If you’re one of actor/comedian Ken Jeong’s many fans—and we at Physicians’ Life
definitely are!—you probably loved his work as Ben Chang on television show Community
and as gangster Leslie Chow in The Hangover
movies trilogy. He’s had dozens of other roles in movies and on TV, too. But until recently most fans of the talented actor were probably unaware that he’s also a medical doctor. All that's about to change with his brand new ABC television sitcom Dr. Ken
, in which he plays a brilliant physician with a terrible bedside manner who tries to juggle work and home life (a therapist wife and two kids) mostly unsuccessfully. . . but very amusingly.
Ken Jeong’s path to acting success took place over many years, with a successful medical career taking up a lot of that time. He did his undergraduate premed studies at Duke University (entering at age 16), then continued to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for med school. He did his residency in internal medicine at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. While there he won a comedy competition: The Big Easy Laff-Off. Two of the judges, including NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, encouraged Jeong to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. He did, and worked at Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills, California, until his acting career was going so well that his wife encouraged him to leave medicine in order to concentrate on it full time.
Read on to see what Ken Jeong told Physicians’ Life about how his career has evolved and how his new show has finally enabled him to combine his two worlds. And then make sure to tune in (or set your DVR) to ABC on Fridays at 8:30 Eastern Time to watch Dr. Ken!
: You were a physician, doing acting and comedy in your free time, and then you became so successful that comedy and acting turned into a career. And now you’ve come full circle by adding medicine into your comedy. Is that something you ever anticipated?
: It’s been a very strange journey for me. I always thought my path was medicine. I never even took an acting class until sophomore year in college at Duke. Then I tried to be a double major: drama and premed. That was impossible, both in terms of hours and commitment. I would have had to clone myself. Doing theater, my first semester orgo grade dropped from an A to a C. I had a “come-to-Jesus” talk with my parents, who said I’d have to make a choice. I chose medicine. I thought I’d practice medicine and maybe do something on the side. I did open mike comedy in bars once every few months after midterms, for example. There are lots of talented doctors who could have been actors or opera singers or other things. Doctors make sacrifices, and I assumed this would be mine.
: But you never gave up your love of acting and comedy.
: My residency mentor at Ochsner in New Orleans, Donald Erwin, said, “A lot of people will tell you that you have to choose. I don’t think you do.” He had a very Zen-like approach, and said I’d be a better doctor because of my comedy background and a better comedian because of my medical background. Now, almost twenty years later, on the eve of my own television show about being a doctor, those words have never rung more true. It really is a full circle journey. With Dr. Ken
I’m pulling a comedy from my medical experience.
: So does that mean that the situations in Dr. Ken
are based on real experiences you had practicing medicine?
The cast of ABC's Dr. Ken
: Absolutely. For instance, in the pilot there’s a patient who has hemorrhoids that turn out to be something more serious. I’m trying to convince him to have a colonoscopy. But it’s not really based on any one patient, it’s more like an amalgam. In another episode there’s a noncompliant patient. She’s not taking her Synthroid, but she’s complaining that she gained another pound. We’ve all had patients who are frustrating. They stop taking their medicine because the chef at Whole Foods tells them to try fish oil instead.
: Most television medical comedies or dramas have medical advisers to make sure that the medical details are accurate. I know you’re Dr. Ken
’s creator, writer, co-executive producer, and star. Are you the medical adviser as well?
: It’s been a few years now since I’ve practiced medicine, but my wife and some of my best friends are physicians. So I run things by them and lean on them for technical advice.
: Do any of the show’s script writers have medical experience?
: No, but they’re universalizing the experience of being a doctor. As the show develops, it’s becoming less about patients than about relationships with co-workers and family. The patient thing evolved more as a gimmick, but it was repetitive. You can have a good actor and base something on facts, but you need a good story, too. [The scripts are] definitely rooted in reality. Practicing medicine is different even between HMOs and private practice. In one script, Dave Foley, the actor who plays my boss on the show, had a line something like, “You guys are ordering too many MRIs. We need to cut down on those.” Dave wanted to know why, since usually HMOs want more procedures done, not fewer. I explained that it’s expensive every time you use an MRI machine, so sometimes you’re incentivized to use resources less.
: Do you have any other projects in the works right now? Anything else medical-related?
: Dr. Ken
is ongoing and right now it’s 24/7. We’re constantly tweaking and finessing it. It’s my everything right now.