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Dr. Ken Jeong: Brilliant or Lucky?

Aymar Jean Christian September 8, 2009 uncategorized 5 Comments on Dr. Ken Jeong: Brilliant or Lucky?

Original at Ronebreak.

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Not many people know the name Ken Jeong, but they definitely know his face. Ever since his big-screen debut in Knocked Up two years ago, North Carolina-raised Jeong – also known as Dr. Ken – has been a hot commodity, booking nearly two dozen current and upcoming parts in TV and film. I didn’t realize how important he was to American comedy until I went to see Funny People recently (of course, he makes a cameo) and noticed he was in three of the five previews — The Goods, All About Steve, and Couples Retreat. You’ll be seeing him as Senor Chang in the upcoming NBC show Community and it won’t stop there. Even Seth Rogen is less exposed!

How did a 40-ish average-looking Korean-American doctor-turned-comedian manage to book more gigs than the younger, hotter John Cho?

For the life of me, I cannot figure it out. Certainly a scene-stealing role in Judd Apatow’s biggest flick — as Katherine Heigl’s second-choice doctor in Knocked Up — doesn’t hurt. But the pace of Jeong’s work schedule suggests this breakout was a long time in the making. Indeed, Jeong had a lot of work before Knocked Up and it’s possible he became the buzz of Los Angeles at just the right moment. Hollywood, after all, is a fickle town of chattering executives.

Jeong, who actually has an M.D., is an unlikely star. To be sure, he is as funny  on his own as he is reading someone else’s script. But there aren’t any other actors today who look like him. Asian-Americans are still woefully underrepresented on screen, and of all the ones working today, I’d have bet the least money on him. He looks his age; he’s not at all sexy. Few actors, of any race, have their careers take off at 40. Still, there is no doubt he’s been well-cast in every cameo. Even in the trailer for The Goods, Jeong delivered the funniest moments.

The skeptic in me wonders about the fascination with Jeong, though. When I see him I think of Jack (Sean Hayes), flamboyant gay stereotype, on Will & Grace. At one point in the series Jack exclaims: “Laugh! Laugh at the sad gay clown!” It’s a pretty apt summary of Jack’s (admittedly hilarious) character, stereotypical court jester to the mass public.

Is Ken Jeong also a stereotype? His case is much less obvious. For one, Jeong has talent. A good actor, Ken makes every character different: in Knocked Up he is a tightly wound prick; in The Hangover he is an effeminate crime boss with a Napoleon complex; and in Community an excitable Spanish language teacher with an axe to grind:

Yet I can’t help thinking half of what makes him humorous on screen is his east Asian identity. “How silly,” many of the roles seem to say, “for an Asian-American to have such attitude?” Or simply “How silly. Laugh at the sad, Asian-American!” Jeong can’t help it. No actor can. For better or for worse, how every actor looks — his ethnic identity, his body type, his hair color — affects the way he or she is portrayed.

But now that Jeong has proven he has the acting chops and the comedic typing to deliver “the goods” when he needs to — did you catch the pun? — I want to see him in a leading role. Am I crazy for thinking he could carry his own show or movie? Hollywood needs to take more risks. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle cannot be the last major studio movie to feature Asian-Americans as the sole leading actors.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

5 Comments

  1. Ben September 19, 2009 at 1:59 am

    Nice post. I think a good and fair analysis of Mr. Ken Jeong’s career up to this point, especially the comparison to Sean Hayes’ character on Will and Grace.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian September 21, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Thanks for reading. Jeong is a fascinating actor, and I wish him all the best (and more complex roles)!

  3. abbie November 19, 2009 at 4:19 am

    what?!?! It’s not a debate! He’s a great actor. NUFF SAID!

  4. Aymar Jean Christian November 19, 2009 at 6:18 am

    I think he has great comic timing and can obviously act. The question is whether Hollywood is using him to his full potential! I want to see him in bigger roles, but maybe I’m asking too much.

  5. Ken Jeong = Long Duk Dong November 18, 2010 at 12:00 am

    I’m not a fan of Ken Jeong’s comedy. It seems he tries way too hard in everything he does and it all seems so forced and unnatural. Also, he’s a bad look for Asian-Americans. With an MD, you’d think he’d have the smarts to turn down a role that makes him a stereotype. Instead he gobbles up every part that comes his way like the slut he is. We have had enough Long Duk Dong’s in the media. It’s time we get rid of this Asian equivalent of coonery and buffoonery. It’s like what happened to Dave Chappelle. There was a point in his career where he realized that the white people were laughing at him and not with him which was the reason he left for so long.

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