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'Fresh Off the Boat' showrunner talks joking about race (without being racist)

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FRESH OFF THE BOAT
Kevin Foley/ABC

ABC’s newest quirky family sitcom, which premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, follows the Huang clan as they move from D.C.’s Chinatown to the lily-white Orlando suburbs. As the title (an epithet for recent immigrants) implies, Fresh isn’t afraid to court controversy—without making its characters into targets. EW spoke to creator Nahnatchka Khan about how she and her writers walk that line.

Let’s start at the beginning: How did you become the executive producer of this show?

I’d just done this show, Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23, that had been canceled. I drank for like two months straight. I was like, “I can’t handle this.” So after I came out of my drunken stupor, I read the book [Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat], and I thought it was great. I really related to the first generation American/immigrant idea, because that’s my story as well. I’m not Chinese, but both of my parents were born in Iran; my brother and I were the first ones born here. First in our family to go to college, that whole thing. It just really resonated with me, [being] that sort of bridge generation between where you’ve come from and where you’re going.

The memoir Eddie Huang wrote literally takes it all the way up to adulthood, but there was a section based in Orlando in the mid-’90s, when his dad moved their whole family to start this Old West-themed steakhouse. I was like, “That’s where I would set the show.” ABC really got it—I pitched it to [ABC president] Paul Lee directly. He likes to say that he’s also an immigrant, but he comes from England, so I don’t know if that really counts. That’s like bringing in whiter people, you know? But they totally got it.

The title changed, right? It went from Fresh Off the Boat to Far East Orlando, then back again. I know the term “fresh off the boat” conjures up issues for some people.

Yeah. We changed it for the pilot beause ABC was unsure. For me, it’s [about] the idea of coming here and having a different idea of what life is like than the people who have lived here for generations. It’s a mindset. And at the end of the day, this is a comedy that’s not quiet. We’re not apologizing for anything, so I think going the “unsafe” route and picking a title that announces itself and doesn’t apologize made sense. We’re trying to find our own place here; we’re not necessarily trying to fit in, because there is no notch for us to fit in.

So how do you respond to Asian-Americans who find that title offensive?

I mean, you know, I’m sorry that they think it’s offensive. I personally don’t think it’s offensive; to me, it all goes back to comedy. Some people don’t have a sense of humor about certain things, and other people do. Hopefully people are able to laugh at themselves, and laugh at this collective group mentality that we have, and know that it’s not meant in any mean-spirited way.

Tell me more about walking that line—making a show about the Asian experience without making the characters’ Asian-ness the butt of the joke.

That was always the thing. The Asian component of this was never intended to be the butt of the joke. We just wanted to make these characters strong and funny in and of themselves. The fact that they happened to be Asian influences things, because that’s where they’re coming from and that’s their perspective, but it’s not the joke. You know? I feel like we’ve seen the Asian community being the butt of the joke, the nerdy friend at work or whatever. It was important to tell real stories featuring these real charcters who are also funny, but not for the reasons that you have seen before.

Were there any jokes or scenes you found hard to do the right way—without making punchline, “Oh man, Asian people are different from other people”?

No. Actually, it’s funny—we kind of went the other way with it. The first version of the pilot that we focus-tested, the report came back that white people were feeling a little bit persecuted. We thought that was super funny.

When you hear that, is your response, like, “Good”?

Well, my response is, “How ironic.” Maybe you guys should go back to running the free world and not feel persecuted by a half-hour comedy. It’s [a] funny, like, “Oh, how’s it feel?” kind of thing.

I know there’s also been some bad feedback about Randall Park and Constance Wu’s accents.

As soon as we got picked up, Randall immediately enrolled in Mandarin classes. So since May, he’s been taking Mandarin and working on his accent. Constance is Chinese herself and has really been studying. They’ve been working hard on getting the accents specific to their characters. It’s a work in progress. Look, you’re never going to please everybody—but when I look back at the pilot and I look at these new episodes, it’s like, “Wow, they’ve really done a lot of great work on their accents.”

There haven’t been many shows about Asian-American people on TV, but is there anywhere you go for inspiration for Fresh Off the Boat?

Obviously, it’s inspired by the memoir, which is great. But in the writers’ room, we put together a very specific group of people with their own experiences. Really, to us, it’s if you’ve ever felt like an outsider for any reason—race or religion or sexuality, anything. The music you like. Those are the stories that we’re bringing to this. [The show’s] fish out of water is this kid who’s a fish out of water in his own family.

Not being Chinese yourself, are you ever worried about inauthenticity?

I don’t think so, no. Because we have a lot of great people around: Melvin [Mar], who’s also one of the executive producers, is also Chinese. We have Chinese writers on staff. The kids on the show, their parents are all around. The grandmother character only speaks Mandarin, so we have a Chinese interpreter who interprets all her lines—we’re trying to get the colloquial speaking version, not just, like, Google Translate. So we’re the first to hear if anything feels off. Like, we had a line about Jessica [Huang] having fish sauce in the kitchen, and a bunch of people came up and they were like, “Hey, we don’t cook with fish sauce. We use oyster sauce.” So those guys are great to have around, just for the smallest thing like that and big-issue things.

For me, I’m really focused on character and comedy and story. We could be the most authentic show on televison, but if we’re not funny and these characters aren’t engaging and we’re not telling interesting stories, it’s not going to work. I’m lucky that I have people that are sort of focused on making sure it feels real so we can focus on just making a really funny show. 

Would you say that’s your main goal? Because you must want Fresh to be appreciated on its own terms, and not necessarily as something that’s blazing a trail.

If you can make it a success, and you can make people that haven’t had this specific experience relate to it on whatever level, then the next thing that comes—it’s like, if there’s only one thing, everybody wants it to be their story. “In my family, we didn’t do this. We didn’t say this sort of thing.” But once there’s more than one, then you can start to get more specific with it. If we succeed, then hopefully more shows will follow us.

So it won’t be like, “Fresh Off the Boat is the way it is for every Asian-American family.”

Exactly. Because that’s certainly not what we’re tyring to do. We’re just trying to tell one family’s story. But because there’s such a lack of Asian-Americans on television in, everybody wants it to be their exact experience. I totally appreciate that—but I think that if we succeed here by making it so specific that it’s universal, then other things will follow that will get those people represented more.