If you haven't heard that Ken Jeong is a real doctor yet, you probably don't watch much TV. Thanks to an intensive promotional campaign by ABC for his new show "Dr. Ken," it's now well established that he is indeed a certified MD.
Jeong rose to prominence courtesy of the 2007 movie "Knocked Up" — alongside Katherine Heigl, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd — playing a doctor. But it was his scene-stealing role as "Mr. Chow" in the hit comedy "The Hangover" — with Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis — that put him on the map. He reprised his role for the franchise's two sequels, helping the movies set box office records for R-rated films and making millions worldwide.
With big screen success, it was only a matter of time before Dr. Jeong hung up his white coat for a full-time acting career, taking roles on shows like "Community" and "Hot in Cleveland," where he played, of all things, a doctor.
Playing a doctor seemed to work well for Jeong, so when it came time to headline his own show, he decided "writing what you know" was the only prescription.
"As an actor, I pride myself on playing any kind of role," Jeong told HNGN and a small group of reporters while promoting the show at the Television Critics Press Tour in July. "It was important that, at least at this point in my fledgling writing career, I just want to write from what I know and see where can go from there."
But why would a successful six-figure making doctor, partnered in a successful practice, want to throw all that away?
"I was very happy working at an HMO," admitted Jeong. "The last six years of my life have just been this amazing bonus. I was happy being the doctor from 'Knocked Up,' much less what happened after 'The Hangover,' which just changed my life from black‑and‑white to Technicolor.
"But I'm ready for that bonus," he continued. "I have this amazing opportunity once in a lifetime to do something of this magnitude, and I'm not going to let it go."
Fans of Jeong will be pleased to know he didn't retire his lab coat for good — he continues to renew his doctor's license — but as the irreverent "Dr. Ken," Jeong is doing what he knows best by injecting his special brand of sarcasm and humor to create the best medicine of all: laughter.
"Dr. Ken" premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. EDT on ABC. For more of our conversation with Jeong — including his best cure for a hangover — read the interview below.
Can you give some examples of the funny things that happened to you while you were a doctor?
In the pilot, one of the patients has a hemorrhoid — that was based on a real patient. Well, loosely based. We amped it up for comedic effect. I find myself really loving the dynamics of the workplace like with Dave Foley, who plays my boss, coming in with a cost-cutting measure, things like that were definitely inspired by my real life. Although we are amping things up for comedic effect, I love things that are specific and relatable.
Is there any other past professions that might have worked for the show?
I moonlighted at a karaoke bar about 20 years ago. I might do that next time.
What do you miss about the profession?
I miss the patients. I don't miss the hours, working weekends, working every holiday. I love the actor's hours a lot better.
Many doctors talk about how different the profession is today. Why did you leave?
I can only attest from what I know, and there is a lot of burnout in primary care because, a lot of times, you are just the gatekeeper in an HMO and they just want to see the specialist. So you're just pushing papers, and that can be medically and professionally unfulfilling. It's like, 'I know how to treat that, but I'd prefer to have the specialist do it and you are the only person that can get me there.' So there is that kind of burnout, and a kind of medical 'Groundhog Day' [with] the drudgery of it. Instead of talking societally, I'm talking more from a micro aspect of it that leads to a lot of burnout, but that's with any job. Anything repetitive enough is unfulfilling and can sow the seeds of burnout.
Which job was it that made you say, "I am an actor now"?
"Knocked Up." That's still, in many ways, one of my favorite roles ever. I drew on that character for doing this. I really wanted to not only draw upon what I know, but create a character from start to finish that was a pretty realized character. It wasn't a guy who was a jerk doctor per se; he just had a bad day. That was him on a Tuesday. In many ways, I was really inspired by that, and using that for this pilot in that neither character was a jerk doctor or a jerk per se, they're just easily stressed out or really experiencing a burnout of some sort.
What are the chances of a "Community" movie happening?
Right now, I don't have that thought in my head. I love Dan Harmon, who is the driving force on that show. We are all just wonderful participants in it. Whatever Dan comes up with is always gold. I'd lobby for it.
Are you still open to doing a second season of the show for Yahoo?
I still have a passion for "Community." That last Yahoo year was great, and the fact that it is a new media and the boundaries haven't been fully demarcated yet. But this I don't think prevents me from doing a movie.
Any other projects coming up?
I filmed "Ride Along 2" last year with Kevin Hart, Ice Cube and Olivia Munn in Miami, and it was kind of cool. "Killing Hasselhoff" is an independent movie with David Hasselhoff. That was my first lead in an indie film, and it was really fun to do. I also had a hand in producing that. It's in post-production right now.
What are your thoughts on shows like "Fresh Off the Boat" that also feature Asian-American casts?
Honestly, if it wasn't for "All-American Girl" and also "Sullivan & Son," which really doesn't get as much notice [as a show] that featured an all-Asian family, as well as "Fresh Off the Boat" — those three shows are inspirations for us and, if it wasn't for those three shows, we wouldn't be on the air. We're just so proud to be at ABC. I can't say enough wonderful things about where we are right now.
It's a statistic that Asian-Americans are the minority when it comes to viewers of "Fresh Off the Boat." Are you making "Dr. Ken" with that in mind?
This is a bit different. I look at it more in the classic vein of a star-driven vehicle that is something based on my life. I just happen to be Asian and happen to be a doctor, so there is a specificity there from the standpoint of my own personal life that transcends race or occupation. To me, I look at it as a Ken Jeong project and that's what we are platforming off. Having said that, I'm very proud that, as a consequence of this, no one in the cast has accents. It's not the normalization of today's Asian-American family. That's not the goal per se, but that's the end product.
Have you ever had a co-star ask for medical advice?
All the time! Every single production I have been on. The most surreal one happened on "The Hangover Part II" in Bangkok. I was in character as Mr. Chow and speaking very un-PC things, and one of Ed Helms' best friends had food poisoning. He called me on my cell asking for medical advice, and I'm saying all these things as Chow. Then it was like, "Oh my God Chris, are you okay? I think that's food poisoning. You should probably go get help and not just drink fluids." The full cast and crew were stunned. I had to go back into Mr. Chow talk to normalize the situation.
You must have taken a huge pay cut to do stand-up comedy?
Trust me, there is no money in stand-up, at least at my level, but yes. But I've never been financially motivated in anything I've done. I was a partner in my HMO and had a very comfortable six-figure living, so it was very scary, but you have to follow your heart. I was encouraged by everyone that this wasn't a whimsical thing, and every single person in my family that's important to me said you have to pursue this.
But you still renew your medical license every year?
It's not really to go back to work, it's more a reminder to keep me grounded — as to where I came from. At this point, it becomes more of a symbol of who I am and where my roots were. I'm not trying to sign up for shift work.
Would you ever go back to it?
Maybe something behind the scenes? Something more administrative or charity work or maybe free clinic work. I do a lot of work with Stand Up To Cancer; it's very important to me. It's nice to approach that charity from a caregiver aspect and provider as well as a patient.
What are your thoughts on television doctors who give out medical advice in a half hour?
I'm friends with some of them, and people don't know how educated you have to be to be a physician. People that are real MDs are the real deal. You're using your medical experience to dispense real advice, and sometimes that advice can be debated by other MDs. I don't watch a lot of those shows, but, to me, in terms of medicine, I would tell anyone, and I think all those other people would agree, for specific personal advice, see a doctor. Don't get it from a television show. I'm sure every single host would say that. See your doctor! They can help point you in the right direction, like if you fracture your ankle, you don't have to see a urologist, you see an orthopedist.
Lastly, what's your best cure for a hangover?
Hydration! Hydration! Hydration!