Honesty's the best policy. That goes for anyone, whether you're a doctor, comedian, actor, or, in the case of Dr. Ken Jeong
, all three. Surprisingly, all three careers have much in common: you've got to be quick on your feet, they require long, grueling hours, and sometimes the best approach is the untraditional one. Dr. Ken has committed to honesty and it's taken him a long way, from the shy teen growing up in North Carolina, to working with Judd Apatow
and prancing around in a silver jumpsuit, providing backup vocals in viral videos.
When were you first exposed to comedy?
My first memory is watching SNL
in the late 70's and 80's. First of all, it was late Saturday night--you felt like you were doing something subversive just by staying up to watch it. I don't think I realized how subversive it really was until later on. I knew it was kinda raunchy. I remember a VD sketch with Bill Murray
and giggling very hard when he said, "If I've been treated for VD, why is my penis still burning?" (laughs) I didn't feel at that moment that I wanted a career in comedy, but I was always one of those guys who just loved quoting funny stuff to friends.
Were your parents bringing comedy into the household in some way?
My dad has a good sense of humor. He's a professor of Economics; he does a lot of teaching. I grew up in North Carolina. I took a class of his in college--"just for fun" is the operative word. But my dad kinda made me. I was taking a staff class with him. I remember him working the room like a comic would. I was on the academic track at that time. Go to a good school and, with luck, get into med school. Traditional Korean ideals.
What were you like in class growing up?
I was kinda shy, actually. I wasn't so much as an outcast than. I think people who knew me knew that I could be myself around them and be silly and goofy. Somewhere in high school I started making people laugh. It was never intentional; I was never the class clown. I never did theater or drama or anything like that in high school. I was pretty much trying to get into a good school at that time. Towards the end of high school, I remember getting kinda popular just because I was funny. I wasn't part of the cool clique or anything, but I could get along with anybody.
Did you, at that point, recognize how useful being funny could be?
I don't think consciously I did, but unconsciously, yeah. I never got into fights in high school. I never had any bitter memories. But, growing up in the south, I can look back at certain things and think, "Oh yeah, that was kinda racist." I think I'm a people pleaser by nature, so I was just trying to fit in, and trying to get into a good school. That's all I really remember about high school.
I was pretty well adjusted toward the end. I remember: there was this mock male beauty pageant. I was voted to participate. Most of the other contestants were popular kids. I remember posing like Hulk Hogan
, and I got a standing ovation. My first performance ever and my first standing ovation. That was quite a rush. I never expected that. (laughs) And then for the talent portion, I played piano--I played piano and violin throughout jr. high and high school--and sang Lionel Richie's
"Three Times a Lady." (laughs) And I got another standing ovation for that. I had never sung before, either. I kinda knew I could carry a tune, privately, but I was never a performer or singer. From that point I realized, "Maybe I can do acting." When I went to school at Duke, while I was on the pre-med track, I was doing theater. I got the acting bug really quick. It just took off from there.
What sort of role do you think outsiderdom and alienation play in the role of the development of the comedic mind in your own personal experience?
I think it's a huge thing. To me, it's the basis of it, because comedy comes from pain. I think art in general comes from really strong, powerful experiences in life. Being an outsider, you respond to that. If you think about it, any kind of art is about the artist dealing with a stressful time, or responding to a stress, or reflecting on a stress. I just heard an NPR interview where Denzel Washington said that acting's a lot like jazz. I love that quote. You study it, you know your songs, and you let it rip. I think comedy is a lot like music. It has to come from something--it has to come from a life experience for it to have any impact. You look at the comedies now, like "Knocked Up
" and ""Superbad
"", they're drawn directly from real life. It's about as real life as it gets.
Since comedy is such a subjective art form, what do you consider some of the marks of good comedy?
