In the summer of 2009, Ken Jeong starred in one of the most iconic movies of all time.
His role as Mr. Chow in “The Hangover” turned him into an international superstar.
From performing stand-up comedy across the world to writing, producing and starring in ABC’s “Dr. Ken,” Jeong has seemingly done it all in the world of entertainment.
Jeong sat down with The Spectrum before his conversation as a part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series to talk about his start of his career in acting, becoming Mr. Chow in “The Hangover” and finding his path in college:
The Spectrum: What’s your experience with Buffalo like? Have you done shows here before? What’s your experience with the city of Buffalo been like prior to coming here to speak at UB?
Ken Jeong: “This is my first time in Buffalo. I’ve been to other areas around New York. I shot a movie a few years ago near Albany and I was just trying to just backtrack of everything else. But no, this is my first time here. I wish I was here longer because this [place] is gorgeous, just being out. Who knew Buffalo was so sunny? It’s like this every day of the year, right? [laughs] Never any snow [in Buffalo], that’s the only thing I’m getting out of this… I honestly wish I was here longer to soak in the Buffalo sun and work on my tan. But no, thank you for having me.”
TS: If we can start from the beginning of your career: your first movie was “Knocked Up,” and you described the cast as the “Avengers of comedy.” How did you handle working with so many professionals in the field as a rookie?
KJ: “That is still intimidating. It is kind of like college, where I was a freshman, and like Paul Rudd’s the senior or like Seth Rogen, they’re the upper class, and then it felt like being a freshman at school. I was scared, but I was excited and I had a lot to learn, but I also had a lot to prove. It’s all the excitement that just goes into the first step of anything you do. But I remember telling myself ‘I’m the freshman in this upper class.’ I mean, every single person there, whether it’s from Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Sigel, Craig Robinson. It is insane to think of the level of talent on that. Even then, I was in awe of everybody. So it really was still to this day, one of my favorite experiences ever. I don’t know if you guys go through this, let’s say you start out here, you know first day of college, you kind of remember how you’re feeling that first week or that first month. Maybe as time goes by, your junior or senior year, you just kind of forget, but that’s exactly how I feel in entertainment. Like I still remember the first day of ‘Knocked Up.’ It was like the ‘do you smoke cigarettes?’ scene. I still remember those things. It was in ‘06, the spring, early summer. It was crazy. And yet I forgot what I did yesterday or last week. But it’s funny, you never forget those watershed moments of your life. It was obviously really, really important to me and if it wasn’t for ‘Knocked Up’ I definitely would not have booked ‘The Hangover’ and I wouldn’t be here talking to you guys.”
TS: Speaking of “The Hangover,” you mentioned in a different interview that your wife was one of the people really pushing you to go for that role. Why was that something she wanted you to take?
KJ: “My wife and I, she’s also a doctor and I used to be a doctor, we met at work in L.A. I mean honestly, the only people I probably have dated in my life are pre-med, you know, people in [the] medical profession, other doctors and other med students. So she was the only person I dated that really enjoyed comedy as much as I did… So by the time I was working with some people that we would go to the movie theater and watch like Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips, it was right up our alley. And she knew she married a comedian at heart. It was around the time of ‘Knocked Up.’ I still actually did that movie while having my day job, I did a vacation week. So I was very pragmatic about all of it. I was kind of realistic. I was in my mid 30s and I didn’t know if comedy would be a viable career. I was already knee-deep in medicine, so I didn’t know. It was around that time, my wife gave birth to two twin girls, Alexa and Zoey. And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer — a very rare form of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. Long story short, she’s cancer free and has been cancer free for over the last 14 years. So very grateful. Around that time, her tumor markers in her blood had normalized. There was a favorable outcome in terms of the treatment that was happening at that point. We felt confident that okay, I could maybe go out for a couple of days. I was offered the part of Mr. Chow and definitely wasn’t going to do it unless everything was favorable. God bless my mother-in-law and our surrounding family for helping out. I thank Todd Phillips too because only he and Bradley Cooper at that time knew. I kind of wanted to be private and didn’t want everyone to know and so Todd had really scheduled it where I was only in Vegas for a couple of days. I wasn’t in the movie that long… So for me ‘The Hangover’ has a deeper value than just the comedy it was. There was a lot of love and support and it was very therapeutic and there was a lot there to unpack.”
TS: In terms of college, people always say “you never end up where you start” and that was the case for you, starting with pre-med then getting into acting and everything that came with that. What advice would you give to college students that are trying to navigate this uncertain part of their lives?
KJ: “There’s never an absolute path, especially in college and school. Even if you're pre-med and end up in medicine and even being a surgeon or a successful doctor, there’s still not an absolute path. You just really have to not be afraid to pivot, not be afraid to follow your instincts, not be afraid to take some risks, and I think that this is what college is for. I discovered theater in college. I didn’t do theater in high school. So if it wasn’t for college, I definitely wouldn’t have gone into acting or comedy. I mean, it’s crazy to think that because everyone’s like ‘oh, you’re a doctor, and then you made this crazy decision.’ No, I was introduced to acting when I was in college. There’s a lot of comic book movies always talking about multiverses, this is an area of multiverse, you know. And it really is just as intimidating and overwhelming as it gets. It is important to kind of slow down. I’m telling myself this, really, to slow my mind down and kind of see what is the truth for me. And sometimes the truth is not what it appears to be. And sometimes you won’t know until after you finish college. You just don’t know. I didn’t know. I might be an Instagram model after this. You just never know.”
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the managing editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.
Grant Ashley is the managing editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science and (mediocre) Spanish double major. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on Twitter @Grantrashley.