Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat”

Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu

The Muse:

Constance Wu is living the dream of every up and coming actor—landing the lead on a hit sitcom on a major network with a rapt audience. But Wu’s role as Jessica Huang, Taiwanese mom of three boys on Fresh Off the Boat, is more than just a sweet gig—it’s historical, as FOTB is only the second Asian American-centric sitcom in 20 years after Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl in 1994. Add to the pot the outspoken opinions of the show’s creator Chef Eddie Huang, who went from bashing the show to supporting it in a matter of days, Wu’s first big break is breaking color lines and studio systems. But the 26-year-old is taking all of it in stride because haters gonna hate, you know?

For your first sitcom, your comedic timing is great without trying too hard. How do you strike that balance with Randall Park, who plays your husband Louis Huang, and the three boys Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen?

This is only the second comedy I’ve ever done and it didn’t work until I stopped trying to be funny. That’s the trap. Whenever you’re trying to be funny, it becomes cloying and manipulative. My goal with my performance is to be as true as possible.

People think that Jessica’s accent is funny but no one writes jokes about her accent. The humor comes from the writers giving me very funny situations and lines. What makes her so refreshing is that she has an accent and doesn’t know perfect English but she doesn’t think that’s a reason for her not to have a voice and a very loud one at that. That’s what’s interesting and fun about her and playing against Randall and the boys because we’re all just trying to have a good time and tell a specific story.

Speaking of the accent, some felt it was very controversial for you to portray Mrs. Huang with her Taiwanese accent. Why do you think accents in general are so divisive when it reflects actual humans?

Asians have been so rarely represented in mainstream media and historically, especially in the early stages, the accent was used as a humor tool with jokes written about it. But now I would challenge people who say that Jessica’s accent is stereotypical and ask what does that mean? An accent is not a stereotype, it’s just a set of linguistic phonetic changes that happen when your mother tongue has a different set of phonetic constraints than the newer language that you are now speaking. Stereotype enters when that accent is used for the purpose of humor. Of course there are people who are laughing at my character’s accent for very coarse reasons, but we aren’t writing jokes about the accent. It’s an important shift to make.

Recently, a lot of Asians actors want to neutralize their roles on television and say ‘This person is playing a character who happens to be Asian and that has nothing to do with their identity.’

That is a trend that is flying across all minorities, it seems…

My grandfather was an illiterate bamboo farmer and my dad really had to work himself up academically to get a full ride scholarship and a Ph.D in biology in America. He didn’t have a leg up anywhere, he had to work to get that. To even say that that type of journey has nothing to do with my place and opportunities now is dishonorable.

I don’t think that identity is purely determined by race and if a story wants to focus on other things that are important to the narrative, that’s great. But it’s not harmful to say that ethnicity plays an important part in identity and that that part of the story matters. It’s not fodder for humor, it’s just another unique and beautiful element of humanity. Hopefully, we celebrate that. And we’re also a comedy! We want that comedy to be great and warm in our show, which Randall and I both found important.

How’s Fresh Off the Boat been as your first TV experience, between participating in the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years and the tumultuous process creator Eddie Huang had making it?

Eddie and I are new to network television. Before this show I’d done one guest star on Law & Order when I was in college. The network system is established, so being a newbie in this already established constrained situation, we struggled to find our footing. There can be the danger of gratitude becoming complacency which Eddie wasn’t willing to let happen. I think he had to realize which battles he needed to lose in order to win the greater war of representation. Even for myself as an actor, there were certain parts that I was uncomfortable with in terms of lines I was given.

As someone new to television, I wasn’t sure how openly I was allowed to express my opinion. I certainly didn’t want to tread on the toes of people who have more experience than I but I didn’t want to let that inexperience be why my voice and opinion were not valid. Straddling that line was nerve-racking. I didn’t protest too much, instead I found a way within my character work to make it work.

Then last week I emailed our show runner Nahnatchka Khan about a live reading I gave in episode nine or ten. In the first takes, I was trying hard to be clever and improved these funny lines and then on the last take—the scene was with Hudson (Eddie’s character)—for the first time, I actually heard what Hudson said to me, which was ‘You did good mom,’ and I had a genuine response to it. So I emailed Nahnatchka and wrote ‘When I’m doing that series of takes and I’m trying really hard to be clever and funny, and I know that it came off, but if you don’t mind, could we use the last take because I have plenty of times during the series where I’m clever and funny. The last one was the only take in which I actually heard what Hudson was saying to me.’ She emailed me back like, ‘We did use one of your clever takes and we just re-watched it and you’re right. The last take you did was good and it was lovely for a different reason and if that really means something to you, we’ll change it.’

I was stunned because I thought, ‘She’s been doing this forever but this means something to me. So I’m gonna say it with as much respect as possible and if she says ‘No’ at least I tried.’ But she said yes and added ‘Don’t be afraid to ask things like that, I really want to run this with an open door.’ Because Eddie has been so vocal from the beginning—and in the beginning, maybe they didn’t listen to him as much—I think it’s making the system change a bit. People were quick to stigmatize the conflict that Eddie was expressing but that’s just people trying to do better and figuring out how. And of course he’s gonna be sensitive about the show, it’s about his family.

You spoke earlier of stereotypes and a bit of the Tiger Mom trope arises in your portrayal of Jessica Huang when she begins tutoring her three boys after school. Was that something you had to negotiate?

We have real source material in Jessica Huang. I don’t think I should play against a stereotype just to fight the war against stereotypes. Because I’m playing a role that carries the show and a character that has an arc, occasionally elements of Jessica’s personality do fall into a Tiger Mom stereotype. But I’m playing them because they are true to her, not because I am exploiting a stereotype. I’m never doing that. You have to serve the truth of the character and Jessica Huang does what she digs, whether or not it falls into a stereotype.

Chris Rock said that if Tom Hanks does a project, he’s free to fail, but if Denzel Washington does something, he’s representing the entire black race. How are you handling the pressure of being the first Asian American family on network television in 20 years?

