WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Ken Jeong

Jan 29, 2021

Jeong's first taste of comedy began with a mock-male beauty competition in high school called the "Mr. Buccaneer Pageant."

"That was where I discovered my own comedy bug," Jeong told NPR's Ask Me Another host, Ophira Eisenberg. "I was posing like Arnold Schwarzenegger and just doing all these things and I got a standing O. And I ended up singing a Lionel Richie song, The Commodores' 'Three Times a Lady' on piano, and that got another standing O."

After college, Jeong moved to Los Angeles and practiced medicine for several years as a physician of internal medicine. At the same time, he performed regularly at The Improv and Laugh Factory comedy clubs.

In 2007, he was cast in a small role in the Judd Appatow film Knocked Up, and after the encouragement of his wife, he left medicine to work in entertainment full time. "She is literally the reason for my success," Jeong noted. He has since become known for his roles in the Hangover movies and the NBC sitcom Community. Ken Jeong is now a panelist on the reality competition shows The Masked Singer and its new spinoff, The Masked Dancer.

To cite the classic Green Day song, Ken Jeong had the time of his life during his Ask Me Another challenge. Jonathan Coulton led a music parody game where lyrics to popular songs from the 1990s are changed to be about things from other 90s eras from centuries past... think the 1890s, 1790s, and beyond.

Interview Highlights

Getting his friends from med school to come to his early standup performances

I would actually beg a lot of my friends from med school and college to come, because, look — I just need ten people there. Just laugh at it. And I would tell them, "Just laugh at everything. I don't care if you think I'm funny or not. I don't care. Just laugh at everything, please."

On Flying to South Korea to perform on the original version of The Masked Singer

I was promoting the American version and, unbeknownst to anyone, I flew out in secret to Korea. I stayed in my hotel room for all three days, and had to wear a mask to leave my hotel room and go via car to the studio. And then stayed in what looked like a college dorm room for eight hours and just... stressing out about my voice because I know I'm not a professional singer, I don't sing. And then also being in a mask where you have limited visibility, it was very stressful. And I definitely have a deep appreciation for every contestant that goes on these shows. It's so much easier to be a panelist and have fun and set the tone of the show, but it's another thing to be a contestant. It's incredibly hard, and I think that's why there's a lot of positive energy and feedback from the judges.

On juggling studying medicine and theatre in college

When I went to Duke I took an "Intro to Acting" class, my sophomore year, and I just loved it... I thought that this would be a side story I could tell my kids, like you know, "I was the second chorus member of Kiss Me Kate back in the day... Oh I kind of stole the scenes in the chorus in my day." I thought I'd be that guy while in the biology lab or in a medical practice, which I thought was fine.

Heard on Ken Jeong: Mask Me Another

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. And here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. Today's special guest is the typical cliche Hollywood success story. He graduated from medical school, worked as a doctor while moonlighting as a comedian until the call of showbiz was too great. And then he became a full-time entertainer. He's appeared in "The Hangover" movies, the sitcom "Community," and now he's a panelist on the Fox reality shows "The Masked Singer" and "The Masked Dancer." Ken Jeong, hello.

KEN JEONG: Hi. How are you doing? Thank you guys for having me. Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: Pleasure. Hey, so - you know, I know that in high school, you came in second in a all-male beauty pageant...

JEONG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: ...Which we will address in a moment - impressing the judges, partially because you were doing a bit of a Hulk Hogan flex.

JEONG: It was - yeah, it was a - it was called the Mr. Buccaneer Pageant. And it was, like, this mock male beauty pageant that was all tongue in cheek. And you know, I wasn't - I was always nerdy in high school, but I was I was a popular nerd. I mean, I don't think it's any different than kind of my appeal right now. It's pretty consistent.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: But I really never - I never - outside of music - I play piano and violin. And you know, I was known to be academically sound. And I was about to go to Duke University. But that one is kind of where I first kind of discovered, you know, the - I guess the comedy - my own comedy bug, where, you know, we had a swimsuit competition, and I was a little bit heavier than I am now. And, you know, I was posing like Arnold Schwarzenegger and, you know, just doing all these things. And it - and I got a standing O. And...

