Talk about art imitating life. Ken Jeong was a doctor who did standup and improv comedy on the side until it got him guest spots on The Office, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Two and a Half Men and other TV shows. But it was his feature film debut in Knocked Up that put him on the map, leading to Pineapple Express, Couples Retreat, The Hangover trilogy, and a regular role on Community, which allowed him to leave the HMO for Hollywood full time.
Now he’s mining his medical experience for laughs on the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken, premiering tonight at 8:30/7:30c.
In a conversation that covered everything from rocking a Speedo in a talent show to dispensing medical advice on the Hangover set, Jeong reveals why laughter has been the best medicine for his career—even though he hates that phrase.
“The first time I did standup was in Raleigh, North Carolina about 24 years ago. I was following a Grateful Dead cover band and it was 20 minutes of possibly the worst comedy ever invented.”
What’s it like transitioning from supporting roles in movies and TV to starring in your own show?
Although my name is on it, I think of this more as an ensemble show. And just about everything I’ve done in my career like The Hangover and Community has been ensemble‑driven. I happen to be a doctor, but the emphasis really isn’t on me. I’m more the building block of this specific universe we’re trying to create. It’s less about specific patients and really more about the dynamics in the workplace and the dynamics at home and trying to intermingle that as well.
Did you consider making your character anything other than a doctor?
As an actor, I pride myself on playing any kind of role. But if it’s something that I’m writing and producing, I want to write what I know and see where I can go from there. I moonlighted at a karaoke bar once about 20 years ago. Maybe I should do that next time.
You played a doctor in Knocked Up.
I drew upon that character for this. I really wanted not only to draw upon what I know, but I wanted to create a character from start to finish. And that was a pretty realized character. Neither character is a jerk doctor or a jerk per se. They’re just stressed out or easily stressed out or experiencing a burnout of some sort.
How many of the stories are taken from your real experiences as a doctor?
In the pilot, the patient with the hemorrhoid is loosely based on a real-life patient. We amped it up for comedic effect. The workplace-dynamic scene, where my boss [Dave Foley] comes in with a cost-cutting measure is definitely inspired by my real life. I love something that’s specific and relatable.
Did you joke around with your patients?
No, I always hated that saying “Laughter is the best medicine.” No. Medicine is the best medicine. Patients were actually very surprised that I would do standup comedy on the side because I was so serious and intense.
What made you try standup? Did you have any live performing experience?
I never did theater in high school or anything like that. I came from a very academic family. My father is a retired professor of economics. I was always just trying to get into a good school, and I did. I got into Duke. I was a nerd, but I was a popular nerd that got along with everybody. I had a good sense of humor about things, but I never was a class clown. I always loved to laugh. At the end of high school, there was this mock male beauty pageant that I was voted to enter and be a contestant. I was a chubby kid, and I had a Speedo on. I was doing bodybuilding poses and then I played and sang “Three Times a Lady,” that Lionel Ritchie song. I got a standing ovation. It was like a Napoleon Dynamite moment for me. And I kind of carried that over to college, and I started getting into theater there and musical theater. The first time I did standup was in Raleigh, North Carolina about 24 years ago. I was following a Grateful Dead cover band and it was 20 minutes of possibly the worst comedy ever invented.
At what point did you say, ‘I’m an actor now’?
Knocked Up. It’s still in many ways one of my favorite roles ever. But even after that I didn’t know if I could do it full time, because if you’re only in a movie for a handful of days, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But my wife knew that I had a secret ambition to act full-time. She really encouraged me. I owe my career to her.
Do you miss medicine at all?
I miss patients. I don’t miss the hours, I don’t miss working weekends. I don’t miss working every holiday. And there’s a lot of burnout in primary care because a lot of times you are the gatekeeper in an HMO and they just want to see the specialist, so you’re pushing papers. That can be unfulfilling—that kind of medical Groundhog Day. I don’t miss all that. I love the actor’s hours a lot better.
But was it scary taking that pay cut when you first left?
Yes, very scary. I was a partner in my HMO and I had a very comfortable six-figure living there. But you know, you just have to follow your heart. And I was encouraged by everybody to pursue this. I had support from every single person in my family, everyone important to me. I’ve never been financially motivated in anything I’ve done.
You’ve kept your medical license active, though?
Yeah, not really to go back to work as much as it’s a reminder of where I came from. At this point it’s become more of a symbol of who I am or where my roots were.
Do you foresee a time when you might go back to it?
I think maybe more behind the scenes, something more administrative or charity work or free clinic work. I do a lot of work with Stand Up to Cancer. That’s very important to me, and it is nice to approach that charity from a caregiver aspect and a provider aspect as well as a patient aspect.
Has a co-star ever asked you for medical advice?
All the time. Every single production I’ve been on. On Hangover II I was in Bangkok, in character as Mr. Chow, speaking very dirty un-PC things. One of Ed Helms’ best friends had food poisoning, and he called me on my cell asking for medical advice. So I’m saying, “Dude, no, don’t just drink water. You need IV fluids. Go to an ER. Are you allergic to Cipro?” And then I went right back into Mr. Chow. The whole cast and crew was stunned.
What’s your best cure for a hangover?
Hydration, hydration, hydration.
You’ve got a couple of movies coming up
I filmed Ride Along 2, and that’s coming out in January with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube and Olivia Munn, Benjamin Bratt. We were shooting that and hanging out in Miami a year ago. Killing Hasselhoff is an independent movie, my first lead in an indie film. That was fun to do and I had a hand in producing it. It’s in the post-production phase.
You also produced Seoul Searching.
It’s flat-out one of the funniest and heartfelt movies I’ve seen in ages. It’s just one of my favorite movies, period. And I really just signed on as an EP as a fan, on anything they needed help on. It’s streaming on Netflix, so the world’s seeing the geniuses that Jennifer Phang and Jacqueline Kim are.
What surprises you most about your life now?
The last six years of my life have just been this amazing bonus. I was happy being the doctor from Knocked Up, but The Hangover just changed my life from black and white to Technicolor. And then to have this [show] is so surreal. I have this amazing opportunity, and I’m not going to let it go. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep this afloat.
Photo Craig Sjodin/ABC
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