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Eddie Huang wants ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat to make history.
The comedy, based on Huang’s memoir of the same name, details young Eddie (played by Hudson Yang) moving with his family from Brooklyn to Hollywood. It’s the first Asian-American series on the broadcast networks in 20 years (since Margaret Cho‘s All American Girl). And to hear the outspoken Huang tell it, ABC and producers 20th Century Fox Television get it “85 percent” right.
Here, Huang — fresh off making waves for criticizing Fresh Off the Boat producers in a first-person essay — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the process of bringing his life story to the screen and broadening out the comedy for a larger appeal as well as what his family thinks of their alter egos (played by Randall Park and Constance Wu).
Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American broadcast show in 20 years. Why do you think it took so long for this to happen?
I don’t know. Were people trying? (Laughs.) I can’t answer the question because I’m new to L.A. and have been living in my weird New York bubble for a while. I just write about myself. I don’t usually have a choice whether to write about being Asian or not — it is what I am, so I don’t know why it took so long. I don’t know if my story is special or if it’s the right time.
You’ve been adamant about the struggles the show has had and ABC trying go broader than your book. How would you say the show makes Asian-American families relatable in that broader sense for primetime viewers?
I think a lot of time there are jokes and things that me and my family weren’t even aware about that were put into the story. There’s this NASCAR block party and that episode is very much about how strange NASCAR is and gauging back onto family culture and things like NASCAR. We never cared about NASCAR, never paid attention to it, so that I couldn’t relate to. There are a lot of things I couldn’t relate to because they were broader jokes that the writers in the room felt were funny and felt that people would relate to. I think the best parts of the show are the one’s that come from the book itself, like the lunchroom scene with my dad hiring a white host and white manager for the restaurant and going to the white grocery store. These are the things that I genuinely experienced, and I feel like those jokes are so idiosyncratic and specific to my family that it hits really hard. You don’t have to makes things up. I had a really colorful life and the book is very specific about it.
TV Review ABC’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat’
Why do you think it’s important that the show had to add some of these elements to the story?
I don’t think it had to. The book was a best seller, and it’s almost patronizing to dominant culture — white people in western Michigan — when you patronize them. Most people want to see something different. How many people vacation in Asia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong? People love vacationing in Asia and people want to learn more about it. I don’t think you need to broaden it to make it appealing. What makes it appealing is when it is specific. The logic of broadening [the show] and telling universal stories through conversation — it doesn’t make much sense to me.
How did you juggle that balance with producers? Did you have any say in terms of what was added or how it was written?
They still haven’t sent me anything past the third episode, but I think that they feel like I’m the new kid and they know what’s best. I’m the producer and I have really forced my way into it, and, inevitably, they have to have me say my voiceover lines, so the time I get to see the script is when I am doing voiceover. Even then I get limited pages of the script, but in those moments, I can fight with what’s on the page or I can applaud them. Sometimes I have a real problem with it. But overall, I mean exactly what I say in the Vulture piece: How I feel about the producers doesn’t matter to me. What matters is this conversation about specific stories and new voices being heard. I play video games with a lot of the kids — I love Street Fighter and Mortal Combat — and the best part about playing the game and getting to the end is that you unlock a new character you can play with. That’s how I feel about network television. I just want another character to be unlocked and I want people in America to be able to connect more and more with real characters and real stories — not things that are made up in a writer’s head.
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Is there anything from your book that was off limits? Any aspects of your life you didn’t want the show to tackle?
No, I wanted it to tackle more; I think they should dive into domestic violence. We talk about family shows and family night on ABC. One of the biggest issues this country faces now as we saw with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is domestic violence, and I lived it. They tried to take my brother away and my parents away from my family because of domestic violence, and it’s something I really struggled with as a kid. It’s formed a part of my psyche. I don’t know what I can separate from myself that is not a reaction related to domestic violence. As a kid, when you are beat at home, it affects you, and that is a really big part of my experience, and it’s something I talk a lot about when I visit colleges and meet kids, because a lot of us go through it and it goes unreported. It’s not about throwing parents in jail and legislating, it’s about understanding the relationship between parent and child in the 21st century. This is a big idea, and I feel like if we are going to talk about Asian families, it’s something we should discuss and think about how we can address.
Was this something you pushed producers to include?
They didn’t include it this season, but hopefully they will find a way. I think there’s going to be a big social impact on the show, and it’s not because the show is perfect; I think it’s at 85 percent — I give it a B — but I think the conversation people have is going to take this to another level and allow us to make a better show for season two.
Do you have any desire to see it pushed deeper into Asian-American culture than it does in season one and maybe include more of the stories from your book?
Absolutely. A lot of it depends on Hudson growing as an actor. Randall’s character gets flattened out in the beginning of the season, but he starts to become more rounded out later on in the season with better moments in the show. The more Randall gets to show his chops, the better it’s going to be. Season one is very mechanical; it’s a very sitcomy show. I didn’t come out to L.A. to make a sitcom. I see this all as art. I came here because I wanted to do it; it’s a challenge. I meet with the guys everyday, we talk about the show and it’s a bunch of film nerds hanging out. It’s a different experience to come to 20th and ABC, and a lot of it is based on demographics, numbers, tests and Nielsen boxes and these people turning dials. It’s very unnatural to me. In my life so far when I’m honest and tell the truth and put out something I believe in, people have responded to it. I still maintain faith in that. I think people are smarter than we give them credit for, and we should stop talking down to them.
Going into the show, how concerned were you that Fresh Off the Boat would be whitewashed?
Yes, I was worried about it and I still am worried about it and I still speak up all the time. I’m literally calling them all the time and asking Melvin Mar for rough cuts for episodes four, five and six.
Have your parents seen the pilot? What do they think?
My dad’s not the biggest fan. He loves Randall as a person and he knows what Randall can do, but he feels like he’s living as kind of a schlub. My mom just wanted to make sure that whoever played her was really cute, so she likes Constance. They love each other. My family is really behind the individuals in the show. They love Randall and Constance. My brothers love the show but hate the accents.
What kind of tips did you give Hudson? How do you feel he represents you?
I love Hudson and told him not to worry about being me. When we saw his audition, he was irreverent and he couldn’t be bothered. it was almost like he didn’t care to be there and I loved it. I tell him all the time, in many ways you will never be like me, but in a lot of ways you capture the essence of what I am. You’re in a weird situation [playing someone] moving from Brooklyn to Hollywood, and your dad puts a lot of pressure on you; he’s a writer and he’s based his entire career on Asian-American rights. There’s a lot on that 12-year-old’s shoulders and I tell him to have fun. I believe in him and think he’s doing a really good job. I tell him to have fun, be yourself, be a kid — and stop going to premieres, stop hanging out with all the actor kids. Be a kid, pick your boogers!
In the pilot, you address the word “chink” right off the bat. Why was that important to include in the first episode?
That’s one of my favorite things that [showunner] Nahnatchka Khan did. She read the book and highlighted that package and was like, “This is the story we’re going to go with for the pilot.” It’s the one decision I never fought. I fully agree with it. This is powerful; we make a statement. It’s a historic show, and if we are going to market it as historic, let’s do something historic. I think it’s great that we deal with that word because I have never seen it dealt with in the media. … Let’s understand why that word matters. In real life, a black kid said it to me, and when it happened, I fought the kid. I felt bad because I understood the frustration: “You’re black, I’m Chinese and we are in a private Christian school — we are at the bottom of American’s totem pole, and we are left here to fight over the last spot in the microwave.”
Fresh Off the Boat airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC, beginning Feb. 10. The two-episode premiere is Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
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