EISENBERG: Aw yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter).

JEONG: ...Then I sang. It was crazy. It was like my Napoleon Dynamite moment. And I ended up singing Lionel Richie's song - The Commodores' "Three Times A Lady" on piano.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JEONG: And that got another standing O. So it was like a lot of standing O's that night for Ken Jeong at the Mr. Buccaneer Pageant, you know, in the late '80s.

EISENBERG: And you're like, wait a second.

JEONG: It was very surreal. And it did inform me, when I went to Duke. Later on, I took an acting class - an intro to acting class, a theater class - my sophomore year. And I just loved it. I was premed, and I just thought, I'll be a doctor or be a scientist. And then I just discovered that I had an aptitude for performing. I thought that this would be kind of like a side story I could tell my kids. Like, you know, I was the second chorus member of "Kiss Me, Kate," back in the day. You know, I thought I'd be that guy, you know?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JEONG: Oh, I kind of stole the scenes in the chorus in my day. You know, I thought I'd be that guy, you know, while I'm in a biology lab or in a medical practice, which I thought that was fine. But I do remember even the theater school saying, you know, we - I think you can do both. And then - and I told them - yeah, they were really like, we really think you could do Duke drama and do - and be a premed. And I told them, I'm not that smart.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: I mean, I'm not that smart. I'm not that good. I appreciate the confidence.

EISENBERG: So you started stand-up in Raleigh, while you were attending school. And was it - were your early sets at Charlie Goodnights? That's a good club.

JEONG: Yeah, maybe - who knows? Maybe I met you there.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JEONG: I'm one of the locals - oh, my God. That's one - that's a local trying to get in on my stage time, you know?

EISENBERG: So - but this is while you are in school. Did people that knew that you were pursuing stand-up and science, were they coming to your shows?

JEONG: Yeah. I would actually beg a lot of my friends from high school and college to come because, look, I need - look, just - I just need 10 people there. Just laugh at it. And I would just tell them. I literally - just laugh at everything. I don't care if you think I'm funny or not. I don't care. Just laugh at everything, please.

EISENBERG: And then when you moved to LA, you're practicing medicine and you're still doing stand-up.

JEONG: Yep.

EISENBERG: Are your patients coming to see you?

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: That's awkward.

JEONG: Look, I'll give you that MRI, but just come to the Laugh Factory, please.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I need 10 people. I need 10 people.

JEONG: Yeah, I'll give you that MRI. I mean, look. I'll expedite the X-ray. But just - look, I just - I got this really sweet bit at the Laugh Factory I'm workshopping. I'm trying to get on "Premium Blend." No? No, you're not going to...

EISENBERG: Right. And you credit your wife with encouraging you to go full force into an acting and entertainment career.

JEONG: My wife literally is the reason...

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: She is literally the reason for my success.

COULTON: That's very sweet.

EISENBERG: And she - yeah, she picked a winner, as it turns out...

COULTON: Yeah, she was right.

EISENBERG: ...'Cause you've done tons of movies. You were on the NBC series "Community." You've had your own - you had your own show for two seasons called "Dr. Ken." Now you're a panelist on the competition series that is so fun, "The Masked Singer," and the new one, "The Masked Dancer."

Now - OK, so these shows feature celebrities singing or dancing to songs while wearing head-to-toe costumes and face masks that conceal their identities. And you, as the judge, you are judging who is the best at that combination of things, right?

JEONG: I still don't know the rules of the game. That's amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: I think those things (ph) can actually help me with subsequent seasons of both shows. What else do I need to do?

EISENBERG: But this show is based on a series that started in South Korea. And you actually performed on the South Korean version of "The Masked Singer." You performed "Creep" by Radiohead. Interesting choice.

