“It’s really satisfying – you try to do something different and you never know if people are gonna be into it or not,” explains Writer/Executive Producer Nahnatchka Khan while speaking about last week’s debut of her latest series, FRESH OFF THE BOAT. “When you take a risk, there’s always a chance of failing and it’s been extremely satisfying to see the response and to have people just, you know, understand it and embrace it.”
Those “people” amounted to 9.8 million viewers, backing-up my personal declaration that FRESH OFF THE BOAT is ABC’s Midseason Surprise, giving the much-talked-about freshman comedy a solid audience base straight out-of-the-gate as it moves to it’s regular night and time (Tuesdays at 8pm ET) this week. On many levels, it’s been interesting to see the FRESH OFF THE BOAT (FOTB) tale unfold, and this past weekend I had a chance to dig quite a bit deeper – hopping a plane to Los Angeles where I had an informal dinner with Khan, Writer Kourtney Kang, and two of the series’ young stars (and their mothers), Forrest Wheeler (Emery Huang) and Ian Chen (Evan Huang) at the ABC offices. As I settled-in alongside two dozen fellow writers from around the pop culture/parenting space, we got a look at two more new episodes of the show while chatting about how bringing an Asian family to Primetime is a decidedly overdue and very American experience.
For Khan and Kang, these women have the unenviable position of guiding a show that needs to please a general audience while being somewhat faithful to it’s inspiration (Chef Eddie Huang’s 2013 book – FRESH OFF THE BOAT: A MEMOIR) and pulling enough viewers to make the network happy while doing the sometimes-delicate dance of race issues. I’m in the group that would love to see a day when having an ethnic family on television is a non-event – when we look at our media as a reflection of our friends and neighbors and it’s just the norm. But, in 2015 FOTB represents the first Asian-led comedy to hit the mainstream in over 20 years, so the pressure is on to get things right… and so far, they’re nailing it.
“What I think is so neat about the show is that even though it’s this sort of like Asian thing, it’s really about this broader sense of you know, not feeling so much like you’re a part of things,” says Kang about the dynamic that appeals to a wider audience (which I touched upon here). “It’s any point when you’re different from what everybody else is doing,” she continues, going on to explain that it’s the writer’s group, which Khan calls “The Collective,” that has been driving the stories of that Huang family by offering up pieces of their own lives as inspiration. “The Collective is bigger than any of us in such a cool way,” Khan adds. “We had so many story ideas up on the board cause people could just identify with a lot of different parts of it.”
“It’s such a relatable show. I think that’s one of the great things that ‘Natch did in developing the show is that there’s so many entry points and it’s all based in something so real that everybody feels — you know, everybody feels like they don’t fit in at some point for some reason,” adds Kang.
In many ways, there’s a lot of things that we as Americans just accept that can appear pretty ridiculous to an outsider – from KFC serving-up chicken in buckets (which I’ve been known to wear on occasion thanks to a certain guitarist called Buckethead) to watching NASCAR drivers hit the oval making left-hand turns all day (in the FOTB episode “The Shunning,” the always-fantastic Ray Wise makes an appearance, bonding with with Grandma over some devious thoughts regarding racing).
In “The Shunning,” we find mother Jessica Huang (played by rising star Constance Wu) bonding with Wise’s young wife Honey (Chelsey Crisp) over an unexpected common love for the work of horror master Stephen King – a past time that Louis (Randall Park) isn’t really digging. In keeping with FRESH OFF THE BOAT’s 1995 setting, there’s even a video store appearance by DOLORES CLAIBORNE – the film adaptation of which was actually released back in ’95. Rife with pop culture nods to the period, there’s even an upcoming episode called “Success Perm” in which the hip-hop-loving Eddie has to face down a new evil… grunge rock (former LIVE frontman Ed Kowalczyk is even called “that lady” at one point).
As I’ve previously-noted, one of FOTB’s strongest points is it’s cast, and there’s no better example than the Huang brothers – Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen). While Yang was back in his hometown of Brooklyn, Wheeler (10) and Chen (8) were on-hand to discuss the show as well… along with just being kids. Having met several child actors in the past, the most striking thing about these boys is how comfortable they seem with everything. They’re polite, articulate and pretty much adorable – and while they understand that they’re doing a job, neither one seems to have lost their childhood, which is so-often the case with young stars. In fact, when asked about the best part of being on-set, Chen is quick to say “playing after we do the work,” which is exactly what I’d expect my girls to say if placed in a similar situation.
While the boys are already pros (Chen had previously booked roles on GREY’S ANATOMY and MODERN FAMILY, while Wheeler did MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY and had a cameo in the fantastic G.I. JOE episode of COMMUNITY), there is a new term I’d not previously heard but will likely use with my own kids – “pumpkining.”
Nahnatchka: “It’s based on CINDERELLA — a term when you’re shooting, that the kids ‘pumpkin’ at a certain time. So it’s like 5:00 or 6:00 and they’re done. On the call sheet, it’s like ‘Forrest is pumpkining at 6’ so you have to be done with Forrest and it’s like what? Well, we’re not ready. We have so much, we need to have Forrest say all these things! And Ian’s pumpkin is a half hour earlier ’cause he’s younger.”
While both Forrest and Ian noted some similarities between their characters and themselves, I had to ask Wheeler about 1984’s Joe Dante classic GREMLINS, which I first saw when I was eight, and on-screen Emery claims as his “favorite movie.” “Have you actually seen GREMLINS?,” I asked. “No. Not yet. Maybe, though. I might see it tonight!,” the young actor responds with a smile as the whole room bursts into laughter. They say that timing is everything when it comes to comedy, and these kids don’t miss a beat.
FRESH OFF THE BOAT airs Tuesday nights at 8pm/7c on ABC. Visit the official site for episode breakdowns and clips.
Thanks to Disney and ABC for inviting THE ROCK FATHER to participate in an all-expenses-paid press trip to cover several projects. As always, all stories and opinions are that of James Zahn.