Mon May 19, 2014
New Sitcom 'Unapologetically Embraces' Asian-American Family Life
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, I want to talk more about one of the shows that Eric just mentioned earlier a few minutes ago. It's a sitcom recently announced by ABC. It will be the first network family sitcom in two decades to feature an Asian-American cast. It's called "Fresh Off The Boat."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT")
HUDSON YANG: (As Eddie) Me - my American dream is to fit in.
CONSTANCE WU: (As Jessica) Why do all your shirts have black men on them?
H. YANG: (As Eddie) It's Notorious B.I.G.
BRADY TUTTON: (As Brock) You into B.I.G?
H. YANG: (As Eddie) Yeah, man.
TUTTON: (As Brock) Come sit with us. Ugh, what is that?
H. YANG: (As Eddie) It's Chinese food.
TUTTON: (As Brock) Get it out of here. Ying Ding's eating worms.
H. YANG: (As Eddie) I need white people lunch.
MARTIN: That young voice you hear repping Biggie is Eddie. That lead role is played by 10-year-old Hudson Yang. He happens to be the son of one of our regular contributors, Jeff Yang, who writes about media for The Wall Street Journal. And Jeff is with us now. Welcome back. Congratulations.
JEFF YANG: Thank you.
MARTIN: I know, right? Just hearing the trailer makes you laugh, right?
J. YANG: It's so through the looking glass.
MARTIN: So the show is based off the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang. It's also called "Fresh Off The Boat." So tell us - for people who haven't read the memoir, which is also hilarious - what's the show about?
J. YANG: So the show is about - it's basically a childhood memoir for Eddie himself. I mean, he looks back at being raised by immigrant parents in a very non-immigrant setting, shall we say. His family moves from urban Washington, D.C. - Chinatown, Washington, D.C., down to suburban Orlando. And it's really, as much as anything else, about what it's like to be surrounded by a world you did not create. So it's a bit of a fish-out-of-water thing. But I think what's really fascinating about it is the degree to which the tropes that this show has feel so decidedly different from other sitcom comedies - family sitcoms, that are out there right now.
MARTIN: Well, you were saying - you said in your piece and you've said to us that even if your son were not the lead, you would still think this was a game-changer. And tell me why you think that.
J. YANG: You know, I am radically un-objective about the show as you might guess.
MARTIN: Full disclosure - we got you. But still, but still, but you - the fact is this is -you watch all of these things. I mean, you are a critic, a writer, you know.
J. YANG: So what I think is really fundamentally different about this show in particular, is this is in a lot of ways the first Asian-American sitcom and maybe certainly the first Asian-American family sitcom - there have only been two, really - that is unapologetic about its status as an Asian-American show - as a show that deals with and confronts a lot of the issues around, you know, kind of being other in the context of the United States. And even the title, which obviously has been controversial in some circles, is one that speaks to this almost, you know, embrace of a refusal to just thoroughly assimilate.
MARTIN: Well, you know, the other thing you compared - you compared it to the '90s sitcom "All-American Girl," which also featured an Asian-American cast. That was the first and to this point - until now - the only. The lead was comedian Margaret Cho. And I just want to play a short clip to jog people's memories.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN GIRL")
MARGARET CHO: (As Margaret Kim) I have a date with Kyle.
JODI LONG: (As Katherine Kim) Kyle? You're not still seeing him. Oh, I don't like him.
CHO: (As Margaret Kim) You don't have to like him. He's dating me.
LONG: (As Katherine Kim) He's wrong for you.
CHO: (As Margaret Kim) I'm not going to get into this, mom.
CLYDE KUSATSU: (As Benny Kim) Oh, good for you Margaret. For once we can have a nice family meal without you and your mother -
CHO: (As Margaret Kim) OK. Why is he wrong for me? And I hope you've got something better than he's not Korean.
LONG: (As Katherine Kim) I do. He's American.
CHO: (Laughing) Oh, well. I've got news for you mom.