JEONG: Thank you for saying that. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I mean, did it give you appreciation for what these people, celebrities, go through when they are doing this?

JEONG: It did. It really did.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JEONG: Early on, I was promoting the American version, and unbeknownst to anyone, I flew out in secret to Korea.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: And they - I stayed in my hotel room for all three days and had to wear a mask to get - leave my hotel room and go via car to the studio.

COULTON: (Laughter).

JEONG: And then stayed in, well, basically what looked like a college dorm room for, like, eight hours. And just really stressed about...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: The glamour.

JEONG: Stress out about - I know, glamour.

COULTON: (Laughter).

JEONG: And just, like, stressing out about my voice. And - because I know I'm not a professional singer. I don't sing. And then also being in a mask, where you have limited visibility. It was very stressful.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JEONG: And you - and I definitely have a deep appreciation for every contestant that goes on these shows. And it's so much easier to be a panelist and have fun and set the tone of the show, but it's another thing to be a contestant. And it's incredibly hard. And I definitely - I think that's why there's a lot of positive energy in the feedback of the judges.

EISENBERG: And I think the new version, "The Masked Dancer," is actually infinitely harder. Would you say that that's...

JEONG: It is much harder.

EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).

JEONG: No, it's harder. I mean, just thank God for Paula Abdul, you know, for a lot of reasons.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: If it wasn't for Paula, I don't know if we would be able to have a show, you know, because she really helps lead us into kind of dissecting where to go and how to kind of follow her kind of algorithm of thought in terms of dance breakdown. Is it someone who's professional? Is this an actor who, you know, maybe has a background in dance? Or is this someone who's a TV personality that's having fun...

EISENBERG: Trying to dance.

JEONG: That's trying to dance. Yeah, exactly, you know?

(LAUGHTER).

EISENBERG: That would be my competition show.

JEONG: That would be my - yeah, that would be exactly my...

EISENBERG: It's called Are You Trying to Dance - question mark?

JEONG: Myself included.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: So, you know, Ken, before the show, when we asked you, you know, what are you into, what kind of things would you like a game about - you told us that you love rock bands from the '90s.

JEONG: Yeah, very specific.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I love that. And this game is called Other '90s.

JEONG: OK (laughter).

COULTON: Yeah, we changed the lyrics to classic '90s songs to make them about things that happened in the '90s but of some other century, so...

JEONG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: That's right. That's right. So it could happen - 1890s, 1790s, 1690s, all of the '90s (laughter).

JEONG: I should have been specific in my rider. I meant 1990s.

(LAUGHTER).

JEONG: Oh, my goodness.

COULTON: So all you have to do is tell me what I'm singing about, or you can tell me the artist that I'm parodying, and you will get a point.

JEONG: OK.

COULTON: But the chances are, we'll give you a point anyway. So don't worry.

JEONG: OK, no worries.

EISENBERG: And there's extra credit if you want to guess the century as well, right?

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: OK.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right. Extra credit for the century.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: OK, here we go.

EISENBERG: This is the best response to a game we've ever had, Ken. It's the best response.

JEONG: I - it's so creative. I love it. Oh, my goodness. So smart. So good.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: OK, here we go. Here's your first one.

JEONG: All right.

COULTON: (Singing) I'm a detective. I work for Scotland Yard.

JEONG: (Laughter).

COULTON: (Singing) Deductive reasoning and logic, it's not hard. It's something elementary, and in the end, I'm right, for Watson, he just isn't quite as bright.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: OK, that is Green Day. It is "Good Riddance."

COULTON: That's right.

JEONG: And you are singing about Sherlock Holmes, and I believe it is - would be the 1890s.

EISENBERG: Yes (laughter).

JEONG: OK (laughter).

COULTON: Yeah, you got them all. Absolutely correct.

EISENBERG: You got all of the possible points, all of them.

