“I wanted to ask the question: I love Asian culture. And I was just talking about chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?” a journalist asked the cast and producers of ABC’s midseason comedy Fresh Off The Boat today at Winter TV Press Tour 2015 — perfectly setting the tone for the fracas to follow.
‘It’s more about chopsticks,” snarked Eddie Huang, whose memoir of same name, about moving from Washington DC to Orlando as a child, is the basis for the series that’s part of ABC’s pitch to present a more ethnically diverse primetime this season.
But the network has sentenced this show to death by time slot — Tuesdays against CBS’ NCIS, after a launch on ABC’s plum Wednesday night comedy lineup. So Huang, a master of self-promotion, had ginned up major controversy about the show on the eve of its presentation to a couple hundred journalists at Press Tour.
Huang came out onstage dressed head to toe in brilliant red — a sort of Press Tour Tomato — one day after New York magazine published an essay he’d written in which he first torched the show, its exec producer, and the head writer, then attempted to undo the arson toward the end of the essay.
Huang is one of those “food personalities” with a carefully crafted bad-boy image; he hosts a Vice show and an MTV cooking series, and famously got tossed from TED after being named a fellow in 2013. When his autobiography Fresh Off The Boat was published in 2013, Publishers Weekly called it (and, by association, him) “brash, leading edge and unapologetically hip.”
And now it’s being turned into an 8 o’clock family comedy for Disney-owned ABC. Bad optics. So, Huang, who’s a producer on the series, penned the piece that broke the day before its Press Tour Q&A.
He wrote this about exec producer Melvin Mar:
I’d known Asian-Americans like Melvin my entire life. Those Booker T. Washington –Professor X–Uncle Chans, willing to cast down their buckets, take off Cerebro, and forget that successful people of color are in many ways “chosen” and “allowed” to exist while the others get left behind.
He said this about writer/EP Nahnatchka Khan:
The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane….And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft!”
He described the series thusly:
This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now…Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy.
Though, by the end of the piece – 15 pages later by Huang’s count — he’d called the comedy series historic, explaining,
But for all the bullshit I heard at studios about universal stories and the cultural pus it perpetuates, I felt some truth in it… It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word “chink”, yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made. The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human in our individual relationships with society. We’re all fucking weirdos.
At today’s Q&A, Huang reiterated the “historic” thing, and said the fact that the pilot includes a moment when his character is called a “chink” by a student at his new school is “borderline genius — and insanity at the same time.”
But when a TV critic attempted to ask Khan how she felt about being so described, Huang began to talk over the critic to silence him, insisting the things he wrote about Khan were “not the point” of the essay. When the critic explained he was not addressing the question to him but to Khan, Huang began to do to the critic what that kid had done to him in his new Orlando school, calling into question, among other insults, the critics’ “reading comprehension skills” — real schoolyard bully stuff.
But Huang wasn’t the only self-promoter in the room. New York magazine, wanting to pump up the volume and traffic for the essay, asked the show’s panelists, including cast, Khan and Mar, what was their reaction to Huang’s essay, had they known it was coming in advance, and were they prepared, and “is everything hunky dory” now between them and Huang.
Khan said she was “thrilled” when she read the essay because she “found source material for my next TV project.” She added, diplomatically, that she “values free speech, especially now.”
Speaking of that, so good at self-promotion was Huang that TV critics nearly forgot to ask the cast’s Randall Park his thoughts about the whole The Interview melee, in which a group calling itself Guardians Of Peace hacked Sony over the movie in which Park plays Kim Jong Un.
“I was never worried for my safety, or getting hacked during that process,” Park said. “It was more like it was crazy to turn on the news…and they’re talking about Kim Jong Un and see my face,” he said, adding he’s happy that “in the end people got the chance to see the movie.”
“Nobody wanted to sit next to Randall on the set,” Khan joked.
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