. That really helped me out.

TV Insider: [Joking] That man was Patch Adams.
Jeong: He said it through a clown nose and in a nasally voice. Then he took a coin out of my ear. I was blessed having a great wife, Tran, my wife who is a doctor, but also knew she married a comedian at heart. She really encouraged me. It was a double dose of that. Then with Tran's blessings I had to quit my job but then I got my parent's blessings. It was a wonderful moment that all kind of lined up.

TV Insider: Obviously one of the struggles is that there aren't a lot of great roles for Asian-Americans out there. How much did that play into how much you can pursue this?
Park: That was my parent's argument to me for not going into it. They didn't want me to pursue it and it made complete sense to me. Literally, I remember my mom turning on the TV and "Let's look for an Asian person." Just sitting there, weeks later. It definitely played into my hesitancy going into it and once in it it definitely became a source of discouragement during the tougher periods. My resume reflected the types of roles that were out there and available.

TV Insider: Some terrible offers, I assume. Some offensive offers out there.
Park: The real offensive stuff I wouldn't even audition for. Every role, early on, was arguably offensive or could be construed as offensive or rooted in some sort of stereotype in some way. There was always a little bit of an inner kind of negotiation of, "Well, it's not that bad." Not always, but often. Even to this day, for me.

TV Insider: Did you guys see Aziz Ansari's Master of None episode that addressed this issue?
Jeong: Yes, I love that episode. That was amazing.
Park: Totally. Being asked to do accents for a character where there was really no reason for it. A lot of nerd characters. A lot of IT guys.

TV Insider: As the decade went on, was there a shift? In the late 2000s there did seem to finally be some effort in TV to start casting more diverse. Did you start to see any better roles?
Park: I saw it in commercials for sure. I was making a living off of commercials for a long time. As far as TV, I wouldn't say until more recently.
Jeong: I really don’t know. There are over 400 scripted shows, so if you have maybe three or four shows with Asian-American leads, it’s still not, percentage-wise, [reflective of the population]. Volume-wise, there’s a bit more. On ABC you have two Asian-American family shows, which is historic.
Park: It's amazing. It's mind-blowing.
Jeong: Mind-blowing and it's a testament to the network. It really is because of Fresh Off The Boat's success I have my own show. I really give ABC so much props. Even while developing the show, what was so refreshing in the development process they never compared us. TNot once. It was just judged on its own merit. I love that. To me, that's a step forward in diversity even among Asian men.
Park: I remember doing a pilot, this must have been four years ago. A network pilot. Multi-cam. I was going for a role up against another Asian guy. We were very different, equally right for the role in different ways. I ended up getting the part in the pilot but they liked him so much that they also gave him a part. I remember thinking, "They're not going to pick this show up. It's two Asian guys on the show. There's no explanation for the two Asian guys." At that point in my life I just couldn't conceive of two Asian guys on one show as leads. There was that thinking ingrained just from years of being trained.

TV Insider: Success obviously helps a lot and Fresh Off The Boat has found its groove.
Park: Yeah, for sure. I feel like we definitely hit a stride.

TV Insider: Ken, you’re both executive producing and starring in Dr. Ken. What’s it like to wear both hats?
Jeong: In a way it's been the most fulfilling year of my career because of the different hats I'm wearing. Just to see how you make the sausage. It's been so eye-opening and I've learned so much. I really credit our show runner, Mike Sikowitz, who has given me all the access in the world to the writer's room, the edit bay and everything.
Park: Doing Ken's show and watching Ken's show, it's really like surreal to me because I grew up on multi-cams and to see an Asian family in that format that I grew up adoring ... it made me emotional.

TV Insider: The fact that our kids’ generation are growing up and that's going to be normal to them.
Jeong: That was the operative in pre-production telling the writers, "I want to normalize the Asian-American experience.” I'm not really known for nuance in my career but that's the one nuance that is very pervasive in the show. I told the writers, "I don't want the show to look like it's been written by a white man." It's through an Asian-American eye and then this is how me and my Asian-American wife talk at home and I'm always trying to duplicate that dialogue and to the writer's credit they've really followed suit.
Park: The ethnicity is a part of the characters but it's not everything.
Jeong: That's exactly it.
Park: With our show, I’m almost more proud of these themes that anyone can identify with. You tell that story and it's not necessarily always about teaching something or a glimpse into this culture. It's just a story. Those cultural things do pop in, of course. Just like they do in our lives.

TV Insider: What’s it been like working together?
Jeong: Our energies complement each other. It’s fun to play with really good actors.

TV Insider: And it sounds like there's opportunities for both of you guys to make return to each other's shows.
Jeong: Yeah. Not only is Randall a friend but I'm a fan. We talk all the time but I would love to do projects with him just in general.
Park: We always talk about doing a movie together.
Jeong: There are certain people you just have chemistry with.
Park: And we’re in a period now where you can have two Asians in one show!

Dr. Ken airs Fridays at 8/7c on ABC
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.