by Brian Clarey
The whole school was there — teachers, staff, even the sophomores as well as the entire graduating Class of 1986 at Page High School — and on the stage in front of them all, young Ken Jeong was about to have his first big moment.
Greensboro was different in 1986 — there were 100,000 fewer people, and a significantly smaller Asian population.
“There were not a lot of Asian kids at Page,” Jeong says by phone from a television studio in Los Angeles, where he’s putting the finishing touches on his new TV series “Dr. Ken.” “We had some Chinese and Taiwanese students in my class, but it wasn’t that many.”
He was a senior at the time, though he was just 16 years old, a husky Korean kid who admittedly spent most of his time worrying about getting into a good college. But he was popular in the way brilliant overachievers can be, and drew from a wide circle — he was active in the orchestra and student council, played varsity tennis and competed on the Science Olympiad team, served as president of the Key Club and was named an Outstanding Senior in the 1986 Buccaneer yearbook.
Even back then, Ken Jeong had mass appeal.
That’s probably why he was nominated for Mr. Buccaneer, Page’s annual male beauty pageant.
“I had never performed,” he said. “I was a little chubby kid. And during the swimsuit competition I did, like, a mock bodybuilder pose.
“I got a huge laugh,” he remembers.
Later he would get a standing ovation when he sang “Three Times a Lady” for the talent portion of the competition, and that sealed the deal.
“That,” he says, “was my dynamite moment, if you will.”
His father taught economics at NC A&T University, and from an early age, education was a priority in the household.
At Rankin Elementary in the 1970s, he tested out of second grade — “I really think I just told my dad I was bored, and I took a test and placed out of it,” he said. “I think I was pushed to excel by my parents, and even without the pressure, I internalized it and put a lot of pressure on myself.”
His success at Page took him to Duke University, where his pursuit of med school met with a small hiccup: He found the drama club. But his father advised him to stick with medicine and pursue comedy on the side.
After completing med school at UNC-Chapel Hill, Jeong went to New Orleans to finish his residency at Ochsner Hospital, where another brush with the funny business nearly took him off course again.
“The Big Easy Laff Off” was a live stand-up competition in New Orleans that combined the tried-and-true stand-up element of shows like “Evening at the Improv” with a game-show component that would become more popular on television in the years to come. Judges included Budd Friedmann, founder of the Improv, and legendary NBC President Brandon Tartikoff. Jeong won with the kind of smart material and self-deprecating humor that would come to define his standup. He took the prize — a trip to LA to perform at the Improv — and set up his medical practice there while honing his act in the clubs.
“I think I was gradually introduced to the big cities,” he says. “[New Orleans] obviously has its unique charms, and that was a good segue to big-time LA. I think I was introduced to big cities in an organic way.”