Ken Jeong took time out of his extremely busy day, Ken actually called me from the editing bay of Dr. Ken, and spoke with Mike’s Film Talk about his start in the entertainment business, Dr. Ken, and why Dicky Wexler’s Last Show is an episode he counts as a career high. We also spoke about his stint as stand-up comedian, his fellow cast members, the show finale, Randall Park and Jamie Foxx.
Ken Jeong has amassed a gross of screen credits on both the small screen and the larger cinema screen. He got his start in 1997 on television but the real beginning was while attending pre-med courses at Duke University. He took an acting class where he caught the bug instantly. Ken realized that he loved acting.
So much so, in fact, that he auditioned for the acting school at Duke. He was accepted and then had to contemplate switching majors.
Ken: “So in reality my love for acting began over 25 years ago way before my career in medicine ever got started. I did continue with medicine and developed a passion for it. My wife is a doctor; she still practices, and it is a big part of my life. In a way, Dr. Ken is a culmination of areas of my life.”
After making the hard decision to keep studying medicine, Ken never got over the lure of performing and started doing stand-up comedy throughout his remaining educational time and while doing his medical residency.
It was, Ken says, a logical choice.
Ken found that his natural gift for comedic acting transferred well to the arena of stand-up and he won a contest where the prize was a “golden ticket” to perform at the world famous Improve Club in Los Angeles. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Before talking about Dr. Ken, and Ken’s favorite episode Dicky Wexler’s Last Show, we talked about his passion for performing.
Mike’s Film Talk (MFT): Looking at your bio and the various interviews you’ve done in the past, it looks like stand-up comedy is your first love.
Ken: Well…I’ve got to say that acting is my first love. Although going right back childhood, my first love was for academics and then acting, without any inkling of performing either ability, or even ambition.
Ken: What happened was I really wanted to do theatre when I was in college. When I got fortunate enough to be accepted to medical school, I had to stop the acting school and finish what I’d started medically, or pre-medically. Then once I started in medical school I still had this desire to perform, but I had no idea what to do. So I thought, ‘why not give stand-up a try.’ Because I’d always excelled at ‘comedy’ acting and this is kind of a manifestation of that.
Ken: And Stand-up became like a great hobby. You could go to an “open mic” event once or twice a month and just let off some steam. I really viewed it as my hobby while in med school and during my residency and it was not anything I was trying to do professionally. But it just so happened I could do it well enough to do it professionally, and one thing led to another. Winning the contest to go to LA and perform at the Improv in Hollywood and that got my foot in the door in LA.
MFT: The move to stand-up makes a certain amount of sense. Once you have experienced the immediacy of feedback from a live theatre audience, nothing else really fulfills that experience, so the switch over to stand-up sounds like a brilliant replacement.
Ken: Oh yes, the immediacy of the audience feedback doing is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced. But, yes there is a high, a performance high, that get out of doing that. It is funny though, while I was doing it, I had opportunities to go on the road and open for high profile comedians but I opted not to.
MFT: Why not?
Ken: Well as much as I love stand-up, and a lot of my friends are in stand-up as well; I really love acting and wanted to do ‘proper’ acting. This is what prompted me to book a part in “Knocked Up” and later Hangover. I truly love acting more than stand-up but I really enjoyed my time while doing stand-up. There is a lot of grey involved there, it’s not black or white situation as in “Oh I like this, I don’t like this.”
MFT: I know looking at the bio it seemed that comedy had been your starting point, like Steve Martin or Robin Williams, and that you’d gravitated over to acting but actually the reverse is true.
Ken: Yeah the reverse is true. It was more like theatre acting, stand-up and then acting. But to your point; like in the Dicky Wexler episode, there is an affinity for stand-up comedy with my character and that will culminate in the season finale where stand-up will be involved.
MFT: Oh brilliant!
Ken: Oh yeah, it goes there. And it will be a point where Ken will try his hand at stand-up comedy. There is a lot of “art imitating life” so I’m glad you feel that way after reading my filmography and credits and also following the show because what you said…although in my “exact” life I had a more nuanced experience than that, but in the universe of the show, Ken’s love for stand-up is real and genuine.
And I don’t think it’s coincidence that in an episode like “Kevin O’Connell” that he was doing stand-up for the HMO banquet…Which is also based on a true story. At the physicians HMO banquet every year I would do stand up comedy and that pertained to that.
MFT: Oh that’s brilliant! I was going to mention that early on in the series, in one of my reviews, I called Dr. Ken “the Woody Woodpecker” of medicine in that he said and did things no one else would dare to and was quite unapologetic about it. He was Ken Park, doctor, and he was going to do things his way.
Ken: Exactly. He doesn’t have a filter he’s not sensitive or self aware and I think that’s the big difference in our characters. In the life of Dr. Ken, he overreacts but has no self awareness, but in real life I overreact but I’m painfully self-aware. I’m a very sensitive guy and I really do care what other people think.
MFT: Which is all part of being an actor…
Ken: Yeah, that is part and parcel of being an actor, absolutely.
MFT: I was going to ask, just for a laugh, who you’d rather go to..obviously you wouldn’t want to go to Dr. Park.
Ken: Yeah, that’s because as a physician, in real life as a doctor I tried not to be funny with my patients. I never really liked doing that. It is funny that when people meet me they are very surprised at how low-key I am and how seriously I took medicine. That was what I wanted to do growing up so I took that seriously.
Ken: I’ve said in interviews before that I never jerked around patients like Patch Adams. I never went around saying, “Aw you got herpes, but I got your nose! Honk! Honk!”
MFT: (Laughing) Which would probably result in a lawsuit these days.
MFT: I’ve watched “Dicky Wexler’s Last Show” twice now. Now I have to say, my two favorite episodes so far have been “Ken at the Concert” and “Dicky’s Last Show” and both for the same reason. They each made me laugh and cry a little. Now I’m a soppy old git and I’ve cried at Scooby Doo before…
MFT: And the odd commercial. But these episodes each contained the perfect blend of comedy and that little touch of pathos, or poignancy. In the concert episode, Ken is trying so hard do connect with his little girl who’s outgrowing his sphere of fatherly influence and at the concert he realizes, in the parent lounge, that the other parents have given up and Ken decides he’s going to “rescue” his relationship with Molly.