Comedy is a serious business.
Seriously funny, as the obvious joke goes, but also seriously impactful if done the right way. Among the shows that are both is the new ABC series “Fresh Off the Boat.” The series is remarkable for a number of reasons, but the most significant is that it’s the first sitcom in 20 years to center around Asian American characters.
I remember its predecessor not entirely fondly. It was 1994’s short-lived “All-American Girl” starring comic Margaret Cho. That series was indeed historic, but also disjointed and disappointing. It was, in short, a mess, and Cho admitted as much and has spoken at length about the difficulties of being a trailblazer on network television.
The two decades that followed that show brought Asian American actors into casts of popular, high-profile shows from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Community,” “Lost” to “Elementary,” “The Walking Dead” and more. South Asian actress Mindy Kaling is now in the third season of her excellent comedy series, “The Mindy Project.” But she remains one of very few Asian characters on screen.
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So now, into that void, comes “Fresh Off the Boat.” The series is based on the memoir of the same name by celebrity chef and restaurateur Eddie Huang, who wrote about his Orlando, Fla., childhood. The Huangs are a first-generation immigrant family from Taiwan whose three young boys were all born in America. It’s 1995 and the family has recently moved from a large Taiwanese community in Washington, D.C., to the mostly white, suburban Florida to open a steakhouse.
The humor in “Fresh Off the Boat” manages to be both specific and universal. Unlike “All-American Girl,” which failed by being too bland and over-generalizing, this new series allows its humor to come from a more authentic place. But mostly it just works because it’s funny.
Better yet, the comedy is wrung not from the fact that the Huangs are Asian (absolutely no “me so solly” jokes), but from its depiction of the way people not born in America see our customs and traditions. What is normal to us is strange to them. And together we realize how goofy things can seem to outsiders, so we laugh at ourselves.
Like when Mrs. Huang (played with standout brilliance by Constance Wu) takes her son to a large grocery store with a giant neon sign that reads Food 4 All!!! and says, “What is this store so excited about?”
What indeed. Maybe Big Lots! knows.
A series like “Fresh Off the Boat” also gives an underrepresented group (dude, it took us 20 years to get another show) a place in the prime-time landscape. No show should be tasked with or could possibly attempt to perfectly represent the entire Asian American experience. But having the Huangs on our TVs matters in ways large and small. For some, the Huangs’ journey toward the American dream will mirror their own. For others, it will be the simple thrill of finally seeing someone onscreen who looks like them.
But, again, the reason everyone should watch is still simple. “Fresh Off the Boat” is funny, and that will never need any translation.
Elsewhere around the Scene:
Fans of the show “Looking” or of seeing Modesto on television should tune in to the HBO series on Sunday to see the two collide.
The fictional series about a group of gay men living in San Francisco will feature the Central Valley city in its next episode. Two of the show’s regular charaters, Dom and Doris, are best friends who grew up together in Modesto. They return, with series star Jonathan Groff (formerly of “Glee”) when there is a death in Dom’s family.
The cast and crew were in Modesto for two days in October to film the episode. Groff, Murray Bartlett (who plays Dom) and Lauren Weeden (who plays Doris) all came to the city and filmed at, among other places, the Modesto arch, a fruit stand on north McHenry Avenue and at the pool of the Clarion Hotel.
The episode, called “Looking for a Plot,” will air at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.