VOX POPULI: Fond Farewell to ‘Fresh Off the Boat’

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By GUY AOKI

It’s really difficult knowing “Fresh Off the Boat” will leave the airwaves after Friday night. It was a long-fought battle to get an Asian American family show on any of the networks.

As a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) since 1999, I pushed for one, reminding the executives that we hadn’t had such a series since “All-American Girl” during the ’94-’95 season.

It was important to have a program where the audience saw life through our eyes. We were tired of being the best friend, girlfriend, wife, neighbor, or boss of the white star. We wanted to BE the star.

A former head of our coalition — demonstrating the importance of this goal — told the networks that if they put one on the air, “You won’t have to deal with me anymore.”

In 2014, ABC gave the pilot script to the APAMC asking for feedback. Was the title of the show offensive? One of the characters uses a racial slur. Is that OK? I gave two pages of notes and all of the scenes that I felt didn’t work were excised.

When I saw the filmed pilot months ahead of its broadcast, I knew this was something I could get behind. And with pride. We did our best to make sure everyone knew the first Asian American family network show in 20½ years was about to debut and that the community had better watch and support it.

At the annual ABC meeting, President Paul Lee told the APAMC, “I really have to thank the coalition. Without your help, I could not have put this through.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” starred (from left) Lucille Soong, Constance Wu, Randall Park, Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler and Hudson Yang as the Huang family. (ABC)

Critics called FOTB one of the best shows of the year, with many saying Constance Wu deserved an Emmy for playing Jessica Huang. Just eight months after its debut in February 2015, ABC debuted a SECOND Asian American family show, “Dr. Ken” starring Ken Jeong.

FOTB’s success also gave Randall Park the opportunity to co-write and co-star in the Netflix smash “Always Be My Maybe” and to form a production company aimed at developing more Asian American TV shows. Wu starred in “Hustlers” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” the highest-grossing romantic comedy in 10 years. That led most of the networks to greenlight pilots with more Asian American families and others in which Asian Americans were the stars.

After FOTB’s ratings began to decline, I routinely wrote letters to the presidents of ABC every April and May using custom-made Nielsen data to make a case for why the show deserved another season. Not only did it over-index among Asian American viewers, the white population watched it at 100% (meaning if the U.S. white population is 60%, 60% of the show’s fans were white) and in time-delayed viewing, the black community actually over indexed at 105% (even when there wasn’t a black regular on the show!).

I told a gathering of Asian American Writers Guild members they had to pitch more Asian American shows because you can’t get more ethnic than an Asian family series, and it actually brought in more viewers.

That’s one of the proud legacies of “Fresh Off the Boat”: It proved that airing an Asian American family show is not a risk at all. In fact, it’s a huge money-maker (just wait until syndication kicks in).

My eternal thanks to executive producer Nahnatchka Khan, producers Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar, the writers, cast, and the inspiration behind it all, the real-life Eddie Huang.

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Guy Aoki is the founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) and former “Into the Next Stage” Rafu Shimpo columnist (1992-2017). Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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