When you go to see a standup, the emcee will usually introduce the comedian by mentioning a few of their career highlights — more often than not, famous venues or comedy festivals at which they’ve performed.
Ken Jeong’s recent Netflix special, You Complete Me, Ho, opens with the emcee rattling off his film and television credits, which is an ominous (but appropriate) introduction, given that Jeong is known by most as an actor, and not as a standup, where he began his entertainment career.
Perhaps it’s natural, then, that the special is so preoccupied with Jeong’s filmography — for long stretches, it feels less like a comedy special and more like a career retrospective, as Jeong name-drops his way through his IMDB page, punctuating his stories with “bitch” like he’s Jesse Pinkman. Comedians, of course, pull from personal experience to find and highlight the absurdities they see in the world, but based on this performance, Jeong’s life consists mostly of working, meeting famous people, or being recognized for playing Mr. Chow in The Hangover, which is fine, but not the most compelling ground upon which to tell jokes.
As for those jokes — whether prepared or riffed, they largely center around self-deprecation about his Asian-ness, and fit in with the stage persona he honed as a standup in the 90s and early 2000s, merging his goofy, unintimidating look with hip-hop culture (which also explains the dual meaning of the special’s title, as his wife’s maiden name is, in fact, Ho).
This type of Asian appropriation of hip-hop and urban culture feels familiar to me (and, I suspect, to many Asian-Americans coming of age in the 80s and 90s), as for a lot of us, we felt a kinship with other minority communities, emulating and looking up to their cultural icons as Asian-Americans had almost none of our own during that time (I mean, we had Margaret Cho, and Jimmy Iha, and The Joy Luck Club, I guess, but that’s not a whole lot).
For better or worse, Jeong’s performance often feels like his comedic POV was preserved fifteen years ago and unfrozen for the special. He’s Tokyo Breakfast in human form. Of course, it makes total sense — Jeong has been pretty busy with his film and television career over the past decade (which he takes great pains to remind us of), but given how far Asian-American representation has come (and, perhaps more crucially, how far it still has to go), the jokes (and ultimately, the special itself) feel of another era, representing the middle ground between Long Duk Dong and Ali Wong, when we had to find our place in other cultures or rely on self-deprecation rather than celebrate ourselves.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about You Complete Me, Ho is that there is a thread, a hint of a throughline, that, had it been workshopped and honed and sharpened, could have brought the house down, as Jeong’s ultimate message about life being short lines up perfectly with his story of being in The Hangover while his wife was being treated for cancer, and along with one of his favorite self-deprecating jokes (I won’t spoil it, but it won’t be very hard to guess what it’s about), he had all the elements he needed for a killer fucking closer. And if Jeong had enough time to properly work on this show (at one point, he refers to notes on stage, which is something every comedian does, but traditionally not during a filmed special that is meant to be a finished product), I absolutely believe he could have gotten there.
But like the emcee reminded us up top, Jeong is a very busy actor (and has, in fact, already booked another TV pilot), which means that regardless of the success of this special, people will probably continue to recognize Jeong more as Mr. Chow, naked Asian, than as Ken Jeong, comedian.
Header Image Source: Netflix