Ken Jeong is known as a scene stealer, a hilarious satellite character who can outshine an Oscar nominee. But with the premiere Friday of his sitcom “Dr. Ken,” the 46-year-old gravitates toward the center of a new comic universe of his own making.
He won’t burst naked from a car trunk and gleefully pound on three unsuspecting men with a crowbar, as his breakout “Hangover” character Mr. Chow did. This is a family-friendly ABC comedy, after all. And don’t expect him to take up residence in an oversize air-conditioning duct, as his “Community” character Señor Ben Chang did.
It wouldn’t, however, be a surprise for his latest TV character — a practicing physician, as the title suggests — to verbally abuse Mr. Chow’s victims as he treated them for blunt-force trauma or even to schedule an appointment for Señor Chang with his new sitcom wife, who is a psychotherapist. About as off-color and slapsticky as this multi-camera show will get in its opening episodes is Dr. Ken diagnosing a patient with colon cancer. (Expect a rectal joke or two.)
“All of those characters have an edge, but Dr. Ken is the most grounded,” Jeong says backstage on Sony’s Stage 28 in Culver City, just hours before taping the series’ seventh episode on Tuesday. “He’s also the most zoo-ified. He’s a bit caged up, burned-out, and he has his anger issues.”
The sitcom is one of a growing number of programs that showcase a new level of ethnic and cultural diversity on prime-time television. Among the broadcast networks, which have all struggled to proportionally represent the many faces of America, ABC is clearly leading the way. In addition to its trio of much-heralded Shonda Rhimes shows on Thursday nights, the network also recently rolled out the second season of two well-received comedies built around nonwhite families trying to navigate their way through the dominant culture: “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Unlike those sitcoms, in which ethnic and cultural identity are central to the show’s conceit, “Dr. Ken” is more a generalized family sitcom. And, at least so far, the doctor’s Korean heritage serves as a spice for the series, not the main course.
Jeong, who in real life was a doctor of internal medicine, plays an HMO physician surrounded by the usual crazies at work and dedicated to his wife and two children at home.
“There’s exactly the same amount of Korean talk as you might hear in my real life with my family,” says Jeong, who lives in Southern California with his wife and twin 8-year-old daughters. “We don’t sit around and talk about being Korean.”
But the significance of landing a sitcom with minority leads on a broadcast network is not lost on the graduate of Duke University who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., a city with a very small Asian presence. His show contributes to an historic high-water mark for Asian regulars on a prime-time series this fall with 18 on ABC. (The previous high was 16 on NBC during the 2007-08 television season, according to the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, a nonprofit group that seeks to increase diversity in film and television.)
“I’m so happy about it,” Jeong says. “It’s like Viola Davis’ Emmy speech, which made me cry because it was so true. There are so many talented minority actors who you have never heard about because they are never given a shot.”
Keeping those opportunities open will have its challenges. New comedies across all networks are having an especially hard time attracting new audiences, which are distracted by a myriad of entertainment choices and a catalog of older comedies like “How I Met Your Mother” now easily available for binge-watching on streaming video services. Further, “Dr. Ken” airs on Friday, traditionally one of the hardest nights to launch any scripted show, comedy or drama.
“I just want to make this a Ken Jeong show, wherever it is,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday night, Monday night, Sunday morning, it doesn’t matter. My attention is to make the best show possible that I can.”
It’s early still, but initial reviews have been fairly tough on the new sitcom. Variety’s TV critic Brian Lowry cracked that the sitcom, some of which is set in a doctor’s office, wouldn’t endanger anyone’s funny bone.
But Jeong, who has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, responded to the negative reviews on the social media platform as only he could. He tweeted “What #Dr. Ken thinks of the critics:" and below that a GIF of his Mr. Chow delivering an obscene gesture.
A friend of Jeong’s for more than two decades, Margaret Cho was eager to be a part of the new sitcom. When taping an upcoming episode on “Dr. Ken,” in which she plays his sister, a TV doctor who is a hybrid of Oprah and Dr. Oz, it was something of a full circle moment for her.
It was Cho’s “All-American Girl” on ABC that was the first major network sitcom about an Asian American family. The show, which premiered in 1994, lasted one season.
“Ken has great comic timing,” Cho says, “and is a phenomenal physical comedian — much like a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. I wanted to be in it because I want to do whatever I can to support this show.”
The idea for “Dr. Ken” grew out of Jeong’s former career as a doctor and his experience as a stand-up comedian. Despite the considerable demands of medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later a medical residency in New Orleans, Jeong performed stand-up off and on for years.
“It was my golf,” he says. “It was a very efficient hobby.”
As a physician, which included seven years at an HMO, Jeong was quite different than what his public persona might suggest. He was no Patch Adams. Jeong says he was always serious, consciously avoiding the clichés of the wisecracking doctor. Every once in a while, though, he’d run into a patient who had seen his comedy set and he would tell them: “Laughter isn’t the best medicine. Medicine is the best medicine.”
The hobby eventually supplanted his day job after, as he describes it, the “Hangover” movies changed his life from “black-and-white to Technicolor.”
His current day job, as star and executive producer of “Dr. Ken,” is as demanding as almost anything in his medical career. Jeong has been involved in nearly every aspect of the show, including casting, editing and especially writing. He’s been surprised that the acting accounts for only about a third of his jampacked work schedule for the show, which also stars Suzy Nakamura, Tisha Campbell-Martin and Dave Foley.
Much of his focus is on the show’s scripts and story lines, which he develops with showrunner Mike Sikowitz and the writing staff. Jeong, who interviewed all the writers for the dozen or so staff jobs, does everything from breaking down individual stories to last-minute line tweaks at the still-evolving show’s live performances taped before an audience of about 200.
“Sometimes it feels like life and death,” Jeong says. “But I know it’s not. I have a nice perspective that my former day job allows me. It’s just a TV show and life goes on.”
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)