'Fresh Off the Boat' Showrunner on Working With Eddie Huang, Going Beyond Race

"If you ever to try to explain stuff to people who aren't from this country, you sound crazy," Nanatchka Khan tells THR.
ABC
'Fresh Off the Boat'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season-one episode, "The Shunning," of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat.]

Eddie Huang and his fresh from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., family aren't the only outcasts on ABC's hot freshman comedy Fresh Off the Boat

The first of Tuesday's back-to-back episodes highlighted how another neighbor, Honey (Chelsey Crisp), doesn't fit in with the other white women in the Orlando suburbs — offering another example of the show's broader appeal beyond race or the specifically Asian-American experience of its protagonist family.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with showrunner Nahnatchka Khan about giving Fresh Off the Boat a more universal appeal, working with the outspoken Eddie Huang — whose memoir provides the foundation of the series — as well as returning to ABC after the cancelation of Don't Trust the B— in Apt. 23.

Eddie has been vocal about having someone who isn't Asian as showrunner. What did you personally connect with?

When developing the show, we wanted to embrace that feeling of being outsiders, for whatever reason — beyond Eddie's experience, even beyond mine as a Persian-American. I hated bringing Persian food to school, or when my friends came over and my mom made Persian food when I just wanted hot dogs. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me in Farsi at a birthday party, and I just wanted regular "Happy Birthday." Just wanting to fit in and not wanting to be reminded that you're different when you're 10 years old — that's real. Then, as you get older, you realize what you were shying away from when you were a kid is what makes you special and unique. Those are the stories you want to tell as writers and producers.

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As the new kid at school or because of the music you listen to, or your race, religion or sexuality, anything — I think everyone at some point has felt like they don’t belong. We're looking to capture the essence of that. Honey, for example — she's a white woman in a white suburb, and she doesn't fit in because she's judged based on her history.

Comedy on broadcast television has been failing to break through. How are you making Fresh Off the Boat fresh?

There's nothing like it that exists, and hasn't for a while. We're telling our stories from the inside out, from the Huangs' point of view. They're not in the fishbowl, and people aren't looking at them and laughing; they're looking at the world around them and commenting on it in a way that people who aren't from here can. Like when these white women explain what NASCAR is, they sound crazy! If you ever to try to explain stuff to people who aren't from this country, you sound crazy. That's a funny, comedic way to look at the culture that we live in. Things we've maybe taken for granted seen through someone else's eyes, it does sound kind of weird.

And they're so different from each other — within his own family, Eddie's the black sheep. It's not like they completely understand him, so all of that conflict creates great comedy.

Is it a priority to reveal things about the Asian-American experience to America at large?

It's inherent in who these characters are, and we certainly don't shy away from it; we embrace it. Sometimes it's more overt, like in the pilot with Eddie in the lunchroom, and sometimes it's not, like it's barely mentioned, but it still exists on some level. Because, for me and the writers, being a person of color, it's always there. Whether or not it's verbalized, it's something you deal with. That's why we're telling this specific story.

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Eddie's been outspoken about bringing his story to life. How involved is he?

He's as involved as he wants to be. He's the show's narrative voice, so he's obviously contributing that way, but he's got a ton of stuff going on — his Vice show, his restaurant and speaking engagements — but we're always open to criticism and debate as long as we're all on the same page, which we are, to make the series as good as it can be.

For me, seeing Eddie struggle with the process — it's got to be hard to watch your memoir, which is such a singular vision, be taken, and have these characters become fictionalized and the television version of themselves that do things that Eddie's family never did — to come out the other end as, "Wow, this is an amazing thing we're doing," being able to take a step back as he said and just appreciate it on an audience level, I think it's a really cool thing.

Constance Wu has had some great music moments so far.

That just came from us hearing her! We were at karaoke, hanging out, drinking beers and chatting, singing the typical songs like Journey and Harry Connick Jr. She gets up there and kills this Whitney Houston song, one of the hardest songs on earth to sing! Everybody was just like in the episode, where the room died down, all the talking ceased. Where did this come from?! Constance is such a great performer, and going forward, there'll be different paths for the character Jessica that will be surprising to see her tackle. There are some [musical] elements!

You're back at ABC after Don't Trust the B. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

Definitely don't use a word you can't print in the title! That was not helpful. I had a great experience creatively at ABC with Apt. 23, but this is such a different kind of show: It's a family sitcom, what ABC does best. They have a whole night dedicated to family sitcoms, and hopefully we're going to break open a new sitcom night on Tuesdays. It felt like a great fit, where Apt. 23, as much as everybody loved it and as great as it was, there weren't many other things on their network that could go with it. And their commitment to putting diverse shows on the air, it's not just lip service — they can point to their schedule and be like, look, we want these kinds of shows.

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Especially when Apt. 23 went down — obviously I was drunk for a long time and crying, but once I came out of that — it's like, where is the best home for Fresh Off the Boat, where it has the best chance of getting on the air? They made a strong case just by pointing at what they've done and saying, "We want this take on a family show, we've never seen anything like this and this is something that deserves to be on the air."

Fresh Off the Boat airs on Tuesdays on ABC. 

Twitter: @cashleelee

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