I feel that pressure but it’s not something that’s manifesting itself in my work. Sure, there is a burden of representation but the burden shouldn’t be to represent every Asian ever. The burden is to represent an Asian story with as much truth as possible that it touches something in other people and strikes up a curiosity for an experience that is different than your own. Then that gets the ball rolling for others to make individual stories based in truth, intelligence and compassion. My job is not to give you a watered down McDonald’s version of an Asian family so that your next door neighbor thinks, ‘Oh they’re just like me.’ I’m not like freaking out, haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. People like authenticity and courage, that’s why people like Eddie. Haters will always hate, they’ll see a beautiful flower and be like ‘Ugh, look at that flower!’

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8/7 Central on ABC.

NY Times: “Eddie Huang Against the World”

NY Times (by Wesley Yang):

On a cold, dark street in Tijuana, Mexico, I asked Eddie Huang a question that many people were sure to ask him in the months to come. “What did you expect?

For the past week in December, Huang had been venting about his tortured ambivalence toward “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC sitcom based on the memoir he wrote about growing up as a child of Taiwanese immigrants in Orlando, Fla. He deployed his gift for pithy, wounding invective against the show’s producers and writers — before professing gratitude and love for the same people he just vilified. He described what he took to be the show’s falseness and insensitivity to nuance — before praising its first episode as the best sitcom pilot he had ever seen. He lamented the choice he had made to sell his life rights to a major network — before insisting that the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” on Feb. 4 would be a milestone, not just in the history of television but in the history of the United States.

He had a point. “Fresh Off the Boat” would be the first network sitcom to star an Asian-American family in 20 years and only the third attempt by any major network in the history of the medium. Huang chose to sign with ABC in deference to the residual power of network television to alter mass perceptions about race, and he had hoped to portray the Asian-immigrant experience without equivocation or compromise.

What did I expect?” Huang responded. “I expected I could change things.” He told me that he thought his story was powerful enough for ABC to allow him to tell it his way. “I thought that people in network television had their own conscience about things.”

Huang, 32, was dressed in an acid-wash denim jacket and a black fur hat with its earflaps folded up, which lent his large, round baby face a not-at-all-coincidental resemblance to a certain East Asian dictator. (Huang likes to give himself nicknames — Kim Jong Trill, the Rotten Banana, the Human Panda, the Chinkstronaut — all of which, like the name of his show, repurpose and reclaim slurs and stereotypes.) He was sitting on the back fender of a Vice Media van, in which a five-man crew was preparing its equipment to shoot. We were waiting for two young female marijuana dealers whom Huang would be interviewing for “Huang’s World,” the gonzo food and travel show he hosts for Vice.

He had, he admitted, been extremely naïve about the realities of network television. By way of explanation, Huang reviewed for me the string of previous triumphs that induced him to overrate his ability to set his own terms in the world. “You have to remember how unlikely all of this was. With Baohaus, for instance,” he said, referring to the basement hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese sandwich shop that took Huang to the forefront of a new generation of hip young New York chefs, “I had never worked in a New York City restaurant. I came out of nowhere. And I did it!” After a brief dalliance with the Cooking Channel, Huang started the Vice show, which at the time was called “Fresh Off the Boat.” “When had there been a television host with an identity like mine — a hip-hop Asian kid? I was the first! And the show was a huge success!” In 2013, he published a memoir, the story that Huang had always wanted to tell, and it became a national best seller. “And so I said, We can do this one more time! But network television wasn’t what I thought it was.”

Huang feels that by adulterating the specificity of his childhood in the pursuit of universal appeal, the show was performing a kind of “reverse yellow­face” — telling white American stories with Chinese faces. He doesn’t want to purchase mainstream accessibility at the expense of the distinctiveness of his lived experiences, though he is aware of how acutely Asian-­Americans hunger for any kind of cultural recognition. “Culturally, we are in an ice age,” he said. “We don’t even have fire. We don’t even have the wheel. If this can be the first wheel, maybe others can make three more.”

Then, he added, “we can get an axle and build a rice rocket.”

The story Huang tells in his memoir is one of survival and struggle in a hostile environment — a prosperous neighborhood in Orlando. Though the picaresque book is written in Huang’s jaunty mash-up of hip-hop lingo and conspicuously learned references to American history and literature, it is also an extraordinarily raw account of an abused and bullied child who grows to inflict violence on others. The racism Huang encounters in Florida is not underhanded, implicit or subtle, as it often is for the many Asians from the professional classes living in and around the coastal cities where the American educated elite reside. It is open, overt and violent.

Up North and out West, you have a bit more focus on academics, and there are accelerated programs for high-achieving kids,” said Emery Huang, reflecting on the tumultuous upbringing he shared with his brother. “Down South, you’ve got football and drinking, and that’s it. If you weren’t fighting, you were a nerd and a victim.” In response to this bullying, the Huang brothers did not conform to the docile stereotypes of Asian-American youths, in large part because of the influence of their father, Louis. A hardened, street-smart man, Louis had been sent by his own father to the United States to get him away from the hoodlums he had been running with in Taipei. “We wouldn’t get in trouble with our dad if we got into a fight,” Emery said. “We would get in trouble if we didn’t win.”

Huang’s memoir records an unusual life trajectory: from tormented outsider, to angry adolescent who would twice be arrested on assault charges, to marijuana dealer, to high-end street-wear designer (under the “Hoodman” label, which eventually led to a lawsuit from Bergdorf Goodman), to corporate lawyer, to successful restaurateur. The book fixates on themes of pain and punishment. As a teenager, Huang was commanded by his father to kneel and bow to police officers after he was caught stealing from neighbors. Later, he would find himself surrounded by cops with guns drawn after he drove his car into a crowd of frat guys who were menacing him and several friends (after one of his own broke a window at their house).

