Interview with Kam Williams
The son of Korean immigrants, Ken Jeong was born in Detroit on June 15, 1969 but raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He graduated from high school there at the age of 16 after playing violin in the orchestra and being elected to the student council. Next, he attended Duke University, earning a bachelor’s degree before studying medicine at the University of North Carolina.
However, while completing his residency in New Orleans, Dr. Jeong was moonlighting as a standup comedian, and he moved to L.A. after winning “The Big Easy Laff-Off.” He has since delivered unforgettable performances in such movies as The Kims of Comedy, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Couples Retreat and The Hangover.
On TV, he’s appeared in a number of series and currently enjoys the recurring role of angry Spanish teacher Señor Chang on the NBC sitcom “Community.” He has also done a number of television specials, most recently hosting this year’s Billboard Awards.
As for his private life, Ken’s wife, Tran, is a physician, too, and they have twin daughters, Alexa and Zooey. Here, he talks about reprising his role as the flamboyant Mr. Chow in The Hangover Part II.
Kam Williams: Hi Dr. Jeong. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Ken Jeong: Oh, thank you for interviewing me. How’re you doing, Kam?
KW: Just great, thanks. I told my readers I’d be interviewing you and they sent in a lot of questions, so I’d like to get right to them. Steve Emerson says: I have been one of your biggest fans ever since I saw you climb naked out of the trunk of the car in The Hangover. What do I have to do to get an autographed picture of you?
KJ: [Laughs] Just forward his request to my publicist and I’d be very happy to send a picture to him. Absolutely!
KW: How did you enjoy shooting The Hangover Part II over in Thailand?
KJ: I loved it! It was just great. Being invited to go back to the big dance for the sequel to the movie that made my career was like a dream come true for me. It was an amazing opportunity to revisit the character that put me on the map and to revisit with family. These guys are my favorite crew to work with. I just had a blast!
KW: All the biggest laughs this go-round revolve around your character.
KJ: [Chuckles] Thank you. That’s very kind of you.
KW: Larry Greenberg says: You’re cooler than Buckaroo Banzai. I read that your comedy career took off when Brandon Tartikoff saw you perform in New Orleans. Another reader, Fred Plunkett, Jr., who is from New Orleans, thinks that it was Bud Friedman who told you that you’ve got what it takes. Care to settle the debate by sharing who it is you credit with telling you to head for Hollywood?
KJ: Yes, sir. It was a standup comedy contest in New Orleans called “The Big Easy Laff-Off,” and the judges of the contest were both Bud Friedman, the founder of The Improv, and Brandon Tartikoff, the former President of NBC and ex-Chairman of Paramount Pictures. I won the competition and got to perform at The Improv in Los Angeles. This was 15 years ago. When I finished my residency in New Orleans, I went to L.A. where I would work as a doctor during the day, and then at night I would actually go to The Improv and do standup, all the while kind of cultivating my comedy resume.
KW: Fred remembers seeing you perform with the Brown Improv group, which just celebrated their 17th year anniversary in New Orleans. He wants to know whether you still keep in touch with any members of the troupe.
KJ: Of course! That was the improv group I worked with every Saturday for three years while I was doing my residency. I credit Brown with really helping me find my comedic voice. And there are many talented actors and comedians I worked with there who I still keep in touch with today. I look back upon Brown as my training ground, my Second City, if you will.
KW: Fred also reminisces about catching you at True Brew Café on Open Mic Night. Does that ring a bell?
KJ: Yes! True Brew was a great venue located in New Orleans’ business district. It was a place where they had standup comedy once a week. It was great because it gave me an opportunity to develop my act. I have very, very fond memories of New Orleans.
KW: Will Cooper says: Given the number of years you invested in becoming a doctor, from med school to residency, before switching careers, do you ever wish you had spent that time pursuing your comedy career?
KJ: That’s a great question. My answer is, no. I’m real glad I studied medicine. I truly believe that without my medical background, I wouldn’t have the career I have right now. Medicine really matured me as a person because, as a physician, you’re obviously dealing with life and death issues, issues much more serious than what we’re talking about in entertainment. You can’t get more serious than life and death. And if you can handle that, you can handle anything. So, to me, to have the discipline in comedy to always do the best you can, is a work ethic I credit as coming from my being a physician. And I apply it all the time in my work as an actor.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: Have you ever had to treat someone who became ill on the set?
KJ: Yeah, when I was doing All about Steve with Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper. We were shooting in 105-degree weather, and I remember catching one of the extras who was just about to collapse from heat exhaustion and taking them to the medic. So, yeah, I get asked medical advice all the time and, being a doctor, I don’t mind. It’s par for the course for me.
KW: Judyth Piazza says: You have been very successful. What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KJ: Working hard. There’s really no substitute for working hard. I think that’s my biggest talent. There are always people who are funnier and more talented than I am, but I don’t take anything for granted and I commit myself 100 percent to each of my roles.
KW: Like when you climbed out of the car trunk naked in The Hangover. Was those your private parts or were you wearing a prosthetic?
KJ: That was all me. In fact, it was my idea, my initiative, to come out naked.
KW: Did you do any improv in The Hangover Part II?
KJ: Not as much. The script was so good that you didn’t need to improvise that much. Since the script for the second was funnier than the first, I found it easier to do, because I really couldn’t top any of the lines already written on the page for Mr. Chow. It was one of my easiest jobs, creatively.
KW: Tommy Russell, actor and former medical student, wants to know how long it took before you really felt like you achieved some regular success in the entertainment world.
KJ: I think Knocked Up was my biggest break. Up until then I was still working at my day job as a physician. That first movie really opened the doors for me, and it gave me the confidence to pursue acting full-time. [Director] Judd Apatow basically discovered me at an audition. That movie really changed my life in so many ways. And it led to The Hangover which changed my life yet again.
KW: Congratulations on doing a great job hosting the Billboard Awards.
KJ: Thank you.
KW: Do you see it as an audition for the Oscars?
KJ: Oh, no, no, no. To me it was just an honor to host my first awards show, and to have a chance to do an opening number, to show my love of music, to demonstrate some musical ability that maybe people were unaware, and to rub elbows with some of the best musicians and biggest stars on the planet… Nicki Minaj… Lady Gaga… Keith Urban… I had the best seat in the house. It was pretty amazing!
KW: Lastly, is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
KJ: Not really. I think I’ve been asked just about every question under the sun. I’m just really honored that people are even interested in asking me questions. Keep ’em coming!
KW: Thanks again for the time, Ken, and best of luck with the film.
KJ: Thanks, Kam. Take care.