Ken Jeong is a Korean-American doctor and comedian best known for his roles in “Community”, The Hangover trilogy, and his own TV series, “Dr. Ken”. One of three Asian comedy leads on TV today (including “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Master of None”), “Dr. Ken” shares an important burden of representing the Asian American community and paving a path for Asian Americans in mainstream media. Although Jeong expresses his efforts to stay genuine and portray original characters without making his race the basis of his comedy, it’s clear that he cannot get away from being perceived as Asian and associated with the stereotypes that follow. He demonstrates how dealing with the Asian body is not easy and that it’s important that media representation addresses the complexities of Asian identity so that the Asian American community is not written off with stereotypes.
Critiqued for his role as Leslie Chow from The Hangover series, Jeong has made bold choices with his character. His ridiculous portrayal of Chow has been a great driving force for how successful The Hangover movies have been. However, his character has perpetuated emasculated Orientalist stereotypes, subjecting Asians to ridicule. This calls to attention the impact and amount of responsibility that a comedian has, as Jeong’s desire to remain true to his vision of a character doesn’t necessarily translate to the audience. Jeong created Chow himself, as the role was written vaguely, and went all out as Chow was outside of his comfort zone. However, Chow uses Jeong’s physical body, so all of Chow’s self-deprecating humor, a type of humor central to comedy, inherently makes fun of Jeong. And, of course, Jeong cannot escape the intersectional lens of race, gender, nationality, and sexuality. Jeong’s character has been projected onto the Asian American community, further subjecting Asian/Americans to stereotypical mockery (i.e. having a small penis and desexualization). Although Jeong always wanted to keep Chow as a fictional, over-the-top character for the purpose of comedy and The Hangover story, he couldn’t have escaped the audience receiving his character as reflective of the Asian/American community. Jeong must acknowledge that he bears [an unfair] burden of being one of the few faces representing Asians in mainstream media and mass culture.
Something he’s done for Asian/American representation is successfully air 2 seasons of his own show, “Dr. Ken,” on ABC. Jeong has explained that his show is meant to be “refreshingly uncultured” to “normalize the Asian-American experience” while maintaining his own voice. Despite addressing race, he doesn’t center the storyline around it and maintains a traditional sitcom format around his family and job, portraying regular problems and character quirks. One source says how great the lack of stereotypical jokes about smelly food, speaking English well, and the classic “where are you really from” question is and how the “jokes acknowledge but don’t laugh at racial identity”. Despite positive directions the show takes, the reception has been mixed, highlighting the difference between intention and impact. Several sources have applauded the portrayal of a true Asian American family without an immigrant tale and for the departure from Jeong’s over-the-top Leslie Chow image. Some have been disappointed in how much Jeong has toned down his crazy comedic side that does break the model minority stereotype or for how he maintains the self-deprecating humor that subjects him to the emasculated Asian man stereotype. Jeong rejects classic Asian jokes, but the reality of audience reception is that they see his Asian body and perceive his jokes as stemming from his race instead of who he is as a character. One could suggest that Jeong omit jokes about the Asian body to escape racial humor, but that would lead to whitewashing himself and the story. The Asian body is inevitably present and must be addressed.
To respectfully address the Asian body, one must address Asian identity. For example, “Fresh Off The Boat” has additionally gathered attention for the same reasons “Dr. Ken” has, but the story is centered on how an Asian American boy, Eddie Huang, perceives and deals with the clashes of his parents’ Asian culture with American culture. The humor does present common Asian stereotypes, but there is real complexity within each character that gives the comedy depth rather than consisting of jokes simply laughing at being Asian. Although “Dr. Ken” addresses Asian identity, Jeong’s departure from Asian jokes suggest that he doesn’t mind glossing over the Asian heritage of his characters. In “Dr. Ken,” there’s no immigrant narrative so it makes sense that the Asian culture isn’t the main topic. However, Jeong shouldn’t lose sight of how Asian Americans are still perceived by race. Even if “Dr. Ken” doesn’t address race as directly as “Fresh Off The Boat” does, Jeong must maintain an acknowledgment that racial identity is more complex than just the color of one’s skin.
In reality, we can only control intention as audience reception will always vary. Hopefully, with more mindful Asian American representation in mainstream media, there will be reduced negative impact on the Asian American image. For now, getting more representation is first priority, and, in this capitalist society, perpetuating stereotypes is what sells and will increase diversity. However, it’s important to know that the ‘Asian body’ is inescapable. Our Asian American media representatives must understand that they need to sensitively address the ‘Asian body’ and must remain conscious about preventing shallow stereotypes from overshadowing the complexity of racial identity.