At times, Huang comes across in his memoir as a dutiful son who admires and reveres his parents and feels the enormous weight of obligation to them — “I wasn’t mad at my dad,” he writes after being forced to remain kneeling on his asphalt driveway for several hours, “I deserved it” — and at others as an enraged teenager, rebelling against constant assaults on his self-esteem to which he was subjected in the home — he recalls “constantly being told I was a fan tong (rice bucket), fat-ass or waste of space.” He finds in hip-hop a language for his alienation, citing Tupac Shakur’s “Me Against the World” as the cathartic soundtrack of his youth. (“Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority [expletive] and kung-fu-style discipline are what set us off,” he wrote. “But Pac held us down.”)

In Los Angeles later in December, while driving with Huang in his canary yellow Porsche Boxster to his Malibu apartment, I asked him what his parents thought of his portrayal of the abuse they inflicted on him.

My parents have never acknowledged that it was abuse — because in their culture and their country it wasn’t,” he said. Huang believes that the psychological and physical harm that was done to him was largely a matter of context. “I think the abuse had extra meaning that I gave to it, because I saw that it wasn’t happening to other kids.” For a time, every Friday afternoon, Huang said, social workers would take him out of class to inspect him for cuts and bruises. “And I knew that I was weird and different and was made to feel like I had done something wrong, like there was something wrong with us.”

The book proposal for “Fresh Off the Boat” was sent to publishers not long after an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The commercial prospects of Huang’s proposal were almost certainly enhanced by this coincidence: Chua’s book indirectly addressed the chief preoccupation of the American upper-middle class — getting their children into top-tier colleges — and therefore generated one of the infrequent moments in which Asian-­Americans aroused the fascination of the wider American public. Chua made Asian-Americans matter just long enough for Huang’s proposal to sell as a counternarrative to hers.

The Journal excerpt, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” gave what Chua would later claim was a misleading impression of the overall arc of her book, which chronicled the crisis that ensued when her younger daughter revolted against “Chinese” parenting methods that might seem “unimaginable — even legally actionable” to Western parents. But the marketing campaign, of which the excerpt was a part, appealed to an underlying (and not entirely unjustified) concern among white American parents that they had grown too indulgent toward their children. Huang found the book repellent. “She Kumon-ized our existence,” he told me, referring to the popular Japanese after-school learning program. “This is something that 50- and 60-year-old Asians are still dealing with.”

When I spoke to Huang’s parents, they didn’t deny his claims, but they emphasized that there was a cultural and generational gap. They were young at the time, they said, and they had reverted to parenting practices they saw in Taiwan. “I wanted to make them tough,” his father said, “and I think that I did.” Emery, however, claims that his brother’s harsh depiction of their childhood in the book seemed “sugarcoated.”

Still, Huang is quick to say that he never thinks of his parents as bad people. “I do think about getting hit, though,” he said. “And I definitely am the way I am because of it. I am quick to react. I am quick to protect myself. I am very comfortable with people yelling at me. And I am very comfortable telling people exactly what I think. I am very comfortable getting personal.”

This mixture of love and loathing toward parents will be familiar to generations of immigrants of every color, but Asian-Americans feel this tension with an unusual acuteness, in part because Confucian tradition is so explicitly directed toward the breaking of individual autonomy in favor of the demands of the family. This tension is compounded by the fact that, as a result of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased national-­origin quotas, Asians began arriving in the United States in large numbers just as the cultural upheaval of the 1960s was drastically loosening American manners and mores. Today the means that many Asian-Americans apply to achieve academic success (a narrow emphasis on rote memorization and test preparation) could not be more out of step with the attitudes and practices of the socially liberal elite that Asians aspire to join. The ensuing cultural dissonance generates an awkward silence around the topic of Asian-Americans — Asian-­Americans don’t want to portray their parents as backward, and white liberals don’t want to be seen as looking down on people of other races and cultures whose parenting practices seem primitive. Huang hates this silence.

It is no paradox that Huang’s brazen attitude resembles nothing so much as that of his brash immigrant mother. As we arrived at his apartment in Malibu, Huang casually mentioned that his mother had on more than one occasion turned the wheel of her car sharply into oncoming traffic to terrorize her children into compliance. But Huang would later insist that he owes everything he has become to her. “Every morning, whether it was weekdays or weekends, she would get me up and start demanding: ‘What are you going to do with yourself today? What is the plan? What is the itinerary?’ ” Huang credits this with instilling in him the drive that made him relentless in his pursuit of success.

In fact, his mother’s haranguing inadvertently helped jump-start his writing career. In 2010, his attempt at a second restaurant, Xiao Ye, received a zero-star review in The New York Times. The restaurant’s menu included facetiously racist items, including an “Everything but the Dog Meat Plate” and “Princeton Review Bean Paste Noodles.” In the write-up, Sam Sifton lamented that “if Mr. Huang spent even a third of the time cooking that he does writing funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers, Xiao Ye might be one of the more interesting restaurants to open in New York City in the last few months.” Huang’s blog went viral when he published an email his mother sent him after the review came out.

Trust me, you much keep your bar license active just in case you need it,” his mother wrote. “You do not even understand your own strength or the whole scope of this business, and you are not even willing to listen. YOU MUST GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM. Please calm down, analyze yourself, and be honest. You have a lot of potential, but you must make good choice and stick to it with the best choice. With all the staff, and your korean friend, no one was able to point out or warn you the mistakes, or problems you have???????????????????

Huang closed the restaurant after repeat visits from the State Liquor Authority, which might have been peeved by his “Four Loko Thursday” deal, when the high-alcohol, caffeinated beverage was sold at a steep discount. (Huang had also floated the idea of an all-you-can-drink deal.) But Sifton grasped something important in his observation that the blog posts and Twitter updates mattered more to the chef than the food did. Huang’s true ambitions always had more to do with writing than with feeding people. He told me he opened the restaurant “because no one wanted to listen to me.”

