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Ken Jeong talks about returning to standup before Clearwater show

It has been a decade since you first realized Ken Jeong was hilarious.

The full-frontal nudity likely played a role in just how memorable that performance was, but for comedy fans of a certain age, it's Mr. Chow's laugh, demented and childlike yet sincere, that will forever elicit a Pavlovian response to laugh along. Jeong stole every scene he appeared in during The Hangover, launching both his career and a decade of strangers quoting Chow lines to him on the street.

"It's so funny, I'm probably best known for the Mr. Chow laugh, and I think, in many ways, it's kind of emblematic of me as a kid," Jeong, who performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Saturday, told the Tampa Bay Times when asked how his sense of humor developed. "I was never the class clown or anything, but I always loved to laugh."

Jeong has no issue with possibly being best known for The Hangover franchise. He has described the role as "my Sgt. Pepper," and is nothing but grateful for it, though some of that ease must come from having delivered so many more scene-stealing performances: Knocked Up, Community, Bob's Burgers, Transformers: Dark of the Moon — making us jealous of how much fun he was having judging on The Masked Singer. He has two TV pilots on the way, one an unscripted series called Unqualified alongside Shaquille O'Neal, and the other a sitcom called The Emperor of Malibu from Kevin Kwan, author of the novel Crazy Rich Asians, from which the 2018 breakout hit movie was adapted. Oh, Jeong was in that movie too.

Right now, Jeong said, "I'm probably the most fulfilled I've ever been in terms of doing different things."

And so, his new Netflix comedy special, You Complete Me, Ho (a joke about his wife Tran's maiden name), serves as both a celebration of a decade of fame, but also an introduction of sorts. He graduated from Duke, studied medicine at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked for years as a doctor at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Los Angeles while doing standup at night.

He opens up about how his wife's battle with breast cancer dovetailed with his big break in movies, and what Asian representation in the media means for him.

We caught up with Jeong, who was on the road in the Midwest for some standup performances, before he brings his live show to Clearwater.

I get the impression this is the first time in a while, or maybe the first time ever, you've been touring like this. What's it like?

It's been amazing, because I never really got to headline when I was on the road before, I was always an opening act. It is a bit more responsibility as a headliner. You're in a different spot. It's fun. The last 12 months have definitely rekindled my love affair with standup, I'm really getting into it. So, yeah, I'm having a blast.

What do you remember about your first time getting up on stage to do standup?

It was over 20 years ago, I was doing an open mic at a bar in Raleigh, N.C. And, I don't know if it's still there, but it's called the Berkeley Cafe. I still remember it. They had open mic night before their music night, which was like a Grateful Dead cover band. So everybody in the audience were either Deadheads, or my friends, and very little overlap. I remember having index cards full of jokes, but I quickly went off-book and just started doing crowd work with the Deadheads and I remember getting way more laughs from the crowd work than I did from my original stuff. That was my first time ever. I was kind of thrown into the fire.

So you didn't totally bomb?

Yeah, I think "didn't totally bomb" is the exact outcome. I think that's pretty much as accurate as it gets.

Can you remember kind of when and how you realized that you were funny?

Um, that day hasn't happened yet. When I was taking some drama classes at Duke, where I went to college, I found myself gravitating toward comedy a lot and then I was like, maybe I can give standup a try. I actually didn't think much of it after, because I was like, "I don't think I could ever do that," but once I got into med school, and I couldn't do any more acting or theater, which is my first love, I started doing standup as a way of satisfying my performing itch. And I found it really satisfying. I don't necessarily think a lot of comedians think of themselves as funny, but it's that they have a funny point of view, and it's up to the audience to see if they subscribe to that point of view.

Was there any of that when you were a kid? Were you the one cracking jokes?

I would just laugh a lot. And I loved comedy, even as a premed student and a guy focused on my studies. I loved Letterman, I loved Eddie Murphy, I loved SNL growing up, so those things were always my study break. I was really into comedy at an early age. I remember loving early Letterman, NBC Letterman, it just blew my mind. I just thought that was just the best television ever.

That stuff is the best. He was so weird and different.

Yeah, and I think for me to even know that even in junior high, looking back, it's very telling. Kind of like, okay, wow, I knew that was funny. That level of comedy at that age? I think I probably always had this, you know, inclination towards comedy.

You mentioned Mr. Chow. Do you still get people doing the laugh, or quoting Chow's lines from Hangover?

Yeah, it's every day. Every day I get somebody. I think that will be my calling card for the rest of my career, and it's a good card. The Hangover made my career, it's allowed me to do so many things. I can't even put in words how grateful I am to The Hangover.

