LOS ANGELES — Ken Jeong was known as a scene stealer, a hilarious satellite character who can outshine an Oscar nominee. But with the premiere of his sitcom “Dr. Ken,” the 46-year-old gravitates toward the center of a new comic universe of his own making.
He won’t burst naked from a car trunk and gleefully pound on three unsuspecting men with a crowbar as his breakout “Hangover” character Mr. Chow did. This is a family-friendly ABC comedy, after all. And don’t expect him to take up residence in an oversize air-conditioning duct as his “Community” character Senor Ben Chang did.
It wouldn’t, however, be a surprise for his latest TV character — a practicing physician, as the title suggests — to verbally abuse Mr. Chow’s victims as he treated them for blunt-force trauma or even to schedule an appointment for Senor Chang with his new sitcom wife, who is a psychotherapist. About as off-color and slapsticky as this multi-camera show will get in its opening episodes is Dr. Ken diagnosing a patient with colon cancer.
“All of those characters have an edge, but Dr. Ken is the most grounded,” Jeong says backstage on Sony’s Stage 28 in Culver City, just hours before taping the series’ seventh episode last week. “He’s also the most zoo-ified. He’s a bit caged up, burned-out, and he has his anger issues.”
The sitcom is one of a growing number of programs that showcase a new level of ethnic and cultural diversity on prime-time television. Among the broadcast networks, which have all struggled to proportionally represent the many faces of America, ABC is clearly leading the way. In addition to its trio of much-heralded Shonda Rhimes shows on Thursday nights, the network also recently rolled out the second season of two well-received comedies built around nonwhite families trying to navigate their way through the dominant culture: “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Unlike those sitcoms, in which ethnic and cultural identity are central to the show’s conceit, “Dr. Ken” is more a generalized family sitcom. And, at least so far in the show, the doctor’s Korean heritage serves as a spice for the series, not the main course.
Jeong, who formerly practiced internal medicine, plays an HMO physician surrounded by the usual crazies at work and dedicated to his wife and two children.
“There’s exactly the same amount of Korean talk as you might hear in my real life with my family,” says Jeong, who lives in Southern California with his wife and twin 8-year-old daughters. “We don’t sit around and talk about being Korean.”
But the significance of landing a sitcom with minority leads on a broadcast network is not lost on the graduate of Duke University who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., a city with a very small Asian presence. His show contributes to a historic high-water mark for Asian regulars on a prime-time series this fall with 18 on ABC.
“I’m so happy about it,” Jeong says. “It’s like Viola Davis’ Emmy speech, which made me cry because it was so true. There are so many talented minority actors who you have never heard about because they are never given a shot.”
Keeping those opportunities open will have its challenges. New comedies across all networks are having an especially hard time attracting new audiences, which are distracted by a myriad of entertainment choices and a catalog of older comedies like “How I Met Your Mother” now easily available for binge-watching on streaming video services. Further, “Dr. Ken” airs on Friday, traditionally one of the hardest nights to launch any scripted show, comedy or drama.
“I just want to make this a Ken Jeong show, wherever it is,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday night, Monday night, Sunday morning, it doesn’t matter. My attention is to make the best show possible that I can.”
Initial reviews have been fairly tough on the new sitcom. Variety’s TV critic Brian Lowry cracked that the sitcom, some of which is set in a doctor’s office, wouldn’t endanger anyone’s funny bone.
But Jeong, who has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, responded to the negative reviews on the social media platform as only he could. He tweeted “What Dr. Ken thinks of the critics”: and below that a GIF of his Mr. Chow delivering an obscene gesture.