‘Fresh Off the Boat’ stars and producers on race, conflict and comedy

Midway through the press tour panel for ABC's “Fresh Off the Boat,” actress Constance Wu argued, “Progress arises out of conflict, not out of pretending everything's hunky-dory.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” – the first network sitcom with a predominantly Asian-American cast in 20 years, since ABC's “All-American Girl” with Margaret Cho – is a clear sign of progress, as well as one of the funnier comedies debuting over the next few months. (Its first two episodes air on Wednesday, February 4, before moving to Tuesdays at 8 on February 10.)

It's also a show with a fair amount of conflict.

Yesterday, New York Magazine published a first-person essay by Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir on which the show is based, and serves as both a producer and the adult narrator of the '90s adventures of young Eddie (Hudson Yang). The essay goes on at length about his discomfort with the attempt to homogenize his life experience to make it more palatable to a white audience, at one point accuses executive producer Melvin Mar of being an “Uncle Chan,” and wonders if showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, who is Persian-American, is the person who should be telling his story.

“I began to regret ever selling the book,” he writes at one point, “because 'Fresh Off the Boat' was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network”s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?”

The essay, which runs 3600-odd words, ends with Huang making peace with the compromises necessary to turn his book into a TV show, but the inflammatory nature of so much of it guaranteed it would come up during the panel.

“Melvin, he's been my guy on the whole thing,” Huang said. “We hate each other, but it's been great. I really genuinely feel, when you do something that has to do with race relations, there has to be conflict, there has to be debate. Our judicial system is based on adversarial debate, and truth comes out of that… Me and Melvin, we argue. Me and (actor) Randall (Park), we talk. Me and Constance, we find the silver lining. We're all fighting for this. This is not an easy show to make.” 

“I was thrilled when I read the article; I just found the source material for my next TV project,” Khan joked, before insisting, “I really value Eddie's voice in the process. The fact that we're here is an historic thing, I always value free speech… He's the heart and soul of the inspiration for the show. To have somebody who's always there and really coming from a place of just wanting to make everything better – that inspires everybody. That inspires me, inspires the writers, I imagine the cast. Comedy to me, you can never be satisfied, otherwise it feels stale. I appreciate it.”

A critic asked Khan about the above passage in the essay where Huang questions her qualifications to tell his story – which prompted a very heated debate between the critic and Huang about what exactly that passage was about, until the critic finally read it aloud – and asked for her reaction to it.

“For me, I related to this when I read his memoir,” she said. “The specifics were different to my growing up experience, me being Persian-American to him being Taiwanese-American, but I really related to the immigrant experience of the show. Being first generation, and having parents who weren't born here – that, to me, was my access point. When you take something from the source material that is such a strong voice, and you try to develop it for a broader audience, and make it a family sitcom for broadcast TV, you need a lot of different access points. And that was mine. Feeling like you don't belong, and trying to figure out the rules, and trying to help your parents figure out the rules, almost being a scout going out in the world and reporting back to them what you see – to me, that's what a lot of people are going to relate to. And if you've ever felt like you don't belong, or like an outsider for a reason, that's what you're going to relate to.”

Huang said that ABC's publicists “even told me not to talk about immigrants or race or anything today, but the thing I want to make clear is I absolutely feel we should have more writers of Asian-American descent in the writers room. But I do not debate Natch's ability at all to do this show. Because if you watched the pilot episode, that's one of the most proud things we have in Asian-American culture in America.”

The fact that it's been so long since “All-American Girl” – a bad behind-the-scenes experience Cho has written and performed about extensively – suggests it's long past time for a show like this, as did an uncomfortable moment early in the panel when a reporter (not a TCA member, but someone credentialed by ABC) asked, “I love the Asian culture, and I was just talking about the chopsticks. I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?” (The cast – and the TCA – looked mortified, but then Park joked, “The original title was 'Chopsticks,'” and Wu added, “But 'Chopsticks' was too controversial.”)

Asked why the TV landscape is now right for a show like this – and on a network that's committed to ethnic diversity with “Black-ish,” the Shonda Rhimes Thursday bloc and more – Huang said, “Asians have money. You want the money, you make things for them… People are really sick of watching things that are just for the middle, mass consumption things. People want specific stories. That's what you're seeing on Amazon, Netflix. That's what we're doing here.”

“That's what we're doing here,” Khan added, “but in the broadcast version. We're telling a specific story that hopefully has universal appeal.”

At one point, the show's young actors were asked about what kind of roles they've auditioned for previously, and they said it was usually to play nerds.

“For so long, the Asian kid is the nerdy kid, or the crime lab technician sending out the blood results,” said Khan, to which Park added, “Played it!”

“Look at these people,” Khan said, gesturing to her actors. “This is amazing… they're just playing flawed characters, and funny, relatable characters That's what we're trying to do. We're starting the conversation, and hopefully people will pick it up and keep it going.”