JEONG: I want a mix tape of this.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: Really funny.

COULTON: This is going very well so far.

JEONG: Oh, my goodness. I haven't laughed this hard in a while. This is really funny, man. This is so good.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: I'm very happy to hear that. It's what we strive for.

JEONG: Oh, my goodness.

COULTON: OK, here's another one. (Singing) The bowl is empty. The valve is working, yay. The water carried all of my poop away.

JEONG: Oh, man. OK, that is Hole.

COULTON: It is.

JEONG: And singing about sewage...

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: ...And maybe the invention of the toilet or...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: That is correct.

JEONG: ...Or a flushing toilet or something.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Technically, it's the first description of a flush toilet. Yes, that's right.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: And I'll try to guess - would it be - is it the 1790s? I'm just going by century, by process of - I don't even know.

COULTON: No, I wouldn't know this, either. It's actually the 1590s...

JEONG: Really?

COULTON: ...Was the first...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Yeah, I'm not sure...

JEONG: Really?

COULTON: I'm not so sure that flush toilets were fully, you know, deployed. But...

JEONG: 1590s, though, that's...

COULTON: The first description of a flushing toilet in the 1590s.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you...

JEONG: Well, I did not know that. So...

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Well, I think we...

JEONG: Not a '90s reference, but an '80s Johnny Carson reference.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: We'll take it.

EISENBERG: It's just that the toilet hasn't changed enough in 400 years, I guess (laughter), so we're like, really?

COULTON: Yes, yeah.

EISENBERG: Right? That's, like, part of it. You're like, really? 1590s?

COULTON: It's that old? Still the same dumb system?

EISENBERG: I was expecting more.

JEONG: Especially those Delta brands. Am I right, guys? They haven't changed a bit.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: Yeah. Oh, boy.

JEONG: They're, like, not refreshing in their sameness. OK, great. All right.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: OK.

JEONG: Please play anything, please. This is so good.

COULTON: Here it comes. (Singing) With the lights out, sleep's desired. But the kids say they're not tired. All these rhymes now, how I need them. They get sleepy as I read them. Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Booties, bluebird fella (ph), Cinderella - yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: OK - my gosh, so good.

JEONG: Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and talking about - gosh, this is - I really don't know. It's...

COULTON: Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard. All of these...

JEONG: Oh, just, like, mother - I mean...

COULTON: You got it.

EISENBERG: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Say that. Say...

JEONG: Mother - just Mother Goose stuff? I don't - OK.

EISENBERG: Yes.

COULTON: Mother Goose stories - that is correct.

JEONG: Man, I haven't even thought of the word Mother Goose...

EISENBERG: Nor did I.

JEONG: ...Like, in decades. Oh, my goodness.

COULTON: Yeah, yeah.

JEONG: That is genius.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: Oh, my...

COULTON: Do you want to make a guess as to the century?

JEONG: Oh, yes.

COULTON: Which '90s it was. It was not 1990s.

JEONG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Predated 1990s.

JEONG: Didn't it premiere after "The Nanny"?

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: That's right.

JEONG: But was - was it? I know - I'm going to say...

COULTON: I wouldn't know this, for sure.

JEONG: I'm going to say 1790s. I don't know.

COULTON: You're very close. It was the 1690s.

EISENBERG: Very close.

JEONG: 1690s. Wow. That's been a - wow.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JEONG: Man, that's so - that is...

COULTON: Not as old as the flush toilet, but almost.

JEONG: (Laughter) Not - that's the only thing I'm going to think about after this interview.

COULTON: (Laughter).

JEONG: You know, honey - I'll just go talk to my kids. You know, I'll be like Cliff Clavin, another '90s reference for a change.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: Yeah.

JEONG: Little known fact here is that the Mother Goose stories are, you know, not as old as the toilet. So anyway...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: What are you talking about, Dad? What are you talking about?

