By Dino-Ray Ramos
Asian Americans don’t have as strong of a presence on TV as the African American or Latino communities. Asian Americans don’t have a Tyler Perry figure to crank out movies and TV shows to cater to the black community, nor do they have a George Lopez to appeal to the Latino community. That’s why it’s kind of a big deal that “Fresh Off the Boat” got picked up by ABC for their fall lineup. We haven’t seen an Asian-driven sitcom on a major network since Margaret Cho fronted an all-star Asian cast in “All-American Girl” in 1994. Loosely based on the memoir of the same name by chef/personality Eddie Huang, “Fresh Off the Boat” is said to be cut from the same cloth as Chris Rock‘s sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris“—but with Asian people, naturally.
Surprisingly, there are no big marquee names to sell the show. The cast includes relatively unknown actors: Hudson Yang takes the role of the Eddie Huang character while Constance Wu, Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler, and Randall Park play the rest of his Taiwanese American family who open a steakhouse in Florida. The show follows the formula of an immigrant family trying to achieve the “American Dream,” but with a 21st century style of TV storytelling…and it takes place in the ’90s. To add to the Asian American wattage of the show, Nahnatchka Khan (“Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23″), the show’s writer and executive producer, is of Iranian descent. They recently added another Asian American, Kourtney Kang (“How I Met Your Mother“) as the co-executive producer of the show. To have Asian Americans in front of and behind the camera makes “Fresh Off the Boat” an even more groundbreaking show.
It’s been a good 20 years since we have seen an all-Asian American cast. Perhaps it was because of the mixed reception “All American Girl” received when it was first released. America wasn’t ready for that much Asian yet. But networks started to slowly introduce Asian Americans into the TV zeitgeist with supporting characters and bit parts. Now, TV has a heaping dose of Asian Americans on TV in roles that range from comedy to action to drama. It only makes sense to re-introduce the idea of an Asian American family driven sitcom. With that in mind, here are some Asian American characters that blazed the trail in TV history leading up to “Fresh Off the Boat.”
The Early Days
In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Asians started to pop up on the small screen. Anna May Wong was dubbed as the first Asian American to gain international recognition and the first Asian American actor to get her own series in 1951 called “The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong,” which aired on the now defunct DuMont Television Network. She was the lead in the series about a crime-solving gallery owner. Unfortunately, the series was canceled and no copies survived.
In the late ’60s, the great Bruce Lee starred in the TV adaptation of the popular radio show, “The Green Hornet.” Lee played the title character’s sidekick and pretty much sold the show because—well—he’s Bruce Lee.
Probably one of the most recognizable Asian actors from early television is George Takei. Now a Internet celebrity and fanboy favorite, Takei was cast as Hikaru Sulu in the “Star Trek” TV series in 1965.
The ’70s brought about Asian American actors in comedy roles. Pat Morita starred in the later seasons of the iconic show “Happy Days” as Mitsumo “Arnold” Arcola, the owner of Arnold’s Drive-in. He also went on to take the lead in the “Welcome Back Kotter” spin-off Mr. T and Tina as well as Blanksy’s Beauties. In “Barney Miller,” a sitcom set in a New York police station, Jack Soo starred as the wisecracking Sgt. Nick Yemana. Unfortunately, Soo died of cancer during season five of the show and was honored with a special episode.
The ’80s and 90s
More and more Asian Americans started to sprout on TV shows during the ’80s and the ’90s. There were mostly small roles, but they culminated into a significant benchmark in Asian American TV. There seemed to be a trend in popular sitcoms to cast little Asian American kids as best friends. In “Full House,” Nathan Nishiguchi played Harry, Stephanie Tanner’s BFF and Naoka Nagawa played Kim Ogawa, one of Rudy’s many buddies on “The Cosby Show.”
In 1987, the world was introduced to a little show called “21 Jump Street.” The show about undercover police officers busting high school criminals not only made Johnny Depp a heartthrob but it gave us the wonderful Dustin Nguyen as Officer Harry Truman Ioki.
Of course, how could we forget about All-American Girl. The show premiered in 1994 and was the first sitcom about an Asian American family starring Margaret Cho, Amy Hill, Jodi Long, Clyde Kusatsu, and B.D. Wong. The show only lasted one season. The show was met with mixed reviews and if you watch Cho’s stand-up film, I’m The One That I Want, you will hear some of the troubled waters Cho and her co-stars had to navigate. One interesting factoid Cho divulged was that the show actually hired on an “Asian consultant” to make sure the show was Asian enough.
The New Age of Asian American TV
Now in the 21st Century, we have way more Asian Americans in starring roles. We have big power players like John Cho (“Flash Forward,” “Go On,” “Sleepy Hollow” and the forthcoming “Selfie”), Lucy Liu (“Ally McBeal,” “Southland,” “Elementary“), and the aforementioned B.D. Wong (“Oz,” “Awake,” “Law & Order: SVU“) continuing to have successful careers. We also have Mindy Kaling who not only writes and stars in “The Mindy Project.”
A simple IMDb search will show that the Asian American presence on TV has increased exponentially since the ’50s. Seasoned actors like Tamlyn Tomita is still going strong with “Teen Wolf.” Same can be said for Ming Na-Wen who is a strong female lead in “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” And let’s not forget the plethora of Asian American actors who have lent their acting chops to TV dramas: Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy“), Grace Park (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Hawaii 5-0“), Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0″), Yunjun Kim (“Mistresses,” “Lost”), Masi Oka (“Hawaii 5-0,” “Heroes”). Sendhil Ramamurthy (“Heroes,” “Beauty and the Beast“), Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”), Kal Penn (“House”).
Successful TV comedies also have included some talented Asian American actors: Danny Pudi (“Community“), Aziz Ansari (“Parks & Recreation“), Liza Lapira (“Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23″), Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”), Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz (“Glee“) and Rex Lee (“Entourage“). This recent and impressive amount of talented Asian Americans in comedy probably pried the door a little bit more open for “Fresh Off the Boat” to be made.