About a third of the way into his first stand-up special, Ken Jeong takes a moment to riff on who he deems his harshest critics. “Asian haters on the internet,” he says, craning forward for emphasis. “They’re the fucking worst, dude.” He’s referring specifically to the blowback he received over his breakout role as Leslie Chow, the heavily accented, oft-nude character from the Hangover trilogy. To certain pockets of the Asian community, Jeong has built a career off of outdated racial stereotypes. If Jeong is fazed, he’s not letting on. “These fucking Asian haters, man, they hate themselves, dude,” he says with a grimace. Take that, trolls.
You Complete Me, Ho, the 49-year-old doctor-turned-comedian’s Netflix special, likely won’t win over his detractors. The trailer captures the gist of his routine: My oppressive Asian parents! My tiny Asian dick! My wife’s weird Asian surname! LOL! The hourlong set, directed by Jon M. Chu of Crazy Rich Asians, is largely mundane (and also hackneyed, if you’ve ever seen a Jeong set before). Though who could blame Jeong for relying on the old bag of tricks that has turned him into one of the most bankable Asian American stars over the past decade? He resembles, as he puts its, “a double-chinned Asian Mr. Burns with bad posture.” So naturally, Jeong leans into what others may perceive as shortcomings and weaponizes them for easy laughs. Hence: the frenzied dance moves, the constant profanity, the exaggerated accents, the relentless slapstick—and, yes, the litany of small-dick jokes. (Upon arrival onstage at Pasadena’s Ice House, he pantomimes jacking off, a reprise of a heavily GIFed scene from The Hangover; his first words to the audience: “Goddamn!”) Jeong’s humor is a silly and sophomoric shtick that—depending on your perspective—either panders to or plays with stereotypes. Despite it all, he is a likable, fearless performer. But the question isn’t whether or not you find his act funny; it’s how long Hollywood will feel comfortable trading on the same, tired Asian punch lines as long as it’s an Asian face telling the jokes.
At the start of his Netflix special, Jeong is introduced as the star of The Hangover, Community, Dr. Ken, and Crazy Rich Asians, in that order. (At the time of the taping, The Masked Singer, on which Jeong is a judge, had yet to conquer America.) But Jeong’s first break was in 2007’s Knocked Up, for which director Judd Apatow sought an Asian actor with medical knowhow to play the birth couple’s obstetrician. Jeong, a graduate of the UNC School of Medicine, was then a practicing physician who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian. His performance in Knocked Up as Dr. Kuni, an overworked and cranky doctor, was so convincing because Jeong was, in real life, an overworked and cranky doctor. It was a bit part made memorable for the way it flipped the familiar trope of a mild-mannered Asian physician on its head. Some of Jeong’s best work on the film, alas, was relegated to the deleted scenes:
Jeong quit his day job and soon found small roles in other Apatow and Apatow-adjacent movies: an interviewer in Step Brothers, an immigrant assassin in Pineapple Express, and a cosplaying manchild in Role Models. It was in 2009 that he landed the gig that he says changed his life overnight: Leslie Chow, the antagonist in The Hangover. The character was, quite literally, every Asian male stereotype on cocaine—Long Duk Dong as a drug-abusing international crime lord. In his stand-up, Jeong recounts how it was his decision, and not Hangover director Todd Phillips’s, for Chow to go full frontal in the movie (and again in Part III). Chow, his catchphrases—“Toodle-oo, motherfucker!”—and the film stuck; the Hangover trilogy is still the biggest R-rated movie franchise of all time, and the Chow caricature has been a major part of Jeong’s arsenal ever since.
Around that time, Jeong was cast as Ben Chang, the irascible Spanish teacher on Dan Harmon’s much-beloved series Community. The plum TV role proved again that Jeong could thrive beyond typecasting with the help of tight writing, and in concentrated doses. More minor roles for Jeong followed, including a slew of voice-over jobs for animated films like Despicable Me 2. Yet the Chow persona remained his calling card, and the one guaranteed to draw the biggest laughs. Left to his own devices, Jeong was happy to imitate broken English on a late-night couch, or play the emasculated stooge on a sexy fashion shoot, or allow himself to be mocked in a red-carpet photo. All of this exemplifies the lowest-hanging fruit of race-based humor, the kind that has barely evolved over generations. The fact Jeong continues to capitalize on a modern form of Asian minstrelsy is not only a reflection of Hollywood, but also of American audiences.
It’s telling that Jeong barely mentions Community in his stand-up—it’s not what got him his own comedy special. He does touch on his tepid ABC sitcom, Dr. Ken, loosely based on his real life. The show performed well enough in the ratings to be renewed for a second season, despite a Friday night time slot and brutal reviews. Turns out that a sanitized, family version of Jeong’s antics wasn’t a sustainable sell, and Dr. Ken was canceled in 2017. Jeong had the perfect rebound with a part as Awkwafina’s zany dad in Crazy Rich Asians, the film that kicked off our present mini-surge in Asian American entertainment. Like the blockbuster movie itself, Jeong and his comedy have shouldered the heavy burden of representation for an underserved demographic: Just because Ken is one of us doesn’t mean he’s obliged to represent all of us. (Of his penis, he says: “That’s not a stereotype, that’s fucking real to me!”) Which, fair. But imagine if the most popular white comic in America was Larry the Cable Guy.
There is a feel-good aspect underlining Jeong’s success story, as he has previously recounted on talk shows and throughout You Complete Me, Ho. The “Ho” in the title is the surname of Jeong’s wife, Tran, who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer when he began filming the first Hangover. (She is now cancer-free.) It was his wife’s brush with mortality that Jeong credits for giving him the courage to bare it all as Chow. As Jeong reminds us throughout his special, his midlife career pivot from medicine has been highly profitable. “I said fuck that shit I’ll be naked and famous in a movie,” he exclaims to great applause at the start of the special.
And so, You Complete Me, Ho amounts to a self-congratulatory victory lap, replete with casual celebrity name-drops in Jeong’s anecdotal storytelling: Judd Apatow gave him a career. Kevin Hart convinced him to return to stand-up. Ice Cube helped him save a life. Awkwafina is like his daughter. Zach Galifianakis is the “funniest motherfucker alive.” And on and on. Might Jeong’s success pave the way for Asian American comedy with a little more nuance? In our post–Crazy Rich Asians age, one would hope. Jeong is almost 50 years old, and grew up in the 1980s in Greensboro, N.C., where he was a racial minority. He turned that disadvantage into a specific form of “Other” comedy. For a whole new generation of performers, being Asian is a feature, not a bug. But lord help us if they ever green-light a Mr. Chow spinoff.