Huang’s cocky social-media personality kept getting him in trouble, but it only seemed to swell his fame. His inability to censor himself, combined with his talent for speaking frankly and intimately to a mass public, aligned him perfectly with the mood of social media. When the Cooking Channel signed Huang to host a show called “Cheap Bites” — the kind of opportunity that most dedicated chefs would hold on to for dear life — the deal fell apart after Huang lashed out at the network’s biggest stars on Twitter. Huang has no regrets about the dust-up. (“The show looked like trash.”) He was later named a TED fellow, a potential gateway into the world of highly compensated corporate speaking, but quickly got himself booted from the program when he skipped some of the events to appear on a podcast with the graffiti artist David Choe and the porn star Asa Akira. Choe declared it to be a meeting of the “worst Asians in the universe.” Huang would later denounce TED as a “cult.”

Huang’s utter lack of instinct for self-preservation has had the curious effect of preserving himself against any harm. While the established institutions he railed against had myriad vested interests to balance and secrets to hide, Huang has always taken the inherently sympathetic role of the only honest man, refusing to compromise with arbitrary or corrupt authority. This has made Huang a particularly good fit with Vice Media, whose food channel, Munchies, seeks to appeal to young hipsters turned off by bourgeois “foodie-ism” but interested in educating their palates. Tricked out in big sunglasses, high-top sneakers and flashy street wear, Huang’s on-screen persona often resembles an Asian Ali G — easy to mock, were it not a deliberate self-­caricature. Much of the pleasure of Huang’s Vice show comes from watching him slyly emerge from his buffoonish character to make incisive comments revealing an agile, literary mind — and then lapse back into the role of the pot-addled numbskull.

I met Huang in Los Angeles during a time of high tension surrounding his show, a few weeks after he exploded in a Twitter tirade, accusing the network of neutering his book, and a week before shooting would wrap. The executive producers were, at this point, careful to emphasize that the show was not a biography of Eddie Huang and his family. It was a loose adaptation “inspired” by, rather than “based” on, Huang’s book. The series borrows the setting and the characters but applies them to a plot that was invented almost entirely by a professional writing staff, led by the showrunner Nahnatchka Khan. Though Huang lived the life depicted in the show, 20th Century Fox Television (which produces the show for ABC) retains creative control over it.

Melvin Mar, the producer at Fox who bought the rights to the book, told me that Huang’s arrangement with the studio is atypical. Usually, a production company will pay an author for a book it options and neither seek nor offer further participation. But Huang insisted on being brought on as a producer as a condition of the sale. So, Mar told me, “we decided we would all do this together, like a family.”

More than anything, the fraught dynamic that emerged between Mar and Huang resembles that of Huang’s actual family. The ambivalence Huang feels toward his parents tends to manifest itself in all his dealings with authority, Mar most emphatically not excepted. Huang sometimes describes Mar as a mentor, someone who has taught him about when to pursue confrontation and when to acknowledge the necessity for accommodation. But these sincere expressions of respect often segue quickly to contempt for the compromises endemic to the entertainment industry. “It’s a system that is kind of similar to the Asian upbringing,” Huang told me. By giving up so much autonomy for his career’s sake, Huang said, Mar “got a second set of parents in network television.”

Mar and Khan met at a symposium for Asian-Americans interested in the popular arts, where they dealt with a familiar crowd of activists demanding to know why Hollywood seemed so uninterested in casting people who looked like themselves. (Mar’s family is from China; Khan’s is from Iran.) “You go to these conferences, and there’s always people saying, ‘You should do more for Asian people,’ ” Mar said. “And my response is, ‘Yes, I agree with you.’ But it’s easier said than done. I have to bring actual projects that are viable and convince the executives that there’s a real business case for making it.”

The business case for making an Asian-American show is simple: Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, they earn and spend more than the average American and they are overrepresented in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. But if the case were really so strong, surely two decades would not have passed without some network making a bid for this audience. Perhaps the reason is that the so-called Asian-American demographic (some 18 million viewers) is actually made up of many different nationalities with no common culture or language.

Moreover, comedies about nonwhite people generally must navigate a trap-laden path between offending the group represented and neutering the comedy to avoid doing so. And they suffer from having to be approved and produced by people who are overwhelmingly white, and thus unfamiliar with the nuances of the stories they are telling, and also intensely wary of giving offense — but all this does is increase the likelihood that these shows will be dull, though still capable of offending their audience. This is exactly what happened to “All-American Girl,” the sitcom starring the comedian Margaret Cho and the last significant attempt to make an Asian-American TV show. The series was disowned by the Korean-American community that it tried to portray and was eventually rejected by the wider audience for being unfunny. It was canceled after just one season, two decades ago.

Fresh Off the Boat” was meant to be different. Not only is the production staff diverse, but the source material helps indemnify the show against criticism of many of its outlandish elements, which are rooted in Huang’s actual life. For example, the ferociously uninhibited and heavily accented mother portrayed in the series might appear to be an offensive caricature if it were a generic “Tiger mom” conjured out of thin air.

In fact, Constance Wu, the actress who plays Jessica Huang on the show, told me that she underplays her character in relation to the actual woman. “I don’t actually think they would believe she was real,” Wu said. “That’s what reality television is for — to show you people who no one would actually believe were real.” To preserve the appearance of reality, the show has had to depart from it — while also claiming that same reality as its license to go as far as it does in presenting a raw slice of immigrant life.

When Mar asked Khan to sketch out her vision for the show, she described what would become the opening scene of the series: a tight focus on someone in hip-hop garb that pulls out to reveal . . . a short, chubby Asian boy. The apparent incongruity (more apparent than real) is at once a joke for the prime-time network audience and a wedge that protects the series from recapitulating “model minority” representations of Asian-Americans. It is also the sore point that offends Huang more than any other aspect of the show.

Hip-hop had been the emblem of Huang’s alienation from his own household and the violence he encountered at school. It provided a language through which to reject the role of the eager assimilator that his own culture seemed to urge onto him. It was, as Huang described it in his book, a means of survival — not some glib, touristic fascination, or even a way of being cool. Huang identified with the black kids at school because they, too, were enduring beatings in their households in a way that white kids weren’t. “It’s a funny position being an Asian in America,” Huang wrote. “You’re the dude who can cross the union line. Your community actually wants you to sell the [expletive] out and work in law, accounting or banking. But I realized then that I wasn’t going to cross the picket line.” (Though he was briefly a corporate lawyer.) “I was down with the rotten bananas who want nothing to do with that.”

