Ken Jeong: There was definitely that question mark of, like, I want to perform but I don’t think it’s in the cards for me, maybe I’ll just be one of those doctors that could’ve done something else but you’re doing something more noble.
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Ken Jeong got his big break playing an Asian mobster named Mr. Chow in The Hangover.
CLIP: Ohhh, you insult my mother cooking, you insult my mother cooking!
The movie was an unexpected hit in 2009 — earning more than 460 million dollars worldwide. It made Ken Jeong famous. He became known for his catchphrases and for his furious, naked pounce out of the trunk of a car.
Audiences were laughing at Mr. Chow, but his anger came from a very real place.
KJ: There’s like a 10 min rant that I go on in the desert in Vegas. And I’m just yelling as Mr. Chow. It was almost an out-of-body experience. It was a subconscious rage against the machine, if you will, of cancer. What is going on? This sucks.
While he was filming this role that would launch his career, Ken’s wife, Tran, was being treated for stage three breast cancer.
KJ: Why did it happen to Tran? Why is it happening at this time? I don’t get it. Just all sorts of frustration.
After The Hangover, Ken went on to star in The Hangover II and III, and six seasons of the TV show Community.
But Ken and his wife met years earlier, in the LA hospital where they both worked as doctors. She in family medicine, he in internal medicine.
Ken grew up in North Carolina, the son of South Korean immigrants. When he went to college, he started out pre-med at Duke, and considered switching over to the drama school. But then, didn’t.
KJ: I always joked that I was Koreaned into staying pre-med. But the truth of the matter is, it was definitely dialog with me and my parents. My father in particular was very great — he would come to all my plays, he would come to all my performances. He knew I was talented. He would say, “I don’t deny your talent. You’re amazingly talented. I just don’t know…as a short Korean-American in American society, what are the chances of you making it?
AS: Were you planning for a long career in medicine?
KJ: Yeah, I was. I felt like this is where I was headed. I started doing stand-up comedy during medical school just as a hobby, like once every three months at a bar where there was open mic nights. Actually, it got me through med school in many ways, looking back. A couple times I remember doing it before a mid-term, just before an exam just to relieve my stress a little bit. In many ways it was like a stress reliever.
AS: And then residency is just — that’s just working constantly. And not sleeping. From what I understand, you would still do improv at midnight on Saturday nights while you were a resident?
KJ: Yeah. My medical residency was my favorite time in my medical career, even though I was the busiest, and working 90-100 hours a week. The director of my residency was a really enlightened man who to this day still inspires me. He just was my — in basketball terms, this is a basketball reference — he was like my Phil Jackson, he looked at life a little bit left of center. A little bit zen in some ways. I interviewed for residency at 10 different hospitals around the country and he was the only guy who saw my resume and said, “That’s really cool that you do stand-up.”
AS: You included it on your resume?
KJ: Yeah, I included it on my resume. I wanted to see how they responded. Some would say, “That’s cute,” or some would be like, “Whatever.” But he was the first person to really embrace that, and the only person out of every place I interviewed, and he said something I’ll never forget — it was like 20 years ago, he told me this. “I know people will tell you you can be a better doctor because of your comedy background, I will also make the observation that you can actually be a better comedian because of your medical background.”
KJ: I think just handling the stress of it all. Having the endurance to be on call for like 24-36 hours. When I’m working on Community on a 17-hour day, it’s a lot like being on call. There is something to be said about having a stamina when you’re doing very long film shoots on anything. I’ve always operated under the philosophy of, if I can handle med school and residency, than I can handle this. It helps on more of a psychological end, I suppose.
AS: I was thinking about that, because whether you’re on stage doing stand-up or on screen, your confidence as a performer is so clear. You’re huge. You just fill up the space. How much of that confidence comes from… doctors have a reputation for having healthy egos and being confident...
KJ: Thank you. [laughs] I agree. Not a question but a very accurate praise and observation. No, I think there is something to be said about going through school and college and med school and surviving it, and having that as a badge of honor. And also as a physician, or being on call, there is a kind of intensity and strength in that intensity that comes out. I think it’s more of a visceral attitude that I’ve taken from my life. I think you’re right. There is a sense of that go for it attitude. Absolutely.
AS: You moved out to California after your residency training, and you met your wife, Tran Ho, at the hospital where you were working together. What did you first notice about her?