MARTIN: Well, you know, you panned the show when it came out - not the only person to do so. What was wrong with it? I mean, what is it that you feel that they got so wrong that you hope this show gets right?
J. YANG: So this is kind of my karma on some level. Twenty years ago I was the television critic for the Village Voice. And I did in fact pan this show almost reluctantly on some level. There was a lot of hope, a lot of expectation around this first opportunity for Asian-Americans to be represented in this most American, most masse, if you will, of television categories. And it just - it was so - I mean, it's called "All-American Girl," right? And it was so almost defensively kind of reiterating these tropes around how Asians are different and exotic and kind of strange. And it took Margaret Cho's humor, which takes those things and tends to subvert them and kind of play them out at the edges and turned them into as you can hear a laugh-track, multi-camera, you know, very if you will, white family sitcom kind of template. And it just ran - it sounded wrong. It ran wrong and felt very much like the butt of the jokes was the family itself.
MARTIN: You felt, like you said in your piece - you said the humor was actually - it seemed that people were laughing at them, not with them. And it also seemed that Margaret had just been - gosh, what word did you use - tranquilized or something like that? I mean, I think she's made no secret of her unhappiness at that experience. I think she's said it's one of the worst experiences of her life.
J. YANG: Yeah. It centered on this crazy downward spiral. And, I mean, you know, it was not only obviously a terrible, terrible thing for her, but in a broader sense, it sent us wandering in the wilderness for about 20 years when it comes to this particular kind of comedy. There's not been anything since, right, until now.
MARTIN: But Asian people have had - people of Asian heritage have had some strong roles in other vehicles. But they didn't feature, you know - they've been featured places -like for example Sandra Oh in "Grey's Anatomy" and in "Lost." And people have had sort of meaty roles in diverse casts. But this the first time that this family is going to be front and center and their experiences will be front and center. So what do you - what do you - you've seen it so far - from what you've seen so far - what do you think that they get right that will make people want to watch? And not just people who've really resonate with that particular experience, but the broad audience that you really need to be successful?
J. YANG: Well, it is a universal story, as they say, because it's about a family. And it's about a family kind of growing together as they face, you know, the sort of challenges of the world around them. But I think what's actually really exceptional about this - and you can even tell again - the name of Margaret's show was "All-American Girl." This one is called "Fresh Off The Boat." That fresh-off-the-boat is something that the, you know, family itself embraces kind of unapologetically. And Eddie - Eddie Huang, who has used fresh-off-the-boat kind of as his brand for the past decade or so - everything he does is fresh-off-the-boat. He says it's about this love of where he comes from, this decision that he can be American, but he doesn't want to just be American. There's something deeper. And he's not afraid of essentially calling out where his roots come from, where his identity is. That's new for Asian-Americans. I mean, that's something I think we don't see a lot of.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you about one other element, though. We heard in the trailer that his mom's asking him that - his TV mom is asking him how come all his shirts have black people on them. Is that piece that - not the trifecta - not just the Asian-white dynamic, but the Asian-black-white dynamic part of the show, too? And is it going to be the kind of thing that's going to make me cringe?
J. YANG: (Laughing) I hope not. But there definitely is - there's definitely a sense in which for Eddie, as with a lot of kids growing up in the '90s, hip-hop ended up being kind of a lifeline. I mean, you know, here he was. He had immigrant parents whom he loved but who didn't understand him fully. And he's surrounded by, certainly in Orlando, kids who didn't get him for being Asian. Hip-hop - it's really fascinating. There's a scene actually in the lunch room of their school in which basically these white kids and Eddie bond over their mutual love of hip-hop, where this African-American kid says, what is going on here? But that was a real thing, right?
MARTIN: It was a real thing. Well, we'll see. We'll see. Good luck. Congratulations. Hopefully it all goes up from here and not down. And good luck to your son and tell him congratulations from us. We'll be watching.
J. YANG: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: That was Jeff Yang, columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks, Jeff.
J. YANG: Take care.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.