A Doctor Turned Hollywood Star: Ken Jeong

Most people know Ken Jeong for his scene-stealing portrayal of Mr. Chow in The Hangover movies, the crazy Spanish teacher in Community, or his appearance in Crazy Rich Asians. However, there is much more to Jeong than his resume of wild characters. The actor is also a director, producer, and doctor.

Ken Jeong / Ken Jeong / Ken Jeong / Ken Jeong.
Source: Getty Images

Long before he graced our screens, Jeong showed off his comedic chops while earning his medical degree. But after practicing medicine for a few years, he decided to focus on his other passion: acting. He might still be a licensed doctor, but Jeong has expanded into many other realms.

He Was Always Smart

Born Kendrick Kang-Joh Jeong in Detroit, Michigan, Jeong started using the name Ken in grade school. His parents immigrated from South Korea before he was born so his father, DK, could earn his Ph.D. in economics from Wayne State University. Shortly after Jeong was born, the family moved to North Carolina.

Jeong attends an event.
Photo by Araya Doheny/Getty Images

Jeong worked hard in school because his father was a professor and wanted him to get a good education. In high school, he participated in the regional quiz bowl, was elected to the student council, and played the violin. Jeong was so smart that he graduated at just 16 years old.

A Fake Beauty Pageant

While in high school, Jeong started testing out his comedy skills. He was known as the “popular geek” in his class and excelled academically. However, his book smarts weren’t Jeong’s only talents. During his last year, he participated in his school’s mock male beauty pageant to become the next “Mr. Buccaneer.”

Jeong speaks on stage at the Emmys.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage/Getty Images

Jeong realized he had the comedy bug while posing for the swimsuit round. He pretended he was Arnold Schwarzenegger and copied the bodybuilder’s moves, causing the crowd to roar with laughter. Jeong then sang a Lionel Richie song and “Three Times a Lady” for the talent portion., receiving a standing ovation.

He Found His Calling

Although Jeong finished the mock beauty pageant as runner-up, it sparked something in him. He loved making the crowd laugh, and he just had to be himself on stage. Jeong risked making a fool of himself, but it was worth the reaction. He said, “My friends knew I was funny, but I wasn’t the class clown.”

A still of Jeong in the television series Community.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: NBC

Everyone in the audience that night in May 1986 knew Jeong had found his calling as a comedian. Still, he wouldn’t get to put that comedic energy into a full-time career as a film or TV actor for another two decades. First, he would pursue a much different career path.

He Almost Changed His Major

After graduating high school, Jeong attended Duke University, where he studied pre-med. During his sophomore year, he briefly considered becoming a double major in pre-med and drama, but his grades started to slip. His A in organic chemistry changed to a C when he took an acting and musical theater class.

A still of Jeong sitting surrounded by books in a scene from Community.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: NBC

Jeong’s parents were worried because he was only 18 and they didn’t want him to change his career path because of a few laughs in high school. His father told him, “It’s not like we don’t believe in you, but I know how brutal showbiz can be. Talent doesn’t guarantee anything.”

He Always Wanted to Be a Doctor

Ever since he was a child, Jeong wanted to be a doctor. He never thought about going into acting and never participated in the school plays. However, Jeong enjoyed the drama classes he took in college. Still, he stuck with his pre-med path because that was his dream.

A promotional still of Jeong in Dr. Ken.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures Television

Although he had a heavy course load, Jeong would do stand-up comedy at local bars every few months. Once he graduated from Duke in 1990, Jeong attended medical school at the University of North Carolina. It wasn’t easy, but he found time to work on his comedy.

Is Ken Jeong a Doctor?

In 1995, Jeong graduated from UNC School of Medicine, earning his M.D. He then went to Ochsner Medical Foundation in New Orleans for his internal medicine residency. While working 90-hour weeks, Jeong would do a five-minute opening slot for well-known comedians.

Jeong poses backstage at a comedy night.
Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images

While many comedians draw on their lives for joke inspiration, Jeong didn’t do many medical-related bits in his early stand-up days. During his residency, he thought it was too soon to do medical bits, so he did a lot of goofy dancing. It was his release after a long week.

He Turned Down His First Offer

Jeong’s residency chief and mentor, Dr. Donald Erwin, was very rational. He told Jeong he didn’t have to choose between medicine and comedy. Around the same time, Jeong won a stand-up contest in New Orleans, where he impressed Hollywood Improv founder Budd Friedman and NBC president Brandon Tartikoff.

Jeong speaks on stage during an event.
Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

They invited him to LA to do two shows at the Melrose Improv, where an agent offered to represent him. But he was still in his residency and wanted to finish, so he turned down the offer. That’s how much he loved being a doctor.