KJ: I remember we would pass by each other in the hospital occasionally when we were rounding. She was very pretty, very together. She just seemed very together. I remember we had a doctors' night out, like young doctors. Doctors in their late 20s, early 30s. We all got together for a happy hour at a bar. And uh, we both at the same time, we call ourselves the other couple of When Harry Met Sally. We’re like the Carrie Fischer, Bruno Kirby couple. We had both broken up with our respective mates at that time, and we were both bonding over that. It was almost in that scene where Carrie Fischer and Bruno Kirby -- they’re not looking to hook up. If anything they want to get out of there, but then they realize they have so much in common. That’s kind of what happened to us. We both realized -- oh my god, this is amazing. She made me laugh. She was really the first person I ever met that made me laugh so hard. She’s just so funny. We really bonded by our love of comedy. You don’t meet a lot of people in medicine, much less date them, who like that but we had that in common. I remember one night we went out to sushi and it just ended up being a nice little date night, except being the whore that I am, I went up and did stand up comedy. Hey! Watch me perform, watch me yuk yuk! That’s not a great date, but…
AS: And then as you’re dating, you incorporate her into your act.
KJ: Yeah, with her permission.
CLIP: “She’s Vietnamese, doctor, last name Ho. I’m not fucking with you. Doctor Ho. I’m a comic, this is pure joy. 'Get in the car Ho! Make me some rice Ho. You complete me Ho.'”
KJ: I ran every joke by her. It just shows what thick skin she had. She’s like a comedian’s dream for a wife, or a girlfriend. Because she’s just so secure in herself. Her last name’s Ho, and I’m doing like the worst, hackeyiest ho jokes. Even when we got married, she was like, “I knew I married a comedic actor at heart. Not a doctor.” And the whole while, the pipe dream was to be an actor. Not even to do stand up -- I missed acting. I missed performing on that level. But if it never happened that was fine. During lunch breaks I would go on tape for Will and Grace or something like that.
AS: While you’re working as a physician?
KJ: It was almost like buying a lotto ticket. That’s really what it was. I didn’t mind — I never booked anything, by the way, I never got any parts — and I didn’t care, because I would brag to my friends — “Hey, guess who did a pre-read for Two and a Half Men, yo!" "Really?" "Yeah, totally." "Wow, he’s so badass. He can do it all. He takes care of the sick, AND he knows some of the production assistants on Two and a Half Men!”
A few years after Ken and Tran got married, Ken took the leap. He quit his day job to pursue acting full time. He and Tran had twin daughters, Alexa and Zooey. They were five months old and still breastfeeding when when Tran found a lump.
KJ: It’s so common to get a plugged duct or mastitis. Those are very common. As physicians we would see those all the time, and reassure the patient — “These are just plugged up ducts, that happens, you’ll be fine.” This one didn’t go away. It just got bigger. I remember the whole time, neither of us were thinking of cancer in the differential of that diagnosis. We were just like, “Oh man, it’s probably infected… ugh.” We actually tried some antibiotics and nothing was working. It was just getting bigger and more red. That to me, I thought was an infection.
AS: Was she seeing another physician, or were you both looking at it and diagnosing it, being two physicians yourselves?
KJ: Both. Both self-diagnosis, and then we ended up seeing a physician. She did a biopsy, and it was negative for cancer. Yet it kept getting bigger and I’m like, "Great, this infection is getting worse. Maybe it’s a staph infection.” I was just worried that it was an abscess. I remember thinking, “This is getting more red, more painful and it’s just hot to the touch.” We went back to the surgeon, and she did basically an excisional biopsy of the whole mass, and she said it didn’t look like an infection. And then, literally a couple days later, it came back as stage III, triple negative breast cancer. Which is one of the top three most aggressive breast cancers there is. So it was just… the worst day of my life. It was just, “How the F could this happen?”
AS: Did you have the conversation, what if you die from this cancer?
KJ: Um, you know, within 24 hours of the diagnosis, she had told me that the fact that we have Alexa and Zooey, and we have a beautiful family together, I regret nothing, no matter what happens. Yeah. So she was that strong. Stronger than I would have been in that situation. Which made me even more angry that why is someone so strong and so well loved by all her friends and family, and so respected. Why are bad things happening to good people like her? I did everything in my power to actually think like a doctor and think clinically. You kinda had to just to survive.
He was thinking like a doctor, but acting like a comedian. Coming up, Ken on his role in The Hangover… which he decided to take, even though Tran was going through chemo.
KJ: It was actually Tran that was like you gotta do it. You’re kind of burning out right now.
We are working on something new and exciting at Death, Sex & Money… it’s different than anything we’ve done before when it comes to helping you deal with your money anxieties. This time, we’re going to be offering some concrete advice.
