If you know Ken Jeong '90 only from his movie roles—a caustic ob-gyn in Knocked Up, a crazed Asian crime lord in The Hangover—you might be tempted to wonder whether the actor's onscreen personas mirror his off-screen personality.
"I get that all the time," says Jeong, laughing. "But I'm not a character actor. I don't get lost in a role. I can flip it on or off. When we were filming The Hangover, I'd be talking to [co-star] Bradley Cooper about his plans for the weekend and then in the next minute [with the cameras rolling] I'd be yelling, 'I'm going to kill you, you #%@&*!' "
Despite his frighteningly convincing turns as unpleasant or downright scary characters, Jeong is a happily married father of twin girls. He's also a licensed physician who, until three years ago, maintained an active practice in internal medicine. "Comedy and medicine are similar in that you have to be quick on your feet. You have to have technical knowledge of your craft, but you also need to follow your instincts. Comedy and medicine are both art forms that require discipline and improvisation."
As early as his sophomore year at Duke, while majoring in zoology as part of his premed studies, Jeong sought outlets for his off-kilter sense of humor. He landed roles in various Hoof 'n' Horn productions and pursued standup as a hobby while in medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (He relishes memories of wearing Duke spirit wear around the UNC campus and parking his Duke-blue Mustang at the Tar Heel's holy shrine, the Dean Dome.) His first public comedy performance was at Raleigh's Berkley Café, following a Grateful Dead cover band. "Most comedians bomb their first time doing standup," he says. "But I didn't. So I took that as a good sign."
Jeong continued to hone his standup routine throughout medical school and his residency at New Orleans' Oschner Medical Center. In 1995, he won the Big Easy Laff-Off competition, and the judges industry heavyweights Brandon Tartikoff, former president of NBC's entertainment division, and Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv Comedy Club— encouraged him to move to Los Angeles. He did, but it was another twelve years of practicing medicine with comedy-club gigs on the side before he got his first big break.
Director Judd Apatow was casting roles for Knocked Up, and after a three-month search and countless auditions, Apatow tapped Jeong to play Dr. Kuni, the antithesis of the caring, gentle doctor the movie's expectant couple had hoped would deliver their baby. That brief but memorable turn "changed my life," says Jeong. Soon, offers were coming in for other movies (Pineapple Express, Role Models, The Hangover, All About Steve) and television shows (The Office, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, andCommunity). In no time, Jeong was juggling so many offers that he had to put his medical career on hold.
Despite his new celebrity, Jeong remains humble and even a little awed by his good fortune. "Honestly, I am just living in the moment," he says. "I remember watching Family Ties and Cheers with my Duke roommates, and now I am a regular on an NBC sitcom. "There's no way I could have predicted this. It's like lightning in a bottle."
Ken Jeong's "Chang Tongue" on NBC's Community .
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Jeong appears on Late Night.
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