Ken Jeong has been many things, including — for a number of years — a doctor and secret stand-up comedian. However, the moment he leapt naked from the trunk of a car in The Hangover and fearlessly made his anatomy one of the movie’s biggest (or smallest?) laughs, he became a legitimate comedy star. Sure, Jeong dabbled in a little scene-stealing in movies like Knocked Up and Role Models before, but the delightful/sadistic Mr. Chow made him someone the entire world could agree is friggin’ hilarious.

Since then, Jeong has given up his medical career to focus on acting, landing the wonderfully diverse role of Senor Chang on Community and popping up in seemingly every movie from The Muppets to Transformers 3. Through it all, Jeong has kept returning to his personal favourite character and breakout role as Wolf Pack baddie Mr. Chow. This week, The Hangover III concludes that R-rated franchise of booze, laughs and regret, and TORO got a chance to chat with the lovable Jeong about wrapping up his favourite role, working with a variety of famous filmmakers — and not making people laugh as a doctor.

So, were you a funny doctor, like a non-annoying Patch Adams?

No, actually I was really serious. I keep in touch with some of my patients and none of them knew that I did stand-up as a hobby. In fact, 10 years ago when one of them found out I did stand-up comedy they said, “I’m so happy for you because you were so serious I was kind of worried about you.” They thought I was too intense for my own good. I think everyone was surprised. I wasn’t Patch Adams, I didn’t come in with a clown suit. Surprisingly enough, I was a very intense doctor.

Who were some of the comedians who inspired you at that time?

Well, I grew up loving Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and David Letterman. For some reason those three guys stick out. I’m obviously nothing like them, but there was something about their sense of fearlessness that I admired. Then, later in life, I admired people like Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Sacha Baron Cohen, and their commitment to scenes. And honestly, Zach Galifianakis and I have been friends going on 15 years and even when we were doing stand-up together, he was always the funniest guy in the room. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll go on Funny Or Die to watch Between Two Ferns and I’m friends with the guy. I’ve worked with just about everybody in comedy and nobody makes me laugh harder than Zach. I told him recently, I’d give up my career to be his Ed McMahon and just laugh at him for the rest of my life.

So do you play around and improvise with him a lot in The Hangover movies since you’ve been friends for so long?

Oh yeah. Zach is the quickest wit and improviser I’ve ever worked with. There are so many funny things that have turned into outtakes. There’s one that’s in my mind right now from the second movie when Chow is doing a pound of cocaine and says, “you wanna hear the funniest fucking joke of life” and then passes out. I was lying there dead and couldn’t move and then Zach said, “I don’t get it.” So I’m lying there in a pool of liquor and couldn’t control myself. He’s still one of those guys like a favourite comedian growing up where you watch him walk into the room and start to laugh just waiting for him to do something funny.

Since Mr. Chow has grown from a fairly minor role in The Hangover to the centre of The Hangover III, could you talk a little bit about how you developed the character over the three movies?

For me, the seeds were planted in the first movie where, honestly, it was my idea to jump naked out of that trunk [laughs]. It was my main contribution. I remember reading the script thinking the scene was crying out for Mr. Chow to be naked. And I’m not an exhibitionist at heart. I just put my sport jacket on, I’m not looking to take clothes off. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t take his shirt off at the beach. But I did feel that as an actor who inhabits a character that had to happen. I think that bonded me with my director Todd Phillips early on. He was amazed that a guy like me who was only working on the movie for a few days was willing to put himself on the line like that. I think it definitely encouraged Todd and Craig Mazin the screenwriter to widen the spectrum of Chow in the sequels knowing that the actor behind it has as vivid of an imagination as they do.

You really seemed to push that to the limit this time.

[ Laughs ] Yeah, and I have to really credit Todd Philips for that because Chow’s the only character who can go that over the top. In this movie, since Chow has such an extended role, Todd really helped because I would often go for something bigger and he would rein me in. Like the karaoke scene, you give any actor a microphone and they are going to try and kill it – that’s just the ego and the natural instinct. Just like any actor my instinct was to go, “OK, I’m going to knock this out, sing it great, maybe get a Grammy.” And then Todd was like, “What are you doing? Chow has to be vulnerable right now. He needs these guys to see he’s desperate. Don’t you think it’s more interesting if he can’t sing well in public and gets locked up.” So that was all Todd’s suggestion for me to be that guy singing his favourite song and knowing he did such a bad job that he swats away the microphone. That’s why he’s my favourite director who I’ve worked with. He’s so specific and knows comedy and tone so well.

How would you compare working with Todd to Judd Apatow or Michael Bay?

Well you just highlighted three of my proudest career moments. Knocked Up was the first movie I’d ever done. I was still working as a doctor and I think it was actually Seth Rogen who saw my audition tape and told Judd about me. I was such a big Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared fan and showed up for the table read with the entire cast of both shows. It was essentially my second audition and suddenly there’s everyone and Judd and the studio head. It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done. Everyone who is a superstar now was in the room, so I just remember being starstruck. It was a dream come true just to be there. Knocked Up opened the door and then The Hangover just burst those doors wide open. After that my life changed from black and white to technicolour like that famous quote from Keith Richard talking about Chuck Berry. It was the same feeling. Everything I’ve done since, including Community, came from The Hangover.

And then Michael Bay, we’ve become friends actually. He was a big fan of The Hangover. He saw it with his best friend and told him, “I gotta put that guy in the next Transformers movie.” Then a few months later I had a meeting with Michael and he told me that he wrote this role with me. I couldn’t even believe I was in Michael Bay’s office. There was this big Bumble Bee from Transformers beside me and everything there was just so big! [laughs] I had so much fun working on that movie. It was a career highlight for me because I never imagined being in a sci-fi blockbuster. You know, to work with a Decepticon, that was insane. Then we had so much fun working together that he wrote a role for me in Pain & Gain. Honestly, one of the biggest career bonuses was getting to work and becomes friends with Michael Bay. So really, those three guys got me where I am. I love them all.

How is working on Community? Senor Chang isn’t exactly the sanest character either.

I think Chang is a more pathetic version of Chow. Chow is a well-dressed badass, Chang wears his Spanish Fly. People ask me all the time who would win in a fight between Chang and Chow. Chow would physically eat Chang. Chang is a bit more difficult to nail down because he has been so many different characters. Sometimes I wonder myself, “OK, where are you guys going with this?” But I never complain because Community has been my Acting Studio, in a way. I’m glad I wasn’t Professor Chang for four years. That would have been boring. And I’m glad I wasn’t student Chang for four years or security guard Chang. Every year I get to learn how to play someone new. One of the dangers of television is being stuck playing the same guy for 10 years and no actor really wants that. I’m just glad I’m a part of something where every year, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I love that element of danger because it’s made me a better actor. I have so many different stashes of emotions now.

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