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Over The Moon: How Margaret Cho helped Ken Jeong choose comedy over medicine

Before he was an actor, Ken Jeong was a doctor. And he credits another comic for helping him overcome his “tortured” crisis.

Ken Jeong has had many scene-stealing roles in his second career, including that star-making turn in The Hangover trilogy and as the anarchic Chang in Community.

And while many know that he was a real-life doctor specialising in internal medicine while doing stand-up comedy on the side before choosing acting full-time in 2006, what they may not know is that it was fellow Asian-American comic Margaret Cho who really encouraged him.

“I was inspired by Margaret. I got my start in comedy because of Margaret,” Jeong told news.com.au. “When I was in medical school and being her opening act at university inspired me to do this full-time. I would always ask Margaret, ‘Should I quit being a doctor? Should I quit medicine?’.

“I was so tortured, and I know I annoyed her. And she was so patient with me and so loving. It was just like a sibling – and it got me through my own internal confidence crises.

“Margaret really is a pioneer in so many ways. Every Asian-American comedian owes a debt of gratitude to Margaret. Also, when I developed my own show, Dr Ken, I had Margaret as my character’s sister for a reason.”

Jeong and Cho reunite this week in Netflix movie Over The Moon, an animated film which tells a modern story based on an ancient Chinese legend about moon goddess Chang’e and her significance to Chinese cultures that celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Jeong voices a mythical moon creature named Gobi, who plays guide to young heroine Fei Fei while Cho voices one of Fei Fei’s aunts.

The film drops on Netflix this week and also features the voice talents of John Cho, Philippa Soo, Sandra Oh, Kimiko Glenn and newcomer Cathy Yan.

Over The Moon is an often strange, often tender and often musical movie pitched at families, but for the Asian diaspora community, it’ll have extra resonance.

Cho told news.com.au that she signed on for the role because it was “a beautiful story” that moved her while Jeong identified the film as part of a wave of change when it comes to Asian-American representation in Hollywood.

“I think the script and the story was so novel, and then also finding it’s an all Asian-American cast – like my dear friend Margaret and then John Cho, Phillipa Soo from Hamilton, Cathy Yan who really is a centrepiece of this movie,” Jeong said. “So you have this incredible Asian-American talent and on the heels of Crazy Rich AsiansSearchingTigertail and Always Be My Maybe, there is like a wave. And it’s really nice to have that wave extend to the world of animation.”

Over The Moon OFFICIAL TRAILER: https://youtu.be/P_zuK_pergw

Cho, who has been steadily working for almost 30 years, has been part of that wave when it was barely a trickle. She starred in the Asian-American sitcom, All-American Girl, in 1994, and it was another 20 years after its cancellation before US network heads took a gamble on another, Fresh Off The Boat.

Cho said she’s grateful that things are finally changing, having previously said that at the time of her series, she was given network notes that she was both “too Asian” and “not Asian enough”.

“It has taken so long for Hollywood to really acknowledge that Asian-Americans need to have a voice here,” she added. “I feel like there are comedians and there are actors and there are producers who are creating great work, and it’s really important that we support them. People are really hungry for them and they’re so excited every time they come out.”

Jeong said part of the change is that Asian-American artists have been creating their own opportunities.

“I remember when there was down time on the set of Dr Ken, Margaret and I would talk about All-American Girl and how this needs to keep happening.

“We need to keep creating content for ourselves. I want to keep creating projects within my community and it’s so fulfilling. Right now, I have my eye on several projects.”

While Over The Moon is centred on a Chinese fable, Cho and Jeong are both from Korean backgrounds. Korean culture has its own version of Mid-Autumn Festival, called Chuseok, which also took place about three weeks ago.

It doesn’t involve eating sweet moon cakes like depicted in Over The Moon, it does have its own rituals.

“It’s really like when you have to buy stuff for all of your dead relatives so that they don’t haunt you, that’s really the short version” Cho explains with a cackle. “My family is real casual about it. They’re like ‘Oh, they’re just dead people you have to do nice things for, don’t worry about it, we’ll do it for you’.

“That’s my mum, she’s just going to do it for me. Chuseok is sort of like Korean thanksgiving but it’s mostly where you get a big gift box of Spam. Spam has lots of different flavours if you didn’t know. There’s jalapeño Spam, garlic Spam and honey Spam. It’s really good!”

Jeong’s family also makes a big deal about Chuseok – even if his sister has to remind him to call their parents.

Asked if there’s a Korean legend either would like to see adapted onscreen for diaspora audiences, Cho nominated the origin myth of Korea.

“Do you know how Korea was created? Korea was created by a bear who wanted to become a beautiful woman. So the bear went into a cave and ate garlic until it became a beautiful woman, and then the beautiful woman became Korea.”

Jeong is on-board for this idea – “I think we should just work out the outline right now, Margaret. Get that bear involved”.

Cho mused: “Does the bear from The Revenant have an agent? Let’s hero that bear.”

Jeong replied: “I think it’s with Grizzlies Artists Agency. GAA!”

And with that, you know work featuring Asian-American artists is in good hands. Or should that be paws?

Over The Moon premieres on Netflix on Friday, October 23 from 6pm AEST

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