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On the next episode, comedian Maria Bamford, whose performing days started when she was a kid. Her dad would give her a special time to talk at the dinner table and make the rest of her chatty family be quiet.
MARIA BAMFORD: I remember the feeling of, like, you gotta you gotta say something really good right now. Like, you gotta see something like, killer. Like, okay. Um, there are these, okay, Miss Labadi, fifth grade, she told me about these bodies in Amsterdam that were found beneath the bogs, fully formed human beings with skin on, and they're still there, but they're from the 1400’s. That's my time! Thank you very much. Like it had to be good.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Ken Jeong won an MTV Movie Award for his role in The Hangover. The category, being MTV, was “Best W-T-F Moment.”
CLIP: “More importantly than this, I want to take the opportunity to thank my wife, Tran… She taught me that life is short and don’t be afraid to take chances and I just want to tell you that Tran is cancer free for two years. I love you. And toodaloo motherf-----!”
AS: There’s a lot in there.
KJ: Yeah. It was during that time — the MTV Movie Awards coincided with our two year anniversary of being cancer free. She had responded to all the treatment. And statistically, there’s only a 23% chance of that, literally a 23% chance of being cured. And it just literally happened like that weekend. Yeah. And then by that time The Hangover had been out in theaters, and it had just changed my career, it changed my life at that point professionally. It was all happiness. It was all happy. And privately, even more happy, because we knew that we had miraculously survived.
AS: When you got the script and read the role, did you have any hesitancy because of the way it was — it’s an Asian caricature, the character Mr. Chow.
KJ: Yeah, if you looked at my past work — I didn’t have an accent in Knocked Up or Role Models or in a lot of stuff I did. I was very careful to make it a meta joke. You’re making fun of the characters. I always envisioned Mr. Chow as a mirage. Remember it was a hangover and it was the day after they’d been roofied so everything’s really foggy and gray. It could have been an MIT professor for all I knew but there’s the haze.
AS: They’re the hazy memories of three white dudes.
KJ: It's like Mr. Chow. These were very deliberately meta stereotypes. I was always careful in anything I do, not just The Hangover, when you’re doing a role with an accent to kinda — you're making fun of that stereotype. I did Vietnamese bits — my character's not Vietnamese — but I did it just to make Tran laugh. In the movie I say “gà chết,” in Vietnamese that means “chicken die.” I was hoping that would make it in the movie so when Tran saw it, it would be like, “What the hell?” And “Cảm ơn bạn” means “thank you” in Vietnamese, but the way I played it was “come on.” It was almost like an accent. There was a lot of Vietnamese in that movie that I deliberately sprinkled in there.
AS: To make your wife laugh.
KJ: Yeah, at that time I didn't know The Hangover would become The Hangover. It’s the most obscene love letter to a spouse one could ever have, I suppose. [laughs] It really is.
AS: Seven years on, does it still feel like cancer is a part of your marriage?
KJ: Every time she sees the oncologist, it’s still a part. You’re still a cancer survivor. It’s become what my mentor in residency had always said. This blending of comedy and medicine — I feel like this is that. Personally, what my wife has been through personally — and what I’ve gone through professionally — it’s merged. Those lanes have converged. I feel like that’s kind of — more than the TV and film that I do — I feel like in many ways this is some sort of at least higher purpose for me to live for. It’s become my church in many ways.
AS: Is your physician’s license current?
KJ: It’s still active. I’m not practicing but technically I’m still active.
AS: Why do you keep it active?
KJ: I think it’s more to keep me grounded, to remind me of who I am and where I came from. It’s a hard won skill. At the very least. It’s a very hard won skill — I’m extremely proud to have gotten that degree. And although I may never use it, it’s something that is important to me. It doesn’t matter if I have the license or not at the end of the day, but at this point it’s more of a symbolic reminder for me of who I am. So… I just want to keep my options open. There might be an urgent care shift I can pick up. [laughs] You just never know. Any walk in clinics listening to this interview right now, I’m available for shifts.
That’s Ken Jeong. He’s currently a judge on the reality singing competition The Masked Singer, and he put out a stand up special on Netflix last year.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro. Special thanks to Caitlin Pierce, Zach Mack, and Joe Plourde for their help on this episode.
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Ken’s wife Tran is in remission today. And she still works at Kaiser Permanente, where she and Ken met.
KJ: She’s hasn’t really transitioned into movies yet, I don't know... I don’t even think she’s done a web series.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.