Huang’s appropriation of the language of racialized resistance might seem intrinsically noncredible to many white, black and even Asian interlocutors, who — implicitly or explicitly — regard Asian-Americans as the minority group that gets ahead by working hard and eschewing the politics of racial grievance. Not Huang, who likes to analogize his relationship with Mar to that of the “field Chinaman” to the “house Chinaman.” (Mar called this comparison “heightened,” which was his diplomatic way of saying “fantastically overwrought.” If there is a class distinction between the two men, it’s this: Mar’s family worked in the bean-sprout business in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, while Huang’s father become a millionaire many times over in Orlando.)

Huang especially took issue with the second episode in the series, in which a youthful Eddie develops a protosexual fascination with a blond, large-breasted trophy wife who has just moved into the neighborhood. It includes a scene in which Eddie fantasizes himself into a rap video. He “makes it rain” and squirts Capri Sun onto models. Though test audiences found the scene to be innocuously funny, Huang considered the thrust of the episode outright offensive. In his estimation, it denigrates hip-hop culture by portraying it as a vector for adopting sexist attitudes — a perversion of what, for him, had been a vital emotional outlet. His analysis is credible but, as the writers and producers told him, way too abstruse for anyone in the audience to think about.

It’s so interesting, what he’s going through,” Khan told me. “Most people never get the opportunity to experience what he’s experiencing. So now he’s rebelling and manifesting the angst, and that’s what makes him him, and that’s why he wrote the memoir in the first place. Part of me just wants to say, ‘Sit back and enjoy this.’ ”

When I told Huang that Khan wanted him to sit back and enjoy the ride, he had an immediate response: “That’s what pedophiles tell children.”

Even if Huang’s attraction to black culture is played for cheap laughs, to him it is an essential element of his person. It provides the missing half of the fully human entity that the Asian-American who consents to the model-minority myth has to relinquish. A model minority is a tractable, one-­dimensional simulacrum of a person, stripped of complexity, nuance, danger and sexuality — a person devoid of dramatic interest. Huang is something else: a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.

At the hotel on our last day in Tijuana, Huang spent the morning managing his Manhattan restaurant, Baohaus, by Skype. Besides traveling 24 weeks of the year for Vice, writing a second memoir and working on the ABC series, Huang continues to manage his restaurant. He often finds himself in fights with one cook in particular, an older Cantonese-speaking veteran of Chinatown restaurants. Huang is as exacting a boss as he is an insubordinate employee, but he is often forced to suffer the rebelliousness of his staff. He and the cook argued about how to properly cut chicken. The cook wanted to slice the chicken, which he believed white people prefer. Huang wanted it done the proper way, diced. “He never really accepts what I tell him,” he said. “And as soon as I turn my back, he starts doing it his own way.

I’ve wanted to fire him so many times,” he said. “The problem is, you can’t teach American kids the speed this guy has or his ability to problem-­solve on the fly.”

As he thought about it, Huang hit on a comparison between Hollywood executives and the typical Chinatown restaurant. Each, he said, think they know what people want and strive to give them exactly that. But it never occurs to either of them to sell people the authentic thing itself — Chinese food the way Chinese people make it for themselves or, in the case of Hollywood, stories that don’t rely on formulaic contrivance to be funny.

I really feel that people don’t always know what’s good for them,” he said. “When you have a strong conviction, you have a duty not to tell people what they want. At least represent yourself and say: ‘Yo, this is what I’m into, and this is what I’m seeing in the world. Let me take your hand and guide you through it, so you can see through my eyes.’ ”

Randall Park on what it means to star on TV’s first Asian American family sitcom in 20 Years

randall_park

 

Audrey Magazine: (story by Randall Park)

 

It happened! A pilot that I worked on got picked up to be a series!

Now, I’ve done several of these during the course of my career, and none have made it past the pilot stage. But after over a decade of hard work in this business, it’s finally happened. I will be a regular character on a nationally televised show. But this is not just any show. When it makes its debut next year, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat will be the first Asian American family sitcom to air on network television in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. For me, coming from an Asian American studies background, this is like a wet dream. But it’s also a lot of pressure.

People are hungry to see themselves represented on television, and people rightfully want to be represented properly. But the Asian American community is not monolithic, and proper representation means different things to different people. For example, there has been a great deal of online debate about whether or not the title Fresh Off the Boat is offensive. The answer isn’t so clear-cut: it’s yes for some, no for others. Again, members of our community do not all think alike. But with that said, this particular show is based on an amazing book bearing the same title by Eddie Huang. It is his memoir, it is his title, and I, for one, am all for it.

I do, however, have my own issues with the show: first of all, the fact that I’m on it. To have a Korean American actor play the father of a Taiwanese-Chinese American family is an issue that is not lost on me. I’ve even expressed my concerns repeatedly about this to Eddie himself. And every time, he has shown me nothing but love and support, assuring me that I’m the only one for this job. Whether true or not, I take that to heart because, again, it is his story.

Then, there’s the issue of having to speak with an accent. In an ideal world, I would never have to play a character with an accent. But this is a character based on a real person. So it’s something that I have to honor and try to perfect as the series moves forward.

Playing an immigrant character on a television comedy also has its own inherent risks: Is the audience laughing because the joke is funny or because I’m speaking with an accent? Are they laughing because I’m a human being in a funny situation or because they think I’m a funny-talking immigrant? I am constantly analyzing through this lens, almost to the point of paranoia.

Geesh, white actors never have to go through this sh-t.

But issues aside, I am proud to be a part of this amazing show. Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat. Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle. Just know that. And regardless of how Fresh Off the Boat does ratings-wise, I believe it’s a step toward more varied representation on the small and big screens. Hopefully, it inspires others to tell their own stories and translate them to a TV show, as Eddie did. It is possible. And we shouldn’t have to wait another 20 years for it to happen again.