Mixing Medicine and Comedy

After completing his residency, Jeong moved to LA in 1998, where he practiced internal medicine at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Woodland Hills. There, he met his wife, Tran, who was also a physician. Jeong was making great money as a doctor, but he still loved comedy.

Jeong poses for the press wearing a Coca-Cola costume.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Jeong established himself as a physician and started doing stand-up at the Laugh Factory in his free time. His routines got him noticed, and he landed a spot on Comedy Central’s Comic Groove in 2002. He was also on Kings of Comedy.

Happy Hour Love

Jeong and his now-wife, Tran, were both working at Kaiser when they met at a happy hour event for young physicians. He compared their meeting to When Harry Met Sally. The two had an instant love connection and started dating shortly after meeting.

Jeong and Tran attend an event.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Jeong and Tran married in 2004, and she remained a physician. She was very supportive of his career and encouraged him to pursue acting full-time after he landed the role of Dr. Kuni in Knocked Up. Tran said if he didn’t follow his dreams now, he never would.

Making a Big Decision

Like the good doctor he was, Jeong filmed Knocked Up during a vacation week so that he wouldn’t miss work. It was one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences in his life at the time, and then he had to return to Kaiser and treat patients the following day.

A still of Jeong in a hospital scene from Knocked Up.
Source: YouTube

He started contemplating his future as a doctor. Director Judd Apatow was so impressed with Jeong that he said he would have him in all of his films. Jeong couldn’t stop thinking about that and decided to quit his job the next day to become a full-time actor.

Transitioning Into Entertainment

His role in Knocked Up turned out to be his breakout performance. Although he had natural talent, Jeong wanted to refine his skills, so he studied with director Natalia Lazarus at the LA Performing Arts Conservatory. She coached him through many roles until 2012.

A still of Jeong and Seth Rogan in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, executive producers of Knocked Up, told Jeong, “We really believed you were a burned-out doctor.” Jeong replied, “That’s because I am.” It was a role he related to, and the performance led to many supporting roles.

Still Using His Degree

After Knocked Up, Jeong appeared in back-to-back movies, including Role Models, Pineapple Express, Step Brothers, and All About Steve. Although he considered himself a full-time entertainer, Jeong’s medical degree still came in handy on movie sets when actors or crew members got sick or injured.

A still of the cast from All About Steve during an interview.
Source: YouTube

While filming All About Steve, there were 300 extras on set. It was a hot day, and they worked hard, causing many extras to collapse from heat exhaustion. Jeong had to step in to help the medic treat them because so many people needed medical attention.

Putting His Name on the Map

In the early days of his career, Jeong worked alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood. His performances were small parts, but people recognized his potential. Then, Jeong’s career truly exploded when he was cast as Mr. Chow in The Hangover.

A still of Jeong as Mr. Chow in The Hangover.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Director Todd Phillips saw Jeong’s video with Mike O’Connell on Funny Or Die and knew he had to bring Jeong in for an audition. Jeong had everyone cackling with laughter during his audition because he went completely insane. They knew they had found the right man to play Chow.

A Tough Time

Landing the role of Mr. Chow was an incredible experience for Jeong. He went over the top on set, but he was dealing with a lot of personal pain at home. Around the same time he got the call for The Hangover, Jeong’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A still of Jeong speaking in an interview at the time.
Source: YouTube

Tran was undergoing chemotherapy treatment while Jeong was away filming the movie. Phillips and Bradley Cooper were the only ones who knew what he was going through. Jeong said he was unhinged because he was working through the demons in his life.

Easter Eggs for His Wife

Phillips gave Jeong the creative freedom to go wild with Mr. Chow. Many of his memorable lines were ad-libbed, and he snuck in some Vietnamese phrases to honor inside jokes with his wife. He is Korean but used Vietnamese phrases to speak to his henchmen.

A still of Jeong as Mr. Chow.
Source: YouTube

In one scene, he says, “kai chee,” which means chicken die in Vietnamese, but people in the movie thought it meant something else. Jeong said, “There were these inside jokes between me and Tran. I would sprinkle that throughout the movie.” It was a love letter to his wife.

It Was His Idea

One of the most iconic scenes in The Hangover is when Mr. Chow leaps out of the car truck fully naked and starts attacking the guys with a crowbar. Surprisingly, it was Jeong’s idea to go full-frontal, and Phillips thought it was hilarious.

A still from the scene.
Source: YouTube

Jeong wanted to do something shocking because if he was going to be typecast, he wanted “to be typecast as a crazy guy.” His wife also approved of the nudity, but the Las Vegas police didn’t share their sense of humor. Phillips had to make a blackout wall to film the scene.