What are the logistics of touring right after a Netflix special? Is it a scramble to come up with new material?

I'm kind of getting back into the game. I hadn't done standup in 10 years. I wrote most of this hour of material in eight months, which is really fast for me. Even when I was doing standup 10 years ago, I was an opening act. I didn't even have 15 minutes of material. I guess the big difference for me now is that on Dr. Ken (Jeong's sitcom that ran from 2016 to 2017) I really learned how to write. I was in the writers room every day as one of the staff writers, as well as the star and creator. I really took advantage of that and lived in the writers room and I loved it. So, ironically, I became known in TV and film, and then reverse-engineered what I learned and applied it to standup, which is what I started out doing. So right now I'm kind of experimenting. I'm doing some jokes that were cut from the Netflix special, and I'm trying to develop my point of view more.

Do your antennas go up when you're in this process of developing more standup? Will you go somewhere and observe people, or read the newspaper?

That's a great question, and I think it's the hardest thing to do. I've asked other comics I respect, "What's your process after your special?" And what I've noticed is everyone has a different approach. You know, I think the key is just to keep on writing, and to keep on creating, even if the jokes aren't, quote-unquote, "good." I was just telling my wife, I don't want to put so much pressure on myself that I paralyze myself. I think the beauty of standup is that there's no deadline necessarily, which I love. I feel like standup is an ongoing canvas of art, you just keep doing and creating and I'm learning as I go along, and kind of learning with my fans. This is a brand new chapter in my life, this is probably the most fulfilled I've been in terms of doing different things on film and TV and standup, and hosting and other things.

The narrative around Crazy Rich Asians was that it was a "surprise hit." I feel like you might have a different perspective.

Quality-wise, I knew Crazy Rich Asians would be an outstanding film, given the amount of talent we had in front of and behind the camera. I knew it had a good chance to be a box-office success, but in this business no one really knows until they know. But I don't think anyone expected it to make over $238 million dollars worldwide and be the top-grossing romantic comedy in the past decade. So, culturally I knew Crazy Rich Asians would have an impact, but financially it was a surprise, for sure.

The love between you and your wife really comes through in your special. Do you have any advice for a successful marriage?

To have a sense of humor. I don't mean do fart jokes, but try to find the light in everything. My wife is the funniest person I know. She makes me laugh so hard, she actually helps melt my daily stresses away and that is everything to me.

Have you heard of the Florida man challenge, where you Google your birth date with "Florida man" and whichever headline you get is sort of your Florida man spirit animal/horoscope? I looked up yours, July 13, so I can read it to you and you can react however you want, if you like.

I'm not familiar with that, but sure.

What comes up is "Florida man comes home for lunch, discovers iguana in toilet."

(Jeong laughs hard.)

And the other one is "Florida man with no arms charged with stabbing tourist," which is much darker.

I'm definitely an iguana toilet type of guy. Yeah, I think judging from my own guttural laugh, that kind of speaks to me. Iguana in the toilet. That's kind of like the last thing you want, but I guess an alligator is worse.

You mentioned very offhandedly in your special that you're a wrestling fan, and since you're coming to the Tampa Bay area, which has a huge wrestling history ...

Yeah! I just met Titus O'Neil from the WWE, and he's a friend of Dave Bautista, who I think also lives in Tampa as well. I think Titus might be coming to my show in Clearwater. I mean, I'll text him when I get there, but yeah, that's right, it's known for a lot of wrestlers. I grew up in North Carolina. So that's kind of like Ric Flair country. My dad took me to matches as a kid and I hosted WWE Raw a few years ago.

Are you really a fan? You don't necessarily think of the WWE as being what a lot of doctors watch.

Oh yeah, especially growing up as a kid. The '80s and '90s, I know that era. I think when you're a kid, you know, just like with anything else in entertainment or sports, you just know the things you watched at that age so much better. I remember I did a movie with Dwayne Johnson, a few years ago, and all I did was ask him questions about his time in the Nation of Domination. And Bautista, I just did a movie with him called My Spy, and really I did the movie because I wanted to meet him, because I'm a huge fan, and all I did the whole time was ask him WWE questions.

I've interviewed Dave, and he told me he loves you.

Thank you for saying that to me, you just made my day. He is a superstar. He made me laugh so hard during My Spy. I'm just blown away by his talent. I'm so excited for that movie to come out because he's a bona fide star. I mean, Guardians of the Galaxy, he steals every scene he's in. He was stealing scenes in The Avengers! I really look up to him professionally. Oh, my gosh, thank you so much, you made my day bringing up Dave Bautista.


Ken Jeong

$38.75 to $125. 8 p.m., Saturday. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 791-7400.