 

This column was originally printed in KoreAm Journal. It was later published in Audrey Magazine’s Winter 2014-15 issue– Get your copy here

Fresh Off the Boat premieres Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 8:30 pm. and a second episode will air at 9:30. Fresh Off the Boat will move to its regular 8:00 pm Tuesday timeslot on Feb. 10.  

Margaret Cho talks about sex

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Emmy and Grammy-nominated comedian Margaret Cho co-hosts a new TLC talk show, All About Sex. We caught up with her and chatted about sex and sexuality, Robin Williams and homelessness, self-love, and the upcoming ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat.

CAAM (Center for Asian American Media):

Cho is also performing in the upcoming weeks in Sacramento and Nashville. She’s filming a special standup performance in New York City at the Gramercy Theatre on March 7. Check her website for more information. All About Sex premieres January 10th on TLC at 11 pm.

—Momo Chang

So, yeah, we can just dive right in. Can you tell me a little bit about All About Sex and what it’s going to cover?
It’s an advice show and it’s a talk show. And we’ll take questions from social media about sexuality. It kind of covers all different kinds of sexuality. My area is alternative sexuality—BDSM, queer questions, questions about sex toys. I have been in the alternative sexual community for my entire adult life and I served on the board of Good Vibrations, which is a really important sex toy company for women. And I have a lot of experience in the area of polyamory and alternative sexuality in general. So I’m there to field questions about that.

I’m really thrilled about the show. We have myself on the panel, a doctor who’s really knowledgeable about everything— Dr. Tiffanie [Davis Henry]—and Heather [McDonald] and Marissa [Jaret Winokur] are there to keep it really funny. We’re ready to rock. (See all the hosts’ bios below).

This question is a reader submitted question—Lauren Lola asks: What do you think is the most fascinating thing about sex?
I think it’s just so personal and it’s private. And what I think is most important about sexuality is your own relationship to your own [sexuality]. I think sexuality is always brought up in context of relationships but in truth, the sex life that you have with yourself is way more important than anything you would have with somebody else. The meaning of women’s sexuality is always kind of in relationship to men, or has been historically, but I want to separate that and make it about the individual and make it about establishing that connection with yourself, which I think builds a lot of self-esteem, it builds a lot of trust in our own bodies. That’s my goal, is to help women establish a better relationship with their own sexuality.

Could you talk about your other show, your standup comedy show?
My standup comedy show, I’ll be filming the special for it at the Gramercy Theatre in March. It’s a really a show that is about the way that there’s a rising tide against women, violence, there’s an incredible, terrible trend that I’ve noticed and it’s been around and it makes me really insane. The show is really about finding an answer and trying to stop it. And that anger is okay. I feel it and a lot of women are feeling it. And the show is called There’s no I in Team, but There is a Cho in Psycho.

Margaret Cho in 2010. Photo credit: Lindsey Byrnes.

I have a question about All American Girl. It’s been 20 years and it was a very historically significant show. Do you have any reflections on it looking back?
Well, I’m grateful to have been a part of it. I’m glad to have done it, I’m glad that it was a part of my life. I wish things that I’d done things differently, or I wish I had more control or confidence. But what’s great is that now, finally, there’s going to be another Asian American family show with Fresh Off The Boat. And that’s a show that I helped out a little bit with. I helped Eddie [Huang] out in the beginning and offered him some advice and I learned a lot from him as well. But I feel like with his show Fresh Off The Boat, my dream is realized. Like I actually set out to do something, and it finally got done 20 years later by Eddie Huang. So I’m grateful to him. I think the show is really great. I think it’s going to be a hit.

Nowadays, there are a lot of Asian Pacific American comedians doing their thing. And I think you really helped pave the way for that. What does it feel like seeing a little more diversity in standup comedy?
I’m really proud. I feel very responsible for all of them. I feel like they’re my children. Like I really feel this maternal feeling towards all Asian American comedians. I’m so proud and grateful that they are doing it. I feel like in my little part, I contributed to that. I’m so elated to have inspired people. So they can do what I did and take it so much further. And that’s the best.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for people who don’t fit into the mainstream? Anything you want to share with young people?
It’s great to not fit in. It’s great to be different. It’s important to be different, and I think everybody is different. Nobody is the same. We’re all individuals. Whatever you want to pursue, you should do it. A lot of times, especially with Asian American kids, we tend to put other peoples’ happiness or other peoples’ ideas about us first, which is why I think there are fewer Asian American artists because we tend to want to please our parents and please other people before we please ourselves. In truth, we can’t really do that. We have to just do our own thing and be yourself. I encourage everybody to be themselves.

I know homelessness is a big issue you care about, in part because of your late friend Robin Williams. Are there other social issues you’re really passionate about?
Oh yeah, I mean, many things. Before this, the last several years I’ve been working on marriage equality and I’m always about racial politics. I’m always about gender politics, and feminism is really important to me. Homelessness is an issue that it’s something I can directly affect in a very small way but in a gratifying way. So that’s why I’m doing this [#BeRobin] project here [in San Francisco]. I feel like what you say is one thing, but if you can actually do something to alter the situation, that’s really important.

Is there anything else—any other projects we can look forward to?
Well I think I’m going to be putting some music that will be related to the #BeRobin project. It’s like very, very connected to music to me. As well as a documentary about the events, which is really beautiful. I’ll be touring a lot, so there’s a lot of stuff coming up.

Thank you so much. Is there anything else you want to add?
No, I’m excited about this upcoming year. 2014 was really hard for a lot of reasons, you know, the loss of Robin, the loss of Joan Rivers, which was really devastating. But I feel like I’m so lucky to have known them, and so lucky to have them in my life and now it’s time to come up and parent myself. I feel kind of like an orphan but I feel really confident and strong and just proud that I got to know these great people.

 

The importance of diversity, and ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat”

IMDB TV:

Press Tour wouldn’t be Press Tour without a few stunningly thoughtless questions posed to panels of actors and producers.

