Campus News

Jeong is living proof of ‘you never know’

Ken Jeong, during his Distinguished speakers Series lecture, seated on stage and also projected on a large screen above.

Comedian Ken Jeong appears in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre to open the 2022-23 Distinguished Speakers Series. Photos: Joe Cascio


Published October 13, 2022

Ken Jeong during his Distinguished Speakers Series lecture,.

Photo: Joe Cascio

“That’s probably my talent. It’s not acting, it’s not comedy, it’s not even having a medical background. I think my biggest talent is my persistence. ”
Comedian Ken Jeong

For much of Ken Jeong’s life, comedy was a creative outlet to relieve the stresses of his career as a doctor. During college, he discovered his love for comedy and acting after he enrolled in a theater course. After classes, he spent his evenings visiting comedy clubs to participate in open mic nights — a hobby he continued while practicing medicine.

However, in 1995, Jeong’s life changed when he won the Big Easy Laff Off, a major comedy competition in New Orleans. Television executives and film producers took notice of his budding talent. Later cast in “Knocked Up,” his feature film debut, a scene-stealing role as a doctor catapulted Jeong’s comedy career further than he ever imagined.

Today, he is one of the world’s top comedic stars. An actor, producer, writer and comedian, Jeong has starred in countless shows and films, including “The Hangover” trilogy; the Netflix comedy special “Ken Jeong: You Complete Me, Ho;” and the critically acclaimed television show “Community.” He is currently a panelist on the game show “The Masked Singer.” In fact, Fox declared Wednesdays on the network as “Kensday” due to Jeong-led shows dominating the day’s lineup.

The comedian spoke on his unexpected career change, his growth as an actor, diversity and inclusion in the film industry, and his wife’s battle with breast cancer during a visit to UB on Tuesday that kicked off the university’s 2022-23 Distinguished Speakers Series.

“Pursuing secondary education, going to college not knowing what to expect, you just never know. I’m living proof of you never know,” an energetic Jeong said to a full audience in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre.

“If I never got another movie after ‘Knocked Up,’ that was OK. I would be forever known as the doctor from ‘Knocked Up,’ and that was more than good enough for me,” he said. “I never thought I would be in a position in life where I could do what I love to do. And who among us can say that? I feel like every day I’ve lived out my dream and then some.”

Ken Jeong on stage during his lecture with Beth Del Genio to UB President Satish Tripathi.

Beth Del Genio, chief of staff to the president and vice president for government and community relations, moderated the question-and-answer session with Jeong. Photo: Joe Cascio

For Jeong, the decision to change careers was nerve-wracking. Prior to committing to acting full time, he and his wife, Tran, were partners at their health maintenance organization (HMO). While growing, his comedy career at the time was uncertain. Practical by nature, Jeong continued practicing medicine while appearing in major films. His scenes in “Knocked Up,” he says, were filmed during a week of vacation from work. But after landing additional roles in such hit films as “Role Models,” “Pineapple Express” and “Step Brothers,” Jeong knew it was time to “go pro.”

Although Jeong has acted in several blockbuster films, he admits that identifying the next major movie is like playing the lottery. The script for “The Hangover,” he says, floated around Hollywood for years, and the original copy didn’t include Mike Tyson or Jeong’s character, “Mr. Chow.” He realized the film would be a hit when Tran could not stop laughing during a screening. “The Hangover” trilogy went on to gross more than $1.4 billion worldwide.

Jeong’s success has allowed him to pursue passion projects, advocate for the inclusion of Asian and Asian American creators in film, and raise awareness about the impact of breast cancer.

He starred in “Crazy Rich Asians,” a 2018 film that was the first major studio movie in 25 years to feature a majority Asian and Asian American cast. The film was a box office sensation and grossed nearly $239 million. The movie was also critically important for his daughters, as it contained strong Asian female role models he said.

“I think it’s probably the most important work I’ve ever been a part of,” says Jeong. “I think it’s because of the success of that movie, there is a relative proliferation of Asian American filmmakers — not just actors, but writers and filmmakers behind the scenes. The success of that movie prompted Hollywood to go, ‘this is profitable, and we want to hear other unique Asian American voices.’”

Eight days prior to his visit to UB, Jeong finished filming “Great Divide,” a drama that tackles the subject of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the film, a South Korean family moves from a California city to a less-than-welcoming rural town in Wyoming so that their son can have a better chance at attending an Ivy League school. Jeong, who plays the father, shared that it is the most challenging role that he’s ever had as an actor, and that there were often moments when he cried between scenes due to the emotional toll of the content.

When Jeong created and produced the self-titled sitcom, “Dr. Ken,” he ensured that the main cast of Asian American actors were paid as series regulars rather than recurring actors or guest stars, a distinction that guaranteed a higher salary and more job security.

Jeong noted that his career success is largely due to perseverance, a skill he learned during medical school at the University of North Carolina. Struggling academically, Jeong admits he considered dropping out to pursue comedy after failing his board exams. But he realized that if he could quit on medicine, then he could quit on comedy, too.

He would use that skill later in his acting career after the cancellation of “Dr. Ken,” a moment that broke his heart. By learning from his failures, Jeong persisted in comedy and found success on his future project, the “The Masked Singer.”

“That’s probably my talent. It’s not acting, it’s not comedy, it’s not even having a medical background,” he says. “I think my biggest talent is my persistence.”