JEONG: What are you talking about, Dad? Are you talking about NPR ASK ME ANOTHER again? Yes. Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yet to hear from Father Goose. I'm just pointing that out. Yet to hear. Yet to hear.

JEONG: (Laughter) Father goose.

COULTON: Good point. Good point. Not around.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Went out for cigarettes and never came back.

EISENBERG: Exactly.

JEONG: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Where are you? Where are you?

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: All right, here's another one. You ready? You ready, Ken?

JEONG: Yeah. Please, yes.

COULTON: (Singing) Smoky brown booze in my glass today. Single malt hooch in my glass today.

EISENBERG: There you go. It's come full circle. It really has.

COULTON: (Laughter).

JEONG: Wow. OK, that's Pearl Jam. That's "Jeremy."

COULTON: That's right.

JEONG: Which is Brilliant - talking about alcohol or prohibition. I don't know.

COULTON: Smoky brown booze.

JEONG: Smoky brown...

COULTON: I was looking for a specific kind of alcohol.

JEONG: Oh.

COULTON: The best is single malt, many will tell you.

JEONG: I'm more of a Heineken Light guy myself.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK. Got it. Got it.

JEONG: And it's like a - you know...

COULTON: I hear you. I hear you.

JEONG: So...

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: We were looking for whisky.

JEONG: I only...

COULTON: ...But we will accept Heineken Light. It's fine.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JEONG: Yeah, I only accept Heineken Light, per my endorsement agent. Thank you. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Yeah. No, this was the first whisky production - first evidence of Scotch whisky production was in this '90s. Do you want to make a guess as to the century?

EISENBERG: I'm going to tell you this - it predates the toilet.

COULTON: Predates the toilet - that's for sure.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JEONG: Really? 1490s?

COULTON: Yeah, that's correct.

EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).

JEONG: Wow.

COULTON: Yeah.

JEONG: Wow.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: So on the timeline, it's whiskey, toilets, Mother Goose.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: All right, here's the very last one. Here we go. (Singing) That's me with my colleagues from Europe and Russia, here in low-Earth orbit, trying to research stuff, and I just hope that I can do it.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: (Singing) Things float away from me. We drink recycled pee.

JEONG: OK, this is R.E.M., "Losing My Religion."

COULTON: That's right.

JEONG: And astronaut in space? I don't know. I mean, it's just...

EISENBERG: Yep.

COULTON: Yes, and the International Space Station was actually launched in - what century do you think?

JEONG: OK, it's got - 1990s? And...

COULTON: 1990s is correct, yes.

EISENBERG: Yes, that's right. That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: Oh, my goodness. This is - kudos to you guys. This is honestly the best hybrid of '90s songs and centuries '90s guesswork I've ever heard in my life.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: That's very nice to hear.

JEONG: And I mean that with all my heart.

COULTON: Big props to our writers...

EISENBERG: Definitely.

COULTON: ...Specifically Karen Lurie, who wrote this game...

JEONG: Oh, my goodness.

COULTON: ...And a lot of our music parodies. It's a great staff. And obviously, this one went over very well.

(LAUGHTER)

JEONG: This makes me so happy. You have no idea. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's amazing.

JEONG: Can you put a mask on it and then we can just make a million dollars?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

COULTON: I'm ready. Any time.

JEONG: If we put a mask on this, guys - mask me another. That's how we do this, guys.

EISENBERG: Mask me another.

JEONG: It writes itself.

COULTON: Oh, I keep thinking that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: Thank you. Oh, this is such a pleasure. Ken Jeong is a panelist on the series "The Masked Dancer." Thank you just so much for joining us.

JEONG: Oh, thank you both. Just - wow, this has made my day.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: You're very welcome. And you have made ours. Thank you, Ken.

EISENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: "The Masked Dancer" airs Wednesdays on Fox.

And that's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by Julia Melfi and senior writers Eric Feinstein, Andrew Kane and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner, WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.