Season 3 of “Fresh Off the Boat“ begins tonight (October 11) with the Huangs in Taiwan and the show on a very TV landscape than when it premiered in 2015.
Under tremendous scrutiny as the first show with an Asian-American cast since Margaret Cho’s 1994 sitcom “All American Girl,” the ABC family comedy based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s eponymous memoir gave many APIAs hope. In at least one show, Asian-Americans would not be desexualized, hypersexualized, caricatured or stereotyped. Instead, the story of a precocious, rap-obsessed Taiwanese-American boy growing up between cultures would acknowledge APIAs unique struggles and their erasure in the powerful medium that wouldn’t give them the time of day for decades.
While the show’s weathered criticism over its depictions of Asian-American experience, including some from Huang himself, it’s also garnered significant praise and become a platform for conversations about representation in Hollywood. In particular, actress Constance Wu, whose portrayal of no-nonsense mother Jessica Huang rebukes historic depictions of Asian women as subservient and voiceless, became a public face of the #WhitewashedOUT movement.
Melvin Mar, who executive produces the show alongside creator Nahnatchka Khan (“Don’t Trust the B**** In Apartment 23”) and longtime creative partner Jake Kasdan (“Sex Tape”) understands better than most how difficult it was to arrive at this moment. Having climbed the Hollywood ranks over more than two decades, he endured constant pushback against the idea of Asian-American lead characters. His perseverance through such upsets now pay dividends in the success of “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Speechless“—another Mar-produced comedy breaking new ground with star Micah Fowler, who has and depicts experiences with cerebral palsy.
Between filming for “Fresh Off the Boat” and the Kasdan-directed “Jumanji“ remake, Mar spoke with us about his Hollywood trajectory, America’s fraught racial climate and “Fresh Off the Boat’s” importance to Asian-American identity.
When did you realize you wanted to work in Hollywood?
After college, I was working a clothing store in Beverly Hills, folding pants—for Chinese immigrant parents, a disappointment [