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Secret Science Nerds: Ken Jeong Doesn’t Just Play a Doctor on TV

Secret Science Nerds: Ken Jeong Doesn’t Just Play a Doctor on TV

On both the big and small screens, Ken Jeong has famously played a doctor, an unstable and unqualified community college Spanish teacher, and a naked Chinese gangster. (One guess as to which of these professions Jeong actually occupied before getting his big break in Hollywood.) That’s right! Jeong is actually a licensed physician. His medical background has not only helped him land his breakthrough role in Judd Apatow’s film Knocked Up, it has also landed him among our Secret Science Nerds.

Born to South Korean-immigrant parents in Detroit, where his father earned his PhD in Economics from Wayne State University, Kendrick Kang-Joh “Ken” Jeong moved to North Carolina with his family when he was just four so that his father could take a position as a professor at North Carolina A&T State University. The early emphasis on education shaped Jeong’s studies and career trajectory; his academic potential soon became apparent. He took part in Walter Hines Page Senior High School’s High IQ team, and graduated at 16, winning Greensboro’s “Youth of the Year” award. He told the Charlotte Observer, “In high school, I never had any dramatic aspiration to be an actor or anything. I was trying to just get into a good college.”

He managed to do just that thanks to his academic excellence. Jeong stayed local for both his zoology/pre-med undergraduate education at Duke University and for his post-graduate years at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he obtained his M.D. in 1995. At Duke, Jeong discovered musical theater and performed in various productions with the student-run Hoof ‘n’ Horn. It was at UNC that he started to pursue stand-up comedy. He completed his residency at New Orleans’ Oschner Medical Center while he continued honing his stand-up comedy routine during his 90-hour work weeks. It was in winning the Big Easy Laff-Off in 1995 that judges Brandon Tartikoff (former president of NBC’s entertainment division) and Budd Friedman (founder of the Improv Comedy Club) encouraged him to move to Los Angeles.

Jeong soon took their advice to heart. He worked as a physician at Kaiser Permanente while continuing to do stand-up gigs on the side. He told NPR, “Internal medicine was my specialty, general practice with an emphasis on adult medicine. Most doctors have golf as a hobby. Mine was doing comedy.” During the 12 years between the move to L.A. and his big break, Jeong landed a handful of small parts, but more importantly he met his wife, Tran, who’s still a doctor in the L.A. area. His first major role came in 2007 when director Judd Apatow was looking for “an Asian doctor with medical experience” to play Dr. Kuni in Knocked Up.

The breakthrough role for Jeong, however, was that of Asian gangster Mr. Chow in Todd Phillips’ The Hangover. Jeong’s performance was a scene-stealer. But you might not know that Mr. Chow’s rage was actually due to Jeong channeling his own frustrations over his wife’s recent cancer diagnosis at the time; she’s currently in remission and a breast cancer survivor. Despite their difficulties, it was Tran’s insistence that Jeong take the Hangover role that ultimately led to his skyrocketing fame.

You might not think that there’s a lot of crossover between comedy and medicine, other than giving Jeong his start in the comedy business, but he sees it differently:

Comedy and medicine are similar in that you have to be quick on your feet. You have to have technical knowledge of your craft, but you also need to follow your instincts. Comedy and medicine are both art forms that require discipline and improvisation.

His medical experience has also come in handy throughout his acting career. On All About Steve, Jeong helped the medic on set treat extras who had collapsed from heat exhaustion one day. While on set of Hangover Part II in Thailand, Jeong helped a friend of Ed Helms get treatment for food poisoning over the phone. Jeong’s latest crossover between his two professions is the currently running Dr. Ken, a half-hour ABC sitcom based on his experiences as a doctor; he created, writes, and co-executive produces the show, and stars in the title role. It’s so meta you might think it was a Community script. But just in case the acting work dries up in the future (not likely), Jeong renews his medical license each year, giving him one heck of a solid back-up plan.

Now that you know Jeong is one of our Secret Science Nerds, take to the comments to let us know other celebrities you’d like to see on a future profile!

Image: ABC

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