The Lines Were Made Up

Besides his Vietnamese inserts, Jeong’s character had many other ad-libbed lines made up by Phillips. Jeong said Phillips fed him memorable lines like “Tootaloo, mother f***er.” That iconic quote is yelled at him the most when he is spotted in public.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Jeong said the film got him through one of the most difficult times in his life. But it also catapulted his career to a new level. Mr. Chow and his hilarious one-liners were an instant hit, and people started quoting the movie regularly. To think the lines weren’t even in the script.

He Almost Turned Down the Role

Mr. Chow is an iconic character, and the film would have been completely different without Jeong in the role. However, he almost turned down the movie offer because of his wife’s cancer. He didn’t want to leave her to care for their young daughters while she was sick.

A backstage photo of Jeong during an interview for the film.
Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Images/Getty Images

In 2007, Jeong and Tran welcomed twin girls Alexa and Zooey. They were only two when Jeong started filming The Hangover, and he felt guilty for leaving them and his wife. But Tran insisted that he take the job because it was a great opportunity.

The Crazy Paid Off

It might have been a risk to let Jeong go wild in front of the camera during The Hangover, but his scenes turned out to be the funniest. His unhinged personality paid off, earning Jeong two MTV Movie Awards in 2010. He won Best WTF Moment and Best Villain.

Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Todd Phillips, and Ed Helms attend Hangover - Very Bad Trip III.
Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

His work in The Hangover put Jeong in an interesting category of actors, but he didn’t mind being typecast as the “crazy guy.” Following the successful film, Jeong landed the recurring role of Señor Ben Chang on the NBC sitcom Community. His unbalanced character’s mania grows over time.

The Perfect Character

Señor Chang was the perfect character for Jeong because it was another role in which he could have fun and be weird. The character’s sadistic backstory is that he ate his twin sister in the womb, and Jeong was able to play on Señor Chang’s crazy.

A still of Jeong in Community.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: NBC

During the first season, Chang is the Spanish teacher, but the school discovers he lied about his teaching credentials. The character then becomes a student at the college. Jeong said he could ad-lib more in the first season because it was more of a monologue than his role as a student.

He Felt Burnt Out

Community was almost canceled during the third season, but after a hiatus, it returned for another three seasons. Jeong loved the show but felt burnt out by Season 5 because Chang became one-dimensional. The actor was frustrated because of his character’s story.

The cast of Community poses in a promotional portrait.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: NBC

In Season 5, Chang is living in the school’s air vent, slathering himself in Vaseline, and eating pinecone sandwiches. Jeong decided to email showrunner, Mark Harmon, hoping to alter his character’s arc. The response was something he didn’t expect because Harmon revealed that Chang was the source of guaranteed laughs.

It Made Him a Better Actor

Harmon told Jeong that Chang made obvious jokes because the writers depended on Jeong for guaranteed laughs. The actor understood but was even more surprised when Harmon asked Jeong to eat a pinecone sandwich in return for an emotional monologue.

A still of Jeong in an episode from Season 5.
Source: Moviestilldb.com/ Copyright: NBC

Jeong told Harmon he couldn’t cry on command, but Harmon assured him it would be emotional. Jeong realized every word in his monologue was from the email he wrote Harmon about Chang. He said, “It was meta upon meta upon meta, and it made me a better actor.”

His Daughters Like the Show

In an interview with Insider, Jeong revealed that his daughters loved Community. Alexa and Zooey are his biggest critics, but they were fans of the series. Jeong heavily filtered what they could watch from the adult show, and his girls told him something interesting.

Jeong poses for the press.
Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images

Jeong revealed that his daughters don’t like Chang. Whenever he appears in a scene, his daughters fast forward it. One of them asked Jeong, “Am I insulting you if you’re not my favorite Community character?” Jeong understood that the girls saw him as their annoying dad on screen.

He Was Immediately On-Board

When Phillips called Jeong to revive Mr. Chow in The Hangover Part II, Jeong didn’t need much convincing. He was excited to reunite with the cast and expand on his scene-stealing character. Jeong realized his character changed from being angry to an “agent of mayhem.”

A promotional portrait of Jeong as Mr. Chow.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Legendary Pictures

Chow was more like the fourth member of the Wolf Pack in Part II, and Jeong said the script was even funnier than the first movie. The characters were based on what the actors created, and there was very little to improvise the second time around.

The Biggest Part of His Career

The Hangover trilogy was the biggest part of Jeong’s career. When he reflects on his acting career thus far, Jeong said he would have been okay if it ended after Knocked Up. However, he never imagined the success that would come from The Hangover and six seasons of Community.

