PASADENA, Calif. — Eddie Huang, whose 2013 memoir about his Taiwanese family’s American experience is the basis for ABC’s upcoming comedy “Fresh off the Boat,” went on the defensive Wednesday during a TV critics’ panel about the show.
Huang’s defensiveness came on the heels of a Very Long Essay written by the chef for New York magazine. In the piece, Huang described a rocky road bringing his book to the small screen, saying he even regretted selling the rights at one point. (The Very Long Essay ended with him being satisfied — for the most part — with the final product.) He called out one of the show’s producers who wanted to make what Huang described as “A Chink’s Life … With Free Wonton Soup or Soda: A reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen … The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo go gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane.”
Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan (“Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23”) is the Persian-American he was referring to. She was seated on stage with Huang, along with the producer he mentioned in the New York piece (Melvin Mar) and the show’s cast.
A reporter asked Khan to respond to Huang’s questioning of her pick to write the show instead of a Taiwanese or Chinese scribe.
“That’s actually not the point of the article,” Huang said, to which the reporter replied that he wasn’t asking Huang the question.
“I’m debating your reading comprehension skills,” Huang continued before going off on a bit of a nonsensical tangent about the framing of the reporter’s question and things like that being the reason the EPA doesn’t have to talk to scientists anymore. “Of course, people’s opinions change and metamorph.”
“If there was a point in that article where you went back and said you were wrong, I didn’t read it,” the reporter replied. (A different reporter who claimed to love “the Asian culture” got things off to an uncomfortable start by asking whether we’ll see more chopsticks in the series.)
Khan kept a cool head throughout and didn’t seem upset about what Huang had written. She said she didn’t need to be of Taiwanese or Chinese origin to relate to Huang’s broader story about being an outsider in America.
“When I read this memoir, the specifics were different to my growing up experience …. but what I related to was the immigrant experience of the show — being first generation, and my parents weren’t born here … that to me was my access point. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong, like an outsider for whatever reason, this show is a show you’re going to be able to relate to.”
Huang said he hadn’t interjected in order to protect Khan.
“Nahn doesn’t need me to protect her,” he said.
“Publicity told me not to talk about immigrants or race today,” he said. “But the thing I wanted to make clear is I absolutely feel that we should have more writers of Asian-American descent in the writers room. I do not debate Nahn’s ability at all to do the show.”
How did Khan feel about the voluminous essay?
“I was thrilled when I read the article,” she quipped. “I just found the source material for my next TV project.”
The showrunner ended the matter saying she values Huang’s voice — and free speech, “especially with everything that’s happening now.”
Randall Park, the actor who plays Huang’s dad in the ’90s-set sitcom, portrayed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in “The Interview,” the recent flick that sparked the Sony hacking scandal.
“Nobody wanted to sit next to Randall on set,” joked Khan.
Earlier in the day, ABC chief Paul Lee defended the network’s adaptation of the book and reiterated his love of Huang, whom he called “a firebrand.” (For what it’s worth, Huang refered to the British head of ABC head as a “big Asian homie,” eliciting laughs from the ballroom full of reporters.)
“We’re not making a BBC documentary about Eddie’s life,” Lee said. “What we’re making is what I think is a really great comedy.”
“Fresh off the Boat” debuts at 7 p.m. Central Feb. 10 on ABC.