It’s been a full two decades since prime-time television has seen an Asian American family sitcom. But ABC’s new show Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, is changing that. Though the very first Asian American family sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, was canceled due to poor ratings and lack of interest back in 1995, Fresh Off the Boat has already stirred up considerable buzz. It’s also a significant moment for many Asian Americans, who have largely been excluded or misrepresented when it comes to the mainstream.
But testing the waters won’t be easy for Fresh Off the Boat. Will the show resonate with a non-Asian audience? Will it manage to undermine stereotypes or end up reinforcing them? Will its jokes be lame?
So we wanted to discuss the series from an Asian American point of view. This week, Slate’s Jennifer Lai will be joined by Phil Yu, creator of the blog Angry Asian Man, along with writer, comedian, and 11-time Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu.
Jennifer Lai: This is the first Asian American family sitcom to make it to prime-time television in 20 years. Why do the stakes feel so high for Fresh Off the Boat?
Arthur Chu: Well, we were all disappointed by how badly All-American Girl failed. The show actually had a lot going for it. It wasn’t just about Margaret Cho’s star power—she had a breakout character in the form of the grandma, she had Quentin Tarantino (her boyfriend at the time) pushing the show and even guesting on it. And the show was honest about Margaret’s character being a drinking, partying assimilated “bad girl.”
But America didn’t care about the show, and the suits panicked at the first sign of failure. That’s what I’m afraid of, that if this show isn’t a roaring success right out of the gate, it’ll be another excuse for networks to pull the plug on “Asian shows.” It’s not like every show with an African American cast has been a smash hit or an artistic masterpiece—or, obviously, every show about twentysomething white people in New York. But it feels like, as one of the most invisible minorities in Hollywood, we don’t get “room to breathe”—we get one shot at success and if it fails, it’s over.
Phil Yu: It carries the heavy burden of being The Only One. The First One in 20 Years. It’s become the show’s unofficial subtitle.
Chu: There are so many roles that really talented Asian actors have been shut out of for so long—even something as basic as “Sitcom Dad.” Randall Park is a great comedian, but I never thought I’d get to see him do the goofy dad, whereas that’s a possibility for pretty much every comic white actor. Same with John Cho on Selfie, something as basic as “romantic lead” was pretty unlikely.
Yu: Such low expectations.
Chu: I remember celebrating seeing that in the pilot of Glee, the douchey meathead football coach was a Japanese guy. It wasn’t a great part, but just the idea that Asian actors could do that one kind of part they haven’t done before was noteworthy.
Lai: So how can Fresh Off the Boat make people see that it’s not just an “Asian show”?
Yu: You can get all the TV-watching Asian Americans to tune in, but the show will probably live and die based on whether it has mainstream crossover appeal.
Chu: Getting it as prime-time TV on ABC was a huge coup, but it definitely puts more pressure than if it were an “artsy” HBO show. The people who are already excited about it—HBO-watching cultural hipsters—aren’t the people Fresh Off the Boat needs to reach. But I don’t really care what my college friends think about the show, I care what my conservative, sitcom-watching Asian mom and dad think.
Lai: My mom watched the trailer. She was worried that the characters’ accents would be the butt of every joke. She also thought it was clearly geared toward a white audience—a watered-down version that’d be more palatable for people. Like Panda Express.
But she realized the show’s focus on Eddie’s struggles might represent more of my experience than her own—my parents immigrated from Hong Kong in the ’70s and I was raised in a very white area of Southern California in the ’90s–and that was very fascinating to her.
Chu: That’s what worries me. If it’s just ABCs (American-born Chinese) with issues like me watching it, that’s a small demographic niche. One of the biggest things that makes it not the story of first-generation immigrants is the social isolation aspect. Being the only Asian kid in your group of friends? That was normal for me and my siblings. It was NOT normal for people our parents’ age to be among all white peers. Asian immigrants seek each other out in even the most whitewashed communities.