Jeong speaks during an interview.
Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Images/Getty Images

Those two things alone are a lifetime of a career, and Jeong’s parents couldn’t be prouder. Although they were hesitant about him leaving medicine to pursue acting, they commend his success. Jeong said their home is a shrine of all his newspaper articles and swag.

Teaming Up With Jamie Foxx

In 2012, Jeong and Jamie Foxx teamed up in an unusual partnership. The actors agreed to star in movies written by each other. Foxx was supposed to star in After Prom, produced by Jeong, but it never got made. In return, Jeong starred in Foxx’s All-Star Weekend.

Jeong and Foxx pose, making funny gestures to the press.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

It was an unusual pairing, but the two were put into ethnic stereotypes and used that for comedic effect. Jeong and Foxx’s partnership didn’t last long, but they got one great movie out of it. The two are good friends, and they like working together.

Using What He Learned

In 2015, Jeong starred, wrote, and produced the ABC medical comedy Dr. Ken. He based it on his own experiences working at Kaiser and modeled the clinic in the show after the one he worked in. Dr. Ken featured Jeong as a Korean American doctor with a questionable bedside manner.

A still of Jeong in Dr. Ken.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures Television

The show ran for two seasons, and Jeong was firm on having his wife and son in the show reflect his family in real life. He was persistent about having an Asian actress play his wife even though the producers pressured him to use a white actress.

It Didn’t Last Long

Although the show was short-lived, Dr. Ken was historic for Asian-Americans on TV. The show’s premiere was the first time in US history that two shows (Dr. Ken and Fresh Off the Boat) with Asian-majority casts would air simultaneously. It gave more representation to Asians on TV.

A still of a family scene in Dr. Ken.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures Television

The show was also special because Jeong’s daughter had a guest role in the series. When casting the stalker and girlfriend for his on-screen son, Jeong chose his daughter Zooey for the part. Although he doesn’t want to pressure his daughters into acting, he enjoyed working with her.

He Keeps His Medical License

Although Jeong has found great success in Hollywood, he hasn’t given up his medical license. It has come in handy on movie sets and when someone needs a doctor on his flight. However, Jeong jokes that if his career stalls, he has a good fallback plan.

Jeong speaks at a microphone.
Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Jeong renews his license every few years, and he has shown off his medical skills several times. Someone will ask him for medical advice whenever he is at a comedy show or working on a set. One legendary comic asked Jeong to inspect a suspicious mole.

He Has to Practice to Keep It

Jeong doesn’t just renew his license; he has to put in one to nine hours of medical work to maintain it. To meet his minimum hours, the actor will do telemedicine research, teaching, administration, patient care, and other duties. It’s not a lot, but there’s more to keeping a license than paying a fee.

Jeong attends an event.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

According to the Medical Board of California, a current medical license can only be renewed if the physician completes a minimum of 50 hours of continuing medical education every two years. Jeong has to put in the work to keep his license valid.

He Saved an Audience Member

It’s a good thing Jeong has a medical degree because, in 2018, an audience member had a seizure during his show. Jeong was interrupted by what he thought was a heckler, but he quickly realized a woman needed help. He went into doctor mode to treat her until an ambulance arrived.

A still of Jeong in Dr. Ken.
Source: YouTube

Luckily, it was a minor seizure, and the woman was okay. When she was feeling better, Jeong flew her and her boyfriend to New York, where he had a few shows. He paid for their accommodations, but they decided not to attend his show.

He Begged to Be in the Film

Years before Crazy Rich Asians hit theaters, Jeong approached his director friend, Jon Chu, to be in the movie. He thought it would be an important project because it had a full Asian cast. Jeong told Chu that he would do whatever the director wanted him to do to be in the film.

A still of Jeong in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

Jeong knew it would be a historic moment for Asian American actors and ended up getting the role of Goh Wye Mun. His character was the patriarch of a newly wealthy family in Singapore. Jeong’s intuitions were right because the film was nominated for two Golden Globes.

His Marvel Debut

Although we didn’t see Jeong fighting intergalactic villains alongside the Avengers, he did get a chance to be in one of the biggest Marvel movies. In Avengers: Endgame, Jeong made a cameo as the security guard that lets Ant-Man out of a storage unit after returning from the Quantum Realm.

A still of Jeong as a security guard in Avengers: Endgame.
Source: YouTube

The film’s directors, the Russo brothers, were executive producers for Community, so they had worked with Jeong before. Marvel movies are full of cameos, and Jeong was honored to make it into the highest-grossing MCU movie.

