By Jazmin Justo
The Asian Heritage Network of The New York Times hosted a sneak peek to the new sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat”, which will premiere on February 4th on the ABC network. “Fresh Off the Boat” is based on the memoir written by Eddie Huang, a food personality, about his life growing up as a Taiwanese American. Starring as 11 year old Eddie, is Hudson Yang, growing up in a prominently white suburbia in Orlando, Florida. Randall Park, a Korean American actor, who previously starred as Kim-Jong Un, in “The Interview”, plays the role of an enthusiastic father who desires the American Dream. Jeff Yang, an acclaimed cultural critic for “The Village Voice”, made an appearance in the forum, with NY Times popular film critic, Jon Carmanica, and Randall Park. The three spoke of the cultural diversity issue in American media and their insights on the new show and its possible impact on the future on American television.
Being the first Asian American sitcom to premiere on national television since “All-American Girl”, there has been ongoing controversy about the cultural and racial diversity in mainstream media. Although Asian Americans have been featured in popular shows, such as “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Big Bang Theory”, they are often the side characters playing the stereotype of the smart Asian. Asian Americans haven’t really starred in a lead role in media without fitting the stereotype of a Kung Fu master, exotic foreigner, or mystical being, since the time Margaret Cho first appeared in American movies. Even though movies such as “Slumdog Millionaire” have won Best Picture award, Asian Americans still haven’t made a strong presence in the mainstream American media. Since then, there has been a big push for “Fresh Off the Boat” to make a grand opening for mainly two reasons. One main reason is to appeal to the Asian American community with a show that is relatable to their experiences since they are often underrepresented, despite being the second largest minority group in the U.S. The second main reason is to address the nation about the cultural diversity issue in mainstream American entertainment.
The forum began with Jon Carmanica asking Randall Park of how he entered the show business and what did he do to play such large roles. In response, Park spoke of how he went to the UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. Although he personally never thought of theater as a career option, he did have passion for acting and started a theater club for Asian Americans on campus, collaborating with his friends to perform their own plays and skits. Their performances on campus were popular with their peers. Even after he graduated college, he started his own web series, performed in community plays and small gigs while working as a waiter and cashier at Starbucks. He said that it wasn’t until one day, when he was performing in one of his friend’s productions, that an executive from FOX told him he had talent, and recommended that he’d audition for one of FOX’s new shows. Although he didn’t pass the auditions, he was referred to an agent, which later landed him in “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Interview”. In his dictator role for “The Interview”, he says that one of the many things he enjoyed was being able to give a human side to the dictator, even when the character goes crazy, he joked. When Jon Carmanica asked if he feared about North Korea attacking him, Park replied that it was mostly his family and friends who worried for him. He wasn’t really worried until he heard about the Sony Hack and saw his face on the news coverage that he joked, “Maybe I should go into hiding”, but he personally didn’t receive any threats from the controversy. Apart from “The Interview” he also stars as Danny Chung in the hit comedy “Veep”. He explains that one of the best experiences he had from that show was when the cast visited Washington D.C. During his visit, he was given a tour of the Oval Office when another tour group came and began asking for his autograph. He joked, “I think I actually signed one of them as Danny Chung”. When asked about how he felt about “Fresh Off the Boat”, he replies, “I love how the show focuses on the experience of an Asian American family and the struggles they have to face against discrimination in a new world, where they are essentially different from everyone else.” He also likes how it really questions what it means to be American. Most of all, he’s proud to be in a show that is centered about the Asian American perspective and not the outsider’s point of view.
Park was also asked by an audience member, how he felt playing a Taiwanese American when he himself was a Korean American. Park replied that he was hesitant at first because he didn’t want to play the stereotype of all Asians look alike, but it was Eddie Huang who persisted that he had to play the role of the father, which reassured him and allowed himself to perform. He was also asked, how he was able to manage in acting in “Veep” and acting for the show, in which he essentially said that the shooting for the two shows were in coordination somehow, so the timing didn’t conflict. When asked is he sees the media changing anytime soon, he replied that he has started seeing a more diverse cast in popular shows which is some progress but still not to the extent it could be. He also says that he personally saw in L.A giant billboards advertising the show, which he dictates as a positive sign. Also in commercials where he used to perform, he has also noticed an increase in diversity, which is another positive sign of what is to come in the future.
Jeff Yang, who is friend’s with Eddie Huang, also spoke of how he’s excited about the new sitcom series because since the “All American Girl” show that featured a Korean American family, he personally wrote a disapproval for the show’s quality full of cliches. He later comments how he felt slightly responsible for its demise, despite his knowledge of the hard work made to produce it. Ever since then, there hasn’t been a show starring Asian Americans until now. He says that he’s excited to see “Fresh Off the Boat” as an open door that can give opportunities for future works with Asian Americans in lead roles and of their experiences. Similar to what has been done with African Americans such as “Blackish” and “That’s so Raven”. He also mentioned the phone conversation he had with Eddie Huang about acting parts, when Eddie Huang told him, “You know your son should be in that show. You know what role he could play? Me!” The forum ended with a positive note with everyone hopeful that the show will be well received across the nation and be the next stepping stone in creating diverse American entertainment and creating opportunities for the next generation to perform in American entertainment.
The show itself is quite humorous playing with all sorts of jokes here and there. The episode begins by introducing Eddie as the “black sheep” as he calls himself. His main focus throughout the episode is his struggle to gain respect as an 11 year old boy while struggling to fit in school and adjusting to the all white neighborhood. Meanwhile, his mother tries her best to adjust by befriending the Southern accent speaking rollerblading mothers. Meanwhile, his father is optimistically working on getting his business afloat, thinking that he needs a white host to gain more customers. It has typical cliches such as the Southern accent and the teacher that can’t pronounce anything outside of English, it also plays some Asian stereotypes such as the “tiger mom”and the “being cheap” phenomena. Such as, when his mother takes a whole bowl of sample tortilla chips at the supermarket. The show also addresses other issues such as the struggles of moving into a new neighborhood, fitting in to a new school, growing up and overall family drama. His parents show themselves as supportive of their son but there’s also an inconsistency between the mother and father react to situations. For example, when Eddie is threatened with suspension, his father and mother threaten to sue the whole school but also bribe the principal with a special restaurant offer, “It’s the American Way”. There’s also a scene when Eddie explains about his great plan to get a seat in the cafeteria in a well-written rap, his father applauds his son for being a poet while his mother is puzzled. The acting is fantastic which adds depth and realism to the whole show. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, according to Jeff Yang, the show has been tweaked a bit but most of the show is the true to the memoir and makes the whole experience humorous and heart-warming.
Randall Park’s short films and webseries can be found on his website: http://www.randallparkplace.com.