"I don't think you guys have seen a TCA stage with this many Asian faces on it in a long time..."
Eddie Huang, the author of "Fresh Off the Boat," on which the upcoming ABC family comedy is based, made the observation Wednesday at a panel for the show during the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.
It was a poignant moment during the thought-provoking, sometimes awkward, panel.
"Fresh Off the Boat" is the network's midseason entrant about a hip-hop-obsessed son of immigrant Taiwanese parents growing up in Florida in the mid-'90s. It's the first sitcom about an Asian American family since Margaret Cho's short-lived "All-American Girl" premiered two decades ago, also on ABC.
The process of maintaining the authenticity of the memoir through TV was something Huang was firm in doing. And that sometimes resulted in frustration and battles, as Huang noted in an essay he wrote for New York Magazine. In it, he echoed the concerns of others: Will this turn out to be another tired and limited representation of Asians by the media?
Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan ("Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23"), whom Huang had initial doubt about, said she read Huang's essay.
"I was thrilled when I read the story," said Khan, seated a few feet away from Huang, jokingly adding: "I felt like I found the source material for my next TV project."
She continued: "I always value free speech. [Eddie] is the heart and soul for the inspiration of the show. He's coming from a place of just wanting to make everything better. I appreciate it."
Huang, who serves as a producer on the show, ultimately came to the conclusion that despite some liberties, the importance of what the show ignites, conversation-wise, should be the greater takeaway.
"I care the most about the conversation that will happen because of 'Fresh Off the Boat,'" Huang told reporters Wednesday. He later added: "I genuinely feel when you do something historic, there has to be conflict, there has to be debate."
Constance Wu, who plays the matriarch in the comedy opposite Randall Park, said the push and pull is a good thing.
“Progress arises out of conflict, not out of pretending everything’s hunky-dory,” she said. That extends to how shows are cast. If the show does well, she added, "it will encourage people to invest in shows that do have Asians as first leads, not third leads."
And judging by one question asked during the panel, there indeed is some progress to be made if limited perspectives are to go away.
The very first question asked to the executive producers and the cast was posed as such: "I love the Asian culture, with the chopsticks and everything. Will there be more chopsticks?"
Yes, that happened.
At one point, the young actors on the comedy -- Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen -- were asked if they've ever been asked to play a role as "more Asian" during auditions.
Some acknowledged it has happened, prompting Khan to chime in:
"That really speaks to what we're doing," she said. "For so long, the Asian kid, the nerdy kid or crime lab technician sending out for results..."
"Or the quirky best friend to the white girl," Wu interrupted.
"Look at these people," Khan said, referencing the cast. "This is amazing. They're just playing flawed characters. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re starting the conversation."