What’s the Success Factor for Asian American Comedians?

Margaret Cho has been trying to break through in comedy for years. After the failure of her show All-American Girl, she formidified herself in stand-up comedy where she has been trying to reach mainstream fame for years with debatable success and has tried many promotional methods but has still not managed to achieve it. Ken Jeong, on the other hand, is arguably more well-known, famous, and successful with numerous mainstream film and television roles. While both Korean-American comedians perform similar raunchy, vulgar, and provocative humor, gender, class, and types of roles are perhaps the distinguishing factors of why Margaret Cho has not yet reached the level of mainstream success as Ken Jeong.

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Margaret Cho frequently employs extremely raunchy humor about sex and race. Her vulgarity might hold her back as attributed to her gender whereas Ken Jeong’s humor can be seen as just as vulgar, offensive, and racial, yet it doesn’t seem to be holding him back. When I first tried to pick out why Margaret Cho wasn’t as successful in the mainstream, I thought perhaps it could have been her material and vulgarity. But then I realized many other celebrities such as Ken Jeong and Richard Pryor are much more successful in the mainstream with the same level of provocativeness. It is a noteworthy observation and perhaps gender ideology prevented Margaret Cho’s success while maybe Ken Jeong’s gender helps mainstream America accept his vulgarity.

Ken Jeong was a practicing physician that graduated high school at 16 and went on to attend Duke University for his undergraduate education and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for medical school. He has an extremely high IQ and played violin and was elected to student council in high school. Margaret Cho, on the other hand, failed and was kicked out of high school for poor grades. This is a rather significant difference in class and cultural hierarchy. Ken Jeong’s background is well-known and he frequently refers to his doctor profession in his routines. He also plays a fictional doctor in several of his acting roles. Perhaps audiences respond better to their perception of what intelligence is, and what they symbolically infer about the discourse of class and status from it. Perhaps Ken Jeong’s fitting of the “model minority” makes him a more “authentic” and “legitimate” Asian-American comedian.

The roles that Ken Jeong takes on perhaps also contribute to his mainstream success. In his notable film and television roles, he’s never the main role; always a supporting role. He is also very often typecast as a “weird” Asian male and very much so fits the common role of a male Asian American. His roles in Community and The Hangover films are always that of the “other,” the extremely oddball and sometimes emasculated Asian male. Margaret Cho, on the other hand, tries to take on more main roles and if she is not successful through that channel, perhaps that says something about what mainstream audiences are ready or not ready to see in a leading role with that kind of humor. While Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was criticized for extremely stereotyping Asian American-ness in her own show, Ken Jeong finds praise and success for portraying the Asian male character that most are familiar with and still looking for. For his nude scene in The Hangover, Jeong jokes that his “small penis brings in the big bucks.”

Both these Asian American comedians have tried to make their way to mainstream Hollywood with Ken Jeong arguably having more success at it. Many factors can contribute to this but perhaps it is gender, perceptions on class, and stereotyping roles that land Ken Jeong the big roles while Margaret Cho has struggled for years to make a big breakthrough in TV and film but has found her niche in stand-up comedy where she has also not been able to reach as big of a mainstream audience as she initially wanted. Perhaps how a comedian fits in to society’s ideologies on race, gender, and class can greatly influence their success in the long run.

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