Most of the terrible questions that get asked as part of the Television Critics Association’s press conferences don’t turn up in articles. We keep them as Press Tour war stories to be hauled out for our own entertainment later on. Plus, we’re all just trying to do our jobs here. Nobody’s perfect. Cover this beat long enough, and attend enough TCA events, and a person is bound to bungle a few questions. Besides, to the millions of folks who aren’t here, a minor gaffe at an industry event simply isn’t interesting.

But every now and again, someone sputters out a verbal air biscuit that leaves the room reeling while also speaking to a larger conversation about a show. This is precisely what happened Wednesday morning during the panel for “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC’s midseason sitcom based on the bestselling memoir by celebrity chef Eddie Huang.  Starring Randall Park and Constance Wu,Fresh Off the Boat” is the only sitcom on television that stars Asian actors and captures one view of what it’s like to grow up Asian in America.

And what, some may ask, makes that experience unique among minorities? For the “Fresh Off the Boat” cast and producers, nearly all of whom were born in the U.S., it means getting a question like this in a forum where people really should know better: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”*

Yes. That happened.

This may be the most ignorant question spoken in this room in a long time,  but it also demonstrates why television desperately needs “Fresh Off the Boat” and more shows like it. Comedies and dramas that deftly employ universal themes and humor that resonate with the wider audience, featuring minority-led casts that don’t ignore said cast’s ethnicity, are still uncommon.  In fact, ABC is the home to more series featuring non-white leads than any other broadcast network. Think “black-ish,” “Scandal,” “Cristela,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Amazingly, in 2015, ABC’s insistence on diversity is met with a sense of awe, and an implication that what the Alphabet network is doing is a bold experiment.

In the case of “Fresh Off the Boat,” maybe it is. Networks have a long history of waxing and waning on the diversity front, though the occasional industry-wide pushes for diversity every few seasons tends to benefit African American and, to a far lesser extent, Latino actors. “Cristela” and “black-ish” may not be monster hits, but they still have mass appeal, and are not required to divorce the culture of their characters from the story. Credit the success of Norman Lear‘s comedies in the ’70s, “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son”, and just as significantly, “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s, for that.

Can you remember the last time a series gave us a view of life from an Asian American perspective? There was 1994′s “All-American Girl,” the short-lived and quickly whitewashed sitcom vehicle for Margaret Cho that nearly killed her. (It also aired on ABC.)  The show only focused on Cho’s character and her family briefly before revamping into a weak “Friends” clone, then disappearing altogether. For years after its demise, shows cast an Asian friend now and again, but it took until 2005 before audiences got a deeply complex, powerful Asian character in “Grey’s Anatomy‘s” Cristina Yang. So yes — there have been strides.

Then again, see: “2 Broke Girls.” As long as characters like Han Lee are still on TV, well, one can understand why somebody would think that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask a cast of Asian actors if their eating utensils will play a prominent role in a comedy about so much more than their cultural experience.

The thing is it’s important to have, for me, [is] a qualified support for the show, to make sure the show stays authentic, the show stays responsible to the book and the Asian community and people of color in America in general,” Huang explained to the TV reporters in the room. “I believe the show is doing that, and I believe the show is very strategic and smart in how it’s opening things up.”

In its first episode, “Fresh Off the Boat” dives into the absurdity that can be found when one moves from a large, multi-ethnic city (Washington D.C.) to a homogenous Florida neighborhood; the universal appeal of hip-hop to outsiders and its caché within the dominant culture; and the odd, clique-ish behavior that exists within suburbia. The same episode also shows what happens when its young central character,  Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang), gets slapped by a racial slur.

Through it all, the rap music-obssessed Eddie has the same concerns as any kid his age would have. He’s trying to fit in at his new school but he doesn’t eat the right food, or wear the right shoes. He just out there trying to survive. No wonder he idolizes Nas and Biggie Smalls — their music extols the virtues of hustling to get rich and getting over, ideals that many consider to be the at the heart of the American dream.

In America, I’m a foreigner because of my Korean heritage,” Cho once said. “In Asia, because I was born in America, I’m a foreigner. I’m always a foreigner.
Nowadays Cho is a personality known for her comedy and for her outspoken support of gender equality and LGBT rights. She’s currently a co-host of a TLC’s weekly series “All About Sex,” where she serves as the show’s expert on alternative sexuality.  With time, and more television series that expose viewers to artists like Cho and stories like the ones told in “Fresh Off the Boat” — American stories with a different flavor — the day will come when Asian culture is fully recognized as an aspect of American culture. On that day, nobody’s going to care about the chopsticks.

Was 2014 a banner year for Asian on network television?

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NBC News:

On paper, it looked like a rough year for Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television: The Mindy Project was on the verge of cancellation. NBC axed Community, and confirmed the end of Parks and Recreation for 2015. Sandra Oh officially left Grey’s Anatomy. Glee edged closer and closer to the end of its run while slowly pushing its Asian characters out of the credits.

According to an annual report on television diversity released by GLAAD, the number of Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television had been on the rise.

In the 2013-2014 season, 6% of broadcast series regular characters were Asian-Pacific Islander, but in the upcoming year, only 4% of characters will be Asian–the only ethnic group to see a decrease in diversity from the previous year.

Image: Ken Jeong, Danny Pudi
Ken Jeong, left, and Danny Pudi attend the “Community” panel on Day 5 of Comic-Con International.

Aside from the need for more representation despite the real progress we’ve made, I was disappointed that we lost some really great Asian-American representation this past year,Philip Chung, co-founder and blogger at YOMYOMF, said, listing Oh and Community’s Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong as examples.

But while the number of Asian characters appears to be shrinking next season, the quality of roles, Chung points out, has noticeably changed. Asian-Pacific Islanders in 2014 were cast in more prominent roles than the previous year, giving actors like John Cho, Ming-Na Wen, and Nasim Pedrad (who previously made headlines as Saturday Night Live’s first west Asian cast member) opportunities to step beyond smaller supporting and guest appearances on TV.

