An Evening Well Spent with Ken Jeong
By Annika Brandes
Ken Jeong’s public persona doesn’t scream “huge celebrity.” If you were completely oblivious to any of his work, you might’ve believed someone’s uncle wandered onstage en route to finding the restroom. But that down-to-earth charm is precisely why hundreds of CSULB students gathered in the Carpenter Performing Arts Center Tuesday night to see this small Asian man: He doesn’t look too different from any of us, and yet he’s one of the most multi talented figures in Hollywood.
In the midst of several projects he’s currently dabbling in, Jeong managed to squeeze in a couple of hours for “An Evening with Ken Jeong,” hosted by CSULB’s ASI. The event allowed the actor-slash-comedian-slash-physician to provide insight into some of his biggest roles, to offer advice for college students, and to supply the jokes everyone anticipated. While the 49-year-old’s visit to a college campus may seem a bit unusual, his anecdotes gifted students dozens of nuggets of wisdom to take into the future.
The biggest takeaway from the night? You don’t have to constrict yourself towards a singular path to success. And his life story, which he graciously shared with Long Beach students, proves that. As a self-identified late bloomer, Jeong reached fame at the ripe age of 39. He described in detail the heavy decisions and sacrifices made before getting huge roles like the infamous Leslie Chow in “The Hangover” franchise. Like most Asian kids, Jeong was “Korean’d in the utero” into pursuing medicine by his parents. But after taking an intro to acting class the second semester of his sophomore year, he took the plunge and applied to Duke University’s theater program—without his parents knowing, of course. Balancing both theater studies and pre-med proved to be strenuous, and he declined his acceptance into the theater program, which he still regards as one of the hardest decisions he’s ever made.
His rejection, however, played into a central theme throughout Jeong’s talk: When one door closes, another one opens. And Jeong’s would have to persist through that reality for years. “I was known as the doctor at Kaiser [Permanente] who’d do stand-up gigs on the side at coffee shops and at the Laugh Factory,” he said. Despite the abysmal economic compensation from his gigs, he continued to hone his comedic craft, eventually transitioning into auditioning for one-liners in TV and films. He found moderate success here and there, but as explains his journey, it becomes apparent that setbacks were constantly thrown at him.
Like his self-made TV show, “Dr. Ken,” for example. At this point in his career, Jeong is a well-established actor and he’s finally exercising his talent, having written, executively produced, and acted in the series. But the fast-paced nature of Hollywood means some things get left behind, and “Dr. Ken” was cancelled after two seasons. He doesn’t look at it with resentment, however; the day the show was cancelled, he was on a plane to Malaysia to shoot his first scene for “Crazy Rich Asians.” Had “Dr. Ken” been renewed for a third season, Jeong wouldn’t have been able to participate in the monumental romantic comedy.
There’s no sign of him slowing down either. Fresh off the release of his Netflix stand-up special, “Ken Jeong: You Complete Me, Ho,” Jeong is also currently a judge on the singing competition “The Masked Singer.” He’s also working on a pilot for the new TV series “The Emperor of Malibu,” in collaboration with “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan. Recently, he starred in Steve Aoki’s music video for his single “Waste It On Me” featuring K-Pop supergroup BTS, alongside a stacked cast of Asian-American stars including Ross Butler and Jamie Chung. Oh, and we can’t forget his cameo in Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame,” which he shares was born out of a conversation with his good friends and directors of the movie, the Russo Brothers.
Jeong has a habit of casually name-dropping his famous friends—Childish Gambino, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, and Constance Wu, to name a few more—but the (last) name he most notably and frequently drops is none other than Ho, his wife. Almost all of Jeong’s stories lead back to his wife: her support of him pursuing acting full-time, their shared battle with her breast cancer, and now the happy simplicities of life with their two daughters. Her role in creating the success he’s been able to achieve is clearly not lost on him, as he gushes about her at every chance he can get. It’s obvious his humble demeanor stems from his family, who keep him grounded throughout the chaos.
Before Hollywood’s recently notable push for minority representation, Jeong was literally one of a handful of Asian people on-screen circa “The Hangover” and “Community.” As a result, he has become a recognizable face of Asian-American representation, and he’s embraced that title. The trajectory of his career proves there is some progress to be accounted for—from auditioning for the role of “Asian Assassin #8” in the late ‘90s to being a part of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first film in 25 years to have an all Asian cast. “Rising tides lifts all boats in this community,” he reiterates in regards to minorities supporting one another in the struggle for representation. With his star status cemented, Jeong can now be the one to open doors for other POC creatives in front of and behind the big screen.
Perhaps students expected to leave the Carpenter Center with some medical advice and a few laughs, but the event also left a wealth of knowledge. Jeong’s heartfelt discussion was nothing short of an inspiring, humbling experience. Because he is able to empathize with some of the students’ current struggles, it’s reassuring to know his words come from a good place. “It’s never too late to follow your passion,” he insisted. “You’re never behind schedule. Everything you do now will make you better in your art.” Jeong exemplifies how persistence coupled with compassion and humility can take you to your own definition of success.