His Comedy Special Caused Controversy

In 2019, Jeong’s first comedy special, You Complete Me, Ho, was released on Netflix. While it was a hilarious show, one of his jokes caused quite the controversy. Jeong told a joke about when Ice Cube used a belt to help someone having a seizure.

A still of Jeong in You Complete Me, Ho.
Source: YouTube

The CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of America said Ice Cube’s use of a belt was not the correct way to help someone having a seizure and could have caused serious injury. The foundation felt Jeong should have known better than to praise this response because he is a doctor.

Calls to Remove the Special

While many people enjoy Jeong’s style of comedy, others were unimpressed by his use of seizure-related jokes and bad first-aid advice. The Epilepsy Foundation of America released a statement against Netflix and Jeong, stating that it should be removed from the platform.

A promotional portrait of Jeong for the show.
Source: YouTube

Someone also made a Change.org petition to encourage Netflix to drop Jeong’s special. Only 318 people have signed it, but the petitioner wrote that Jeong should be more sympathetic to those who struggle with epilepsy. The comedian didn’t apologize, and the special wasn’t removed.

Getting Judgy

In August 2018, Fox announced that Jeong would be one of the panelists on their new series, The Masked Singer. The show was based on the South Korean series King of Masked Singer, and it has been adapted in many other countries.

A still of Jenny McCarthy and Jeong as judges in The Masked Singer.
Photo by FOX/Getty Images

Jeong isn’t much of a singer, but he makes for good TV. He also appeared as a panelist on the British adaptation and performed Radio Head’s “Creep” on King of Mask Singer as the Golden Pig. While the series has been successful, Jeong wasn’t happy with one of the guests.

When Did Ken Jeong Walk Off The Masked Singer?

In an April 2022 episode of The Masked Singer, Jeong walked off the show when Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was unmasked. Jeong appeared disgusted, and fellow judge Robin Thicke went to check on him. Many fans supported Jeong and questioned Giuliani’s casting.

A still of Jeong dancing in an episode from the show.
Photo by FOX/Getty Images

Jeong was visibly upset and said, “I’m done,” before leaving. He never commented on the situation but returned for the following episodes. Jeong is set to return as a panelist for Season 8 of the show, and hopefully, there won’t be any negative surprises next season.

He Debunked Many Myths

As a celebrity with a large platform and a medical degree, Jeong has helped many people stay updated about current issues in medicine. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Jeong appeared virtually on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to answer questions about COVID.

Jeong poses for the press.
Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images

He spoke about ways to reduce stress and boost immunity. In early 2021, Jeong appeared on James Corden’s show to debunk myths and address misinformation because there was so much confusion. He encouraged viewers to stop listening to people on the internet who aren’t medical professionals.

A Dynamic Duo

Fans of Community saw Jeong and Joel McHale share the screen for six seasons, and now they delight audiences with banter-filled interactions whenever McHale is a guest judge on The Masked Singer. The two frequently team up, and their fans were thrilled to hear they were starting a podcast.

Jeong and McHale speak onstage.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Jeong and McHale started a podcast called The Darkest Timeline in 2020. They discussed the pandemic, their time on Community, and anything they could think of. They even had their former Community co-stars as guests on the show.

It Was His Favorite Project

While we typically see Jeong as the wild character that makes everyone laugh, he has also worked on more serious projects. In 2015, Jeong directed an episode of 30 for 30 Shorts about former college football player Reggie Ho, a pre-med student who joined the football team.

Jeong poses for a portrait.
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Ho was a crucial part of Notre Dame’s only undefeated season but left the team to finish his degree and become a doctor. Jeong loved sharing Ho’s story, and it was one of his favorite projects that didn’t involve him in front of the camera.

He Wants More Representation

After appearing in Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat, Jeong wants to see more Asian representation in Hollywood. He credited Fresh Off the Boat for helping him get his own sitcom, Dr. Ken, and he loves that there are more opportunities for Asian-American actors.

A still of Jeong in Fresh Off the Boat.
Source: YouTube

In an interview with Insider, Jeong said, “There is more representation now than ever, but we still have a long way to go.” He said the entertainment industry is on the right path and hopes it will continue this way.

He Was Serious on the Job

Jeong became famous for being wild and crazy, but he knows when it’s time to be serious. When he was working as a full-time doctor, he made sure not to act out or crack jokes on the job. Jeong left his comedic side when he stepped into the hospital.

A photo of Jeong during an interview.
Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

He said, “I would bark orders at my nurses. I was perfectly trained to be a physician. It wasn’t a fluke, and I worked hard at it.” Most people probably wouldn’t have guessed that he was a comedian in his off time.