There are so many genres and subtypes of comedy. I think commitment to the comedy is everything. If you're gonna do something silly, like "Airplane
" or "The Naked Gun
"--stuff that I love-you've got to commit to it to the nines. Whatever kind of comedy you enjoy, you're going to see people committing to a thing as earnestly as possible. Leslie Nielsen
is a great prototype. He's a guy who, if you look at all his movies, acts completely serious. He interprets everything as a drama. The commitment is really important. If you look at "Knocked Up" and "Superbad", they're committing to the honesty of the situation. When I was doing "Knocked Up", I would keep reminding myself to be as honest as possible.
Is being honest with your own comedy something that took time to develop for you?
Yeah. I look at my life and my career as constantly evolving. I'm learning as I go along in every project I do. I think Judd and "Knocked Up" have a lot to do with that. That experience completely opened my eyes to making my acting and my comedy more honest. "Knocked Up", in so many ways, changed my life. Part of it being that Judd Apatow gave me a film career. (laughs) So I've been very fortunate. But, in a way, more importantly, more artistically--I was talking to a friend about this the other day--it's all about trying to come from an honest and committed place. I've applied that to everything I've done since.
How is it that you're able to incorporate things that you've learned in your medicinal studies with comedy and vise-versa?
Just physically. In residency, I was working 85-hour weeks. I was on call 24 hours, every third day. The grueling aspect of medicine helped prepare me for some of the long hours you do on film. If you're doing long shoots and you have to get there at six in the morning and you're not getting home until 10 o'clock at night--that was my life as a physician. As a physician, you have to think on your feet. Not everything's cookbook. If someone's presenting some symptom or disease in an atypical way, you kinda have to improvise. When I worked with Judd and Adam
[McKay], they encouraged us to improvise, and that feeling free and being in the moment helped a lot. As a physician you always have to take one step at a time. This is all unconscious, by the way. It's not as if I spelled this out and put it in my notebook, stored it in my Blackberry, and read it before every take. Maybe I should!
What are some projects that you're currently involved in or contemplating?
I've got a few movies coming out. I wrapped The Goods: The Don Ready Story story. I also wrapped a movie with Sandra Bullock
called All About Steve
. That's with Bradley Cooper
and Thomas Haden Church
. I think that's gonna be out this year. Another movie with Paul Rudd
, that's directed by David Wain
, who did Wet Hot American Summer
. I think it was formerly titled "Little Big Men" but I think that's the working title right now. Those movies will be out later this year. Pineapple Express
, I have a small role in. I believe it's coming out later this summer, early fall. It's really just kind of exploring my acting at this point. The pervasive theme in shooting these movies over the last year is trying to find the truth in it.
And you're also working on Million Dollar Strong with Mike O'Connell.
(laughs) Yeah. Right now, that's on hold due to the writer's strike. It's based on the video that Mike and I did, the "What's it Gonna Be?" video. It's based on those characters. You have a delusional rapper and a foreign exchange student. Basically, it's a pretty simple setup. It's all about the execution, as you can see, because when you describe the video on paper it doesn't sound like anything.
How'd you meet Mike?
Mike O'Connell is an old friend of mine. We were in an Improv group together in New Orleans, where I was doing my residency. He's one of my oldest friends out here in LA. We had done that song--as well as some other songs--live, in the silver suit. (laughs) I think I can say for both of us, neither of us can believe the amount of exposure it's gotten. I never knew in a million years we would get that kind of exposure.
What will you do with medicine, then?
Currently I'm not working full-time. I stopped working full-time about a year ago, around the time of Knocked Up. At that time, I was getting too much work as an actor to accommodate both demanding schedules. I'm a full-time actor at this point. But I'll always be a doctor, if that makes any sense. (laughs) I'll work part-time at a clinic. In the last six months I've been pretty busy end-to-end. It was one project after another. Then my wife and I had twin baby girls, about ten months ago. So it's adjusting to being a full-time actor and a full-time father. Life has changed 180 degrees since a year ago. So I'm adjusting to that. But I'll always practice medicine in some capacity. All my friends are doctors, my wife's a doctor--it's be hard for me to escape medicine, even if I wanted to. (laughs)
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer