The first question from a TV reporter is a jaw-dropper. The cast and producers of ABC’s new Asian-American comedy series Fresh off the Boat are gathered on a Pasadena hotel stage to take questions from roughly 200 members of the press. And the first comment to the panel is: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks. And I just love all that. Will I get to see that? Or will it be more Americanized?”
The rest of the assembled reporters – judging by the flurry of chopsticks-related “did that really just happen?” tweets flying out of the ballroom – are rather horrified. The panel tries to have fun with it. “Wait till Episode 5, it’s all about chopsticks,” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan quips. “The original title was Chopsticks,” adds actor Randall Park.
Another critic in the room follows up with a knowing hey-not-all-of-us-are-like-that joke by asking, “Will we be seeing fortune cookies?” which draws laughs and deflated some of the tension—at least briefly.
A boneheaded question or two tends to happen when a large group of reporters are sequestered in a hotel for nearly two weeks thinking of questions for panels of TV talent all day. Yet the reporter’s post-racial-America myth-busting comment suggests why a series like Fresh Off the Boat is long overdue—this is the first Asian-American sitcom on a major broadcast network in more than 20 years, and is part of a new wave of refreshingly racially diverse (and ratings boosting) programming in primetime that includes ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish and Fox’s Empire.
The sitcom is based on the memoir by chef and TV personality Eddie Huang about growing up as a first-generation Taiwanese-American. It’s almost surprising to see him here because Huang just penned a blistering essay in New York Magazine about how ABC has turned his life into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American [Khan] who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane.” Huang eventually comes around to an uneasy acceptance of the show by the end of his article, noting, ”It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word chink, yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made.”
Huang sits regally on the panel in a bright red Adidas track suit and seems supportive of the project, at least in theory, if not precisely in its execution. ”This show to me is historic,” he says. “I don’t think you’ve seen a TCA [panel] with this many Asian faces in a long time … ever. It’s important to me to have a qualified support for the show—to make sure the show stays authentic, stays responsible to the book, to the Asian community, and to people of color in general. I believe the show is doing that and I believe the show is very strategic and smart how it’s opening things up.”
Yet firing a critical torpedo at your own series before it launches is definitely unusual. So reporters are naturally curious what’s going on behind the scenes in the wake of the story’s publication. But when one reporter tries to ask Khan’s reaction to Huang’s apparent suggestion in the essay that she shouldn’t be writing the show because she’s not Taiwanese, things get quite testy.
“That’s actually not the point of the article,” Huang interrupts before Khan could answer.
“I’m not asking you the question,” replied the reporter. “I’m asking her reaction to that.”
“I’m just debating your reading comprehension skills,” Huang replied.
The critic quotes Huang’s article: “And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft.”
“Absolutely let me ask you sir–”
“So I would now ask Ms. Khan to answer the question–”
Khan tries to answer: “I mean, I would–”
Huang interrupts again: “But when you frame the question incorrectly that’s why we have terrible laws and the EPA doesn’t have to talk to scientists any more—it’s because the framing of questions. So sir, I’m going to debate you and make you frame this question in the proper manner. Because that statement was made on about Page 3 and … it’s a 15-page article and people’s opinions change and meta-morph and they reach resolutions. I mean, that’s even how TV show’s work.”
Counters the reporter: “If there was a point in that article where you went back and said you were wrong, I didn’t read it. If you can point that out–”
“It’s an experiential inversion article.”
“This question is not about you, and this press conference is not about me,” the reporter says. “Could [Khan] please answer the question–”
And with that,Khan is able to reply: “Absolutely. When I read his memoir, the specifics were different to my growing up experience, being Persian-American and him being Taiwanese-American, but what I related to was the immigrant experience of the show, being first generation and having parents who weren’t born here. And that, to me, was my access point. When you take something from the source material that’s such a strong voice and make it into an 8 p.m. family sitcom on broadcast TV, you need a lot of access points. And feeling like you don’t belong, and trying to figure out the rules, and trying to help your parents figure out the rules… to me that’s what a lot of people will relate to. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, this show is one you’ll be able to relate to.”
Huang then adds that ABC publicity had actually told him not to talk about immigrants or race during the panel (which is interesting since race is obviously an important aspect of the show). “But the thing I want to make clear is I absolutely feel we should have writers of Asian-American descent in the writers’ room. But I don’t debate [Khan’s] ability at all to do the show, because if you watch the pilot episode, that’s one of the most proud things that we have in Asian culture today in America.”
Later Khan is asked her reaction to the article as a whole and whether there was “creative tension” behind the scenes now (as opposed to simply the tension in this very room right now). “I was thrilled when I read the article because I just found the source material for my next TV project,” she says, drawing laughs. “But no. I really value Eddie’s voice in the process. The fact we’re here is a historic thing, I always value free speech. He’s the heart and soul and inspiration for the show. Having him there and coming from a place of just trying to make everything better … inspires everybody. Comedy, you can never be satisfied or it will feel stale. And I appreciate it.”
By the end of the panel, the room feels a bit worn out, but also like there’s been some healthy cards-on-the-table catharsis. Still to be determined is whether this series will break out, or suffer the short-lived fate of the last Asian-American sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. Fresh off the Boat debuts Feb. 10 airs opposite the super-popular show-killer NCIS. Khan is asked what she thought when she was told her time slot. ”My first reaction is I’ll have to call my mom—she’ll be really conflicted.”
Later, at ABC’s party, I asked network’s entertainment president Paul Lee for his reaction to the spirited panel. “We love the show, we love the energy behind the show,” Lee said. “Some of the energy comes from the guy who wrote a book that inspired the show. But if you were listening closely, not only do you have have Eddie – who’s funny and a firebrand – but you also have in Natch and Jake [Kasdan] – two of the smartest storytellers anywhere in television. The fact that this show sizzled in that panel” … the executive paused. “I’m a fan of free speech, that’s all I can say.”
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Note: Some of the quotes in this post were updated after publishing from the official session transcript.