Another problem is that the only Asian adults who play off of each other are Eddie’s parents. One of the surest ways to bust stereotypes is to show members of a group interacting with EACH OTHER, showing the tensions and disagreements within the group.
Lai: But Eddie’s mom is a bit of the strict Asian mom type, right?
Chu: Yeah, but at the same time she’s not that tiger-ish. She has real, selfish interests outside of her expectations for her kids.
Yu: I LOVE JESSICA—she’s the real breakout of the show and the anchor of this family. She’s confident and she absolutely knows who she is. She hits a dude with the minivan to preserve her husband’s beliefs about the American dream.
Chu: I liked how she’s our primary window into seeing 1995 Orlando white suburban moms as being as alien as Chinese American culture might be.
Lai: You think Chinese American culture is foreign? American culture can be JUST as foreign.
Chu: That’s why it’s so important that it’s a period piece—not just because of the autobiographical authenticity, but because 1995 is alien to us now. It shows us how arbitrary cultural ideas of “normal” are.
Yu: That’s the amazing skeleton key to this show. This is not going to be about the foreignness of this group of outsiders. It’s their experience from the inside looking out. The jokes are not Asian reference, punch line, ba dum bum.
Lai: I have to admit, it felt weird being catered to for the first time. I got the distinct impression that the script had flipped—suddenly all the jokes were catered to my experiences—I “got” it.
Yu: SO THAT’S HOW THAT FEELS.
What about Eddie’s dad opening a cowboy restaurant? Immigrant groups come to America and start businesses they have no inherent connection to. Why are there so many Koreans who own dry cleaners? It’s not because Koreans are good at cleaning clothing. But the opportunity is there, along with that DIY mentality.
Lai: I loved how Louis was so obsessed with making sure the restaurant was “American” enough to attract customers. In the commercial, Mitch was forced to become this fake cowboy and essentially sell his whiteness (“look at my white skin!”) to get people to come to Cattleman’s Ranch.
Chu: The incredible fake badness—and the hiring Mitch just because he’s white—is a mirror image of corporate America selling Asian-ness.
Lai: The show really focused on race in a in-your-face way. In the pilot, Eddie got called a chink!
Yu: It got real. And it was real—that’s based on what really happened to Eddie.
Lai: Some people might not know how offensive “chink” is, as a racial slur. But the show did a GREAT job of instructing viewers about the gravity of the situation. The way his white classmates reacted—shocked and taken aback—there was no question of how big of a deal it was.
Chu: I love subverting the kids vs. adults paradigm. Having the parents stand up for Eddie was as liberating on TV as IRL.
Yu: That actually got me a little choked up. Seeing Louis and Jessica going to bat for Eddie—it was unexpected.
Lai: I cheered. When Jessica told Eddie not to make waves in the beginning of the episode, I cringed—was she going to reinforce Asian stereotypes about being obedient and submissive? But it’s not like that.
Chu: Not having a demonic Evil White Racist character is really important—making it look like they’re the problem makes it really easy to solve.
Yu: The only other kid of color is the one at the bottom. And then you see them have to scrap to see who is not at the bottom. At each other’s expense.
Chu: There were a lot of racial dynamics in that one bit—when he reaches out to the one black kid as a Friend of Last Resort and then throws him under the bus instantly when there’s an opening with the white kids.
Yu: That’s real. It’s not pretty.
Lai: When Eddie was rejected because of his lunch—what kid of an immigrant family hasn’t felt that? Feeling ashamed because suddenly, everything you know and like is so obviously wrong.
Chu: The first time I got caught eating seaweed snacks in class.
Lai: “Eww! You’re eating black paper?”
Yu: Now fools are buying that shit at Trader Joe’s.
Chu: There’s a weird kind of irony to white hipsters now hungering for “authenticity” from “weird” food. It’s all the sharper knowing that now Eddie Huang is a celebrity chef for selling that food.
Yu: Seeing Eddie strut into the cafeteria, Lunchables in hand, thinking it was all about to change ... tragic.
Lai: It takes more than Lunchables to assimilate.