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This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Growing up, I only ever wanted to be a doctor. There was never a thought I’d go into acting. I never even did theater in high school. I was the popular nerd: “There’s happy Ken. I’ll spare him a beating!” In my senior year, there was a mock male beauty pageant, and I was voted to be a contestant. For the swimsuit competition, I posed like a serious bodybuilder and got a standing ovation. It was my Napoleon Dynamite moment. I felt like the most popular kid ever.
I was pre-med at Duke, but my A in organic chemistry changed to a C when I decided to take an acting class and do musical theater my sophomore year. My parents were worried. I was only 18 — I’d skipped a grade and graduated high school at 16 — but I remember my dad saying: “It’s not like we don’t believe in you, but I know how brutal showbiz can be. Talent doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
So I went to University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, but acting was like a lover I never got over, like the girl you meet at a Meatballs summer camp but your parents show up before you can kiss her. I started doing stand-up every three months, even during my internal-medicine residency at Ochsner Medical Foundation in New Orleans. I worked 90-hour weeks, but no matter how stressed out I was at school, I’d go to Charlie Goodnights in Raleigh and do a five-minute opening slot for comedians like Brian Regan or Marc Maron. My residency chief and mentor, Dr. Donald Erwin, was very enlightened. He said, “You don’t have to choose between medicine and comedy.” It was around that time I won a stand-up contest in New Orleans, where Hollywood Improv founder Budd Friedman and late NBC president Brandon Tartikoff were the judges. I got to go to L.A. and do two shows at the Melrose Improv in December 1995. I met an agent there who offered to rep me, but I was still in my residency, so I turned him down. That’s how much I loved being a doctor.
Eventually I moved to L.A. to work at Kaiser Permanente, where I met my wife, Tran, who is still a doctor there. I was making great money as a physician, but I started doing stand-up at the Laugh Factory and got on a Comedy Central show called Comic Groove in 2002. Then I auditioned for Knocked Up and got the role of the doctor who delivered Katherine Heigl‘s baby. It was then that Tran, to her everlasting credit, said: “If you don’t pursue acting full time now, you never will. You just did a Judd Apatow movie!” So I quit medicine a year before the movie, which grossed $219 million worldwide, came out. If it had all ended there, I would have been happy. But then for three Hangover movies to happen and six Community seasons? That’s a lifetime of a career! My parents could not be more happy. When I come home now, it’s like a shrine of all my newspaper articles and swag.
But I’ve never really stopped feeling like a doctor. On one film I did, All About Steve, we had 300 extras, and many collapsed one day from heat exhaustion, and I helped the medic treat them. After The Hangover, I was on a plane, and there was a passenger who had severe vertigo. The crew was worried he might have a stroke. The stewardess got on the mic, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” I told her, “I used to be a doctor,” and she was like, “Yeah, yeah, sit down, Mr. Chow.” But my favorite moment was on the set of Hangover Part II in Thailand. I’m in my Chow outfit, saying all these obnoxious things. And my phone rings; it’s a friend of Ed Helms who was visiting Thailand. He was very sick. I asked, “Are you OK, buddy? I heard you had food poisoning. OK, I would go to the nearest walk-in clinic because you sound really dehydrated and symptomatic. Are you allergic to Cipro or quinolone antibiotics?” I look over and see Ed, Zach [Galifianakis] and Bradley [Cooper] staring at me like, “Whoa. This is weird. You’re, like, really a doctor.”
But just in case acting ever stalls, I still renew my medical license every year. And I still have a prescription pad. Why do you think I’ve gotten so much work in Hollywood? (Kidding, of course.)
Read more from The Hollywood Reporter‘s Top Doctors Issue:
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