Image: John Cho
John Cho’s casting in a romantic, male lead on ABC’s “Selfie” was revolutionary. But the show was cancelled after just seven episodes.

The leaps forward in casting choices have not come without their setbacks. After months of anticipation among critics and bloggers about the casting of John Cho, an Asian male, to play the lead in a romantic sitcom, his show Selfie was canceled after just seven episodes.

It’s rare to see an Asian-American male as a lead in a comedy, especially one that has romantic possibilities,” said 8Asians editor Joz Wang, who called Selfie’s cancellation the biggest disappointment for Asian Americans on TV in 2014. “While the show didn’t catch on as quickly as the network would have wanted, many Asian Americans watched the show specifically for John Cho.”

“Getting [a show] about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”

Even though Cho never received top billing in Selfie, many felt ABC’s choice to cast him as the show’s male romantic lead was long overdue. His elevation to “leading man material” appeared to be the first step in seeing more Asian-Pacific Islanders as true television stars, not just supporting characters.

To date, few Asian actors have ever been cast in lead roles on a network level. The first to break through was Pat Morita, in the 1976 show “Mr. T and Tina” (it was considered a flop, and went off the air after five episodes).

PAT MORITA
Pat Morita led the way for Asian Americans on television. Four decades later, how much has changed?

Today, Lucy Liu plays a prominent character in Elementary, though not the lead, as does Kal Penn in the upcoming CBS drama Battle Creek. Even Hawaii Five-O, which Wang noted has been “great because it’s set in Hawaii and there are many opportunities for Asian-American actors,” stars two Caucasian leads. “All the Asian Americans still play second fiddle in terms of billing,” said Wang.

The last network show to cast an Asian male with top billing was CBS’ Martial Law starring Sammo Hung in 1998. Hung, who spoke little English, had just a few lines in each episode, and was reportedly paid half of what his co-star Arsenio Hall made.

Image: Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson on the CBS drama “Elementary.”

Currently, the total number of Asian actors to receive top billing on a network primetime series is one: Mindy Kaling. Since the 2012 premiere of The Mindy Project, Kaling has received praise for being the first woman of color to write and star in her own show since Wanda Sykes in 2003.

But Kaling has come under fire for what some see as her failure to leverage her influence for push for more diversity on network television.

In a letter to Fox, Media Action Network for Asian Americans President Guy Aoki said the show lacked diversity–particularly when it came to romantic interests. “We are concerned that in the course of two seasons, [Kaling’s] character, Dr. Lahiri, has had a ‘white-only’ dating policy involving about a dozen men,” Aoki wrote. “And except for this season’s addition of African American Xosha Roquemore the cast continues to be all white…She’s creating the impression that by surrounding her character with mostly white people and dating only white men that Lahiri’s become more accepted by the white population.”

Kaling defended the show at a SXSW panel early in the year, saying, “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”

Despite any criticism and low ratings, Kaling herself saw a year filled with successes in her own career, from being named a Glamour Woman of the Year to the announcement of her second book, Why Not Me?, which will be released next year. In November, Fox also added six episodes of The Mindy Project, stretching the season from 15 episodes to 21, and fueling speculation that the show will be renewed for a fourth season.

Kaling won’t carry the mantle for Asian network primetime leads alone much longer. She will soon be joined by Korean-American actor Randall Park, who will star in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat–the first network show to feature an all-Asian American cast since Margaret Cho‘s 1994 series All-American Girl, which was canceled after one season. Following a slate of recurring roles on television (including The Mindy Project), Park will receive top billing when the series premieres in 2015.

Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat,” Park wrote in a post for KoreAm Journal online in June. “Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”

Image: Randall Park
Randall Park plays the father figure in the new ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The series, based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, has received its share of praise and criticism since ABC added it to its mid-season lineup. Park is one of the targets of the early backlash because his character is Taiwanese (not Korean like Park is) and speaks with an accent (which Park does not naturally have).

But in the same KoreAm post, Park acknowledged he raised that same issue himself, but was repeatedly assured he was the right actor for the role.

Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”

In an ideal world, I would never have to play a character with an accent,” he wrote. “But this is a character based on a real person. So it’s something that I have to honor and try to perfect as the series moves forward.”

Early viewers of the pilot have been defensive of the series, hoping to save it from suffering the same fate as All-American Girl and Selfie. “I thought it was very funny and despite some of the early backlash from people who haven’t yet seen the show,” YOMYOMF’s Chung said. “Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”

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Link

Margaret Cho set to co-star in new Tina Fey sitcom

Hollywood Reporter:

 

30 Rock Emmy-nominee Margaret Cho has boarded the untitled comedy known as Cabot College, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

The multicamera comedy takes place at a women’s college that has just opened its doors to men for the first time.

Cho will play the series regular role of Laura Thibault, the president of Cabot College who made the difficult decision to admit men into the school. She’s further described as a divisive figure on campus who does her best to welcome the male freshmen, but is often irritated by their antics.

Third Watch alum Bonnie Dennison stars as Thena, a pretty but uptight sophomore and hardcore feminist who is the leader of the sizable population of Cabot College that doesn’t want men on campus. Broadway actor Jack Cutmore-Scott co-stars as Charlie Deckard, a wealthy Kennedy-esque guy who enrolls in the college, much to Thena’s chagrin. Chelsea Lately‘s Fortune Feimster and CSI‘s Brandon Jones co-star.

Production on the comedy — which has a series commitment — begins in March, as Fox is poised to shift to year-round programming and away from the traditional pilot season. 30 Rock‘s Hubbard penned the script for the Universal Television vehicle and exec produces alongside Fey, Robert Carlock and David MinerPam Fryman (How I Met Your Mother) directs.

The casting marks a reunion for Cho with both Fey and Hubbard after the actress played Kim Jong-Il and his son, Kim Jong-Un. She earned an Emmy nomination for guest actress in a comedy for the former role. Cho, whose credits also include Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva — where she’ll continue to have a role on the show’s upcoming sixth season — and All American Girl, is repped by WME.

Check out this link:

Margaret Cho set to co-star in new Tina Fey sitcom