When comic actor Ken Jeong is tempted to laugh onstage, he thinks dark thoughts. "I'm pretty good about not breaking," he says. Except with Alison Brie, "Annie" in NBC's Community. "She's a silent killer."
The last time Jeong had to resort to dark thoughts was on the set of The Goods, with Jeremy Piven. "[Cast members] David Koechner and Charlie Napier went on this extended rant and my character was just observing. It was the first time ever I was reprimanded for laughing. [Director] Neal Brennan had a megaphone, and he said, 'Ken, stop laughing. We are running out of light.' "
Laughter is Jeong's life now, even if he is fairly new to the screen and arrived there in a highly unorthodox fashion. Jeong was a practicing doctor until three years ago, a general practitioner at Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills.
Now he's known as the doctor who delivered Katherine Heigl's baby in Knocked Up, the guy who got naked in The Hangover, and the Asian Spanish teacher on Community. Oh, and he recently completed filming Furry Vengeance and The Zookeeper.
Jeong had early dreams of pursuing a career in comedy but decided to take the practical route after graduating from Duke. He applied to med school. "It was a tough decision. My parents weren't well off by any means, and I wasn't on a scholarship so I really felt like I owed it to myself and my family to stick with what I started, to just see what happens afterward."
Once accepted at the University of North Carolina, he started doing stand-up comedy on the side. Jeong completed his residency in New Orleans, where he also won the Big Easy Laff-Off and the judges suggested he move to Los Angeles for a career.
Jeong did move to L.A. but went to work at Kaiser. Asked how he managed to practice medicine and pursue acting simultaneously, Jeong says he believed what his med-school counselor told him: "You will be a great doctor because you are a great comedian, and you will be a great comedian because you are a great doctor."
But as a physician, he didn't try to be funny with patients. "You needed something much deeper than that. Although it does help — you can handle a head clerk, you can handle a difficult patient. Those skills viscerally will help. I never came in an exam room with an arrow through my head and a clown nose and, you know, said, 'You got herpes, but I got your nose!' "
Jeong spent seven years seeing patients at Kaiser, then caught a break in an audition for a specialized role. "Judd Apatow was looking for an actor with medical experience." Before Jeong knew it, he was shooting a 10-minute improv with Heigl and Seth Rogen on the Knocked Up set.
When given the chance, Jeong eagerly pops out his iPhone and shows photos of his twin daughters — Alexa and Zooey — who turned 3 in May. He met his wife, Tran Ho, a family practitioner, at Kaiser. Jeong occasionally brings his brood to the Community set, he says, and enjoys testing the limits of his daughters' humor barometers.
"Zooey is almost exactly like me as a comedian," he says. "As a joke, I had her sit in one of the classrooms on the set of Community, while I was in my Señor Chang garb, and I just berated her. I said, 'Get off of my set right now! You farted and I've had enough.'
"She knew I was kidding."