Hard to believe but that day is almost here: The first Asian American family sitcom in over 20 years, since “All-American Girl” starring Margaret Cho debuted on Sept. 14, 1994. Next Wednesday night (Feb. 4), “Fresh Off the Boat” will premiere at 8:30 p.m. with a second episode at 9:30 p.m. Then on Feb. 10, it’ll begin airing in its regular Tuesday 8 p.m. slot.
It’s based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s popular memoir of the same name, which recalled moving to Orlando, Fla., in the mid-’90s as his father tried to make a go of owning a steak restaurant. The show focuses on a 12-year-old Eddie, who loves hip-hop and rap music and has a knack for getting into trouble. His mother (Constance Wu) hates the move and wants to return to Virginia.
ABC screened the pilot for a bunch of community folks back in June, and I was pleasantly surprised at how funny and entertaining it was. What’s more, it wasn’t afraid to take on racial issues, like when a classmate calls Eddie by a racial slur. More on that after you’ve all had a chance to see it, but (spoiler alert!) the way it was handled made me proud.
I can already predict many will feel uncomfortable watching Asian characters speaking with accents. After all, in the past, we’ve been conditioned to expecting that they were usually written to be the butt of jokes whereby they were being put down not really for what they did or said, but for being foreigners, period. However, 63% of Asians in this country are immigrants, meaning many of them would naturally speak with accents, and in Huang’s case, so did his parents.
The point is for the audience to relate to them as people and to eventually be sympathetic to their point of view as they get adjusted to life in a new city away from family and friends and get accustomed to “the white way” of doing things.
Huang recently made headlines when New York Magazine printed his 15-page essay revealing the struggles he’s had with co-executive producer Melvin Mar and show-runner producer Nahnatchka Khan (who had previously overseen ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B—– in Apartment 23”) over wanting to maintain accuracy between his book and the show. Huang questioned how a Persian American like Khan could know what it was like to be the son of Taiwanese immigrants and why Chinese or Taiwanese Americans hadn’t written the pilot instead of her.
But Huang wrote the article in a hip, dense way, and it was therefore often difficult to understand what he was really saying, if he could ever be satisfied, and if he had realistic expectations. And in an attempt to be funny or irreverent, he had to have made up some conversations. I mean, when Mar wanted the rights to his book, I can’t believe Huang really told him: “I need ‘Married with Chinese People.’ I want Ed O’Neill to go yellowface with a perm, faux-gator shoes, and blue-lens Cartier frames. If you can make that happen, you can have the book.”
Wisely, the 32-year-old sought out Margaret Cho to ask her for advice. She told him, “They have no idea what they’re doing, but they’ll have opinions about everything you’re doing. When I did it, I was just happy to be there, and every time they told me I was too Asian, not Asian enough, too fat, too skinny, I listened. You have to fight them at every step.”
In late November, while watching a football game, Huang saw promos for “Fresh Off the Boat” and got excited. He re-watched the pilot and realized it was amazing that the network was using an Asian racial slur and addressing it head-on. He reconciled himself to the fact that the series wasn’t going to be that accurate a reflection of his book, but more important was the dialogue the sitcom was going to spur, and the fact that Asian Americans finally had a show of their own.
Still, it was bad timing because the very next day, Jan. 14, Huang had to go before the Television Critics Association (TCA) to promote the series. He defensively argued with at least one reporter and had to backpedal on some of the inflammatory things he’d said (his current feeling is that Khan is capable of handling the show).
In any case, I can imagine there’s a lot of turmoil going on behind the scenes, but it’s preferable. Huang has to be realistic, but he also has to challenge the writers to get the cultural and racial stuff right because you’re obviously in sensitive territory when mixing race and humor. The producers may not always agree with him — and he may not always be right either — but hopefully there’s been enough scrutiny of future scripts and episodes that what eventually makes air will be worth it.
Tell your friends, your colleagues, even strangers on the street about it. Fans of social media can use the following to promote/keep up-to-date with the series:
Twitter handle: @FreshOffABC; Twitter Hashtag: #FreshOffTheBoat
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FreshOffTheBoatABC
Instagram page: @FreshOffTheBoatABC
ABC.com show page: http://abc.go.com/shows/fresh-off-the-boat
But watch “Fresh Off the Boat.” Because if this doesn’t succeed, it may be another 20 years before we get another Asian American family show.
Parody or Stereotype? Department: Speaking of which, one of the lowlights of the recent Golden Globes show was Margaret Cho playing an uptight North Korean general/journalist with squinty eyes. Strangely, she called those offended by her performance “racists,” as if her detractors were all non-Asian. What about those Asian Americans — and from what I can gather, most of them — who were also disappointed by it?
Cho asserted that as someone of Korean descent, she had the right to make fun of/criticize North Korea. Yes, if she’d made some great barbed points in that performance, we might’ve been able to get behind her. But she didn’t.
Cho also pointed out she was the only Asian American performer on stage that night, reminding us of the industry’s diversity problem where all of the 20 Oscar-nominated actors this year are white. All the more reason to make sure you represent us “right.”
All she did was perpetuate stereotypes about Asian foreigners in general — unemotional, uptight, small eyes. And for some strange reason, while standing next to the co-hosts on stage, she wore white kabuki-like make-up, though not earlier when she was in the audience and took her selfie with Meryl Streep.
So without there being any memorable point to her bit (other than the Globes lacked the kind of spectacular production North Koreans were capable of and that she was very up on American television shows and films), all we were left with were the stereotyped visual elements. It wasn’t worth it.
I’m happy for the broad base of fans the comedienne has developed over the years and proud of her outspokenness on many issues, including her support for me when I debated Sarah Silverman on “Politically Incorrect” years ago, but sorry, this was not well-conceived.
Plug/Personal Appearance Department: Louise Sakamoto of the Greater L.A. Chapter of the JACL was nice enough to ask me to speak to her group about my life and work in the media. So on Sunday, Feb. 15, at 2 p.m., I’ll be doing just that, talking about growing up in Hawaii and how the racial hatred I faced there and in college led to becoming an activist, first for the redress cause then fighting for better media depictions of Asian Americans.
I’ll also recall working with “American Top 40” radio legend Casey Kasem and writing syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark for 17 years. In addition, I’ll show a video I directed about the various issues MANAA has taken on over the years, which Casey was nice enough to narrate.
Hope to see you at Merit Park Recreation Hall located at 53 Merit Park Drive in Gardena. Admission is free. For more information, call Louise at (310) 327-3169 or email her at [email protected]
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.