Ken Jeong on Dr. Ken, a Community movie: Interview
The doctor is in … a lot of trouble every time he opens his mouth. Community vet Ken Jeong stars in the new ABC comedy Dr. Ken (Friday, 8: 30 p.m. ET) as a blunt family physician at an HMO and husband/father of two. In some ways, the role isn’t much of a stretch: Jeong is a licensed physician. (Not to mention, a husband/father of two.) Here, Jeong riffs on the medical accuracy of his family/workplace sitcom (on which he also serves as a co-executive producer and writer), the comedy cliché he wants to avoid, his interest in a Community movie, and how, if at all, his former career prepared him for his current one.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Describe your character in six words or less.
KEN JEONG: “Always good intuitions, always overreacting.”
And with a word to spare.
“Boom!” Boom is the sixth word.
Who has a better life: Doctor or actor?
A doctor, to me, is the most noble profession. I miss my patients but I don’t miss the hours. I don’t miss working every holiday. I don’t miss working every other weekend. In terms of my lifestyle with me and my wife and two kids, the lifestyle of an actor is infinitely better. Than anything. Even as a writer, if I wasn’t writing on the show — I was telling someone the other day: Most actors roll in in August, and it’s pretty sweet and they can do other projects. I mean, that is the life.
How did your career in medicine prepare you to be an actor?
I would venture to say that there is nothing I’ve learned in my medical career that could actually help me out as an actor. When people say, “Laughter is the best medicine” — no, medicine is the best medicine. That sounds true but it couldn’t be more false. Laughter doesn’t hurt. But I still give an antibiotic rather than a guffaw any day.
What is one cliché family comedy story line you pledge to never do?
One thing I definitely don’t want to do is be like, “How was work, honey?” “Oh gosh, it’s really tough being an Asian general practitioner in the Valley. How do I fight disease and tropes?” You just gotta keep it real for the sake of keeping it real, because that’s the only way you can sustain a show.
What is the gold standard family comedy, in your opinion?
I look at this as a hybrid family/workplace comedy. It’s a bit ambitious. I’m in my 40s, so anything from Golden Girls to Cheers to Family Ties and Night Court. I find myself watching Cheers a lot right now, and I view [Dr. Ken] as an ensemble comedy even more than a pure family comedy. … We are devoting — I wouldn’t say equal times between family and workplace, but some episodes are going to emphasize workplace more and some episodes are going to emphasize family more. I just view it as an ensemble show. Maybe that’s my Community background where initially it was set up as a workplace comedy because it was set at a community college, but it’s just a huge ensemble. … Everyone talks about multi-camera is old and single camera is the now. And look, I was on the most single-camera comedy there is — Community — for six years, all right? To me, the hack-y thing to do would to actually try to do a single-camera comedy similar to Community as my own star vehicle. That’s kind of formulaic and derivative. My goal is really to make the multi-camera genre as it good as it can be. You take the laugh track out of Cheers, you got Parks and Rec — both equally good shows. The jokes hold up. Some of them are really subtle, some of them are strange and weird on Cheers, and you get the benefit of a laugh track, you get immediate gratification.
What percent medically accurate is this show?
I’m basically de facto a technical consultant on our show. And if I’m bumping on something, I’m going to call my wife who works part-time [in family medicine]. And if me and my wife can’t figure it out, I’ll call a buddy of mine who is a doctor. I have two resources I can call at any time, and we all agree among the doctors, it shouldn’t be 100 percent accurate because then it’s not funny or it’s not compelling. So I would have to say this is about 50 percent, which is actually good for a show. I think most of them honestly are, like, 15 percent at best. If you’re going to do a hour-long medical show and you want to capture real life, sometimes you’re in the bathroom, sometimes you’re eating lunch, sometimes you’re just waiting for a patient that takes an hour to come. There’s a lot of boredom. Whereas typically shows are going to show compressed excitement, so it’s not always the case. You don’t hook up with every doctor you don’t hook up with every nurse in every closet. That’s never happened. I worked in medicine for seven years. Never. Not once. In a supply closet. Ever. Ever.
Can you tease the plots of some episodes?
Ken goes to Physician Sensitivity training, and Ken and Clark’s [Jonathan Slavin] work relationship is further explored. Margaret Cho plays my more successful sister, Dr. Wendi. Will Yun Lee plays an ex-boyfriend of my wife. He is smarter, kinder, and much more handsome than Ken could ever be. … We definitely want to do straight-up, good family storytelling, like Ken helping Dave [Albert Tsai, who plays Ken’s son], but you also want to do some weird stuff. Maybe Ken has very unusual encounters with his boss [Pat], played by Dave Foley. He was one of my heroes from Kids in the Hall, why wouldn’t you do that? You want a bit of sublime or you want a bit of just straight-up funny.
Let’s say that a scene is flailing. What is your go-to move to salvage it?
Years ago, the key was to do it bigger. You start from a grounded place and do it bigger. Well, I’m known for doing it bigger. That’s kind of my thing. This is what I learned the last two years of Community. By that time the character was drawn very big, because Chang was mentally insane — and also I helped enable that writing, it takes two to tango — both the writers and I figured the only way you can top this insanity is to go small. So now I do feel everyone expects me to go big, and I do, but I think if I’m doing something that won’t get a laugh — and the audience will tell you that because we shoot in front of an audience — there’s so much value you get out of [being] deadpan and to sell it and be sincere. Some people say, “You have the stigma or the curse of being an over-the-top actor.” I look at it completely the other way around. I can surprise by just standing still and doing nothing. That’s something over the last two years on Community I quietly perfected. That’s why I look at Community as my acting school. It’s six years, 100 episodes of that show. Best writing, best cast. You can’t help but get better. Even if you didn’t want to get better as an actor, you hang out on Community long enough, you’re just going to get better.
What is the status of a Community movie? How soon will it get made?
I really, really want to do a Community movie. I don’t know when, but everyone knows I will always be up for it. #andamovie …. That Yahoo! year was my favorite year of Community. Dude, to have that kind of freedom where some episodes didn’t have to clock in at 21:30 — you could go 29 minutes. That karate episode I did last season? Best Chang episode ever. And probably some of my best acting ever.
You’re often a force of surprise in your roles. What will surprise viewers — who know you from The Hangover and Community — about your performance in Dr. Ken?
Just by design of the show, my character is a bit more likable. He’s not an international criminal. You don’t have the pure lunacy of Señor Chang. People will be surprised at how grounded the character is. I’m not jumping any of exam rooms naked. Yet. We haven’t written any Sweeps episodes. Maybe he jumps out of four exam rooms, one a week in November. But they’re four different rooms. One’s an office. One’s an exam room. One’s an O.R. I have range, guys!
Want more? EW’s Fall TV Preview mega-issue has the scoop on 115 shows! While the issue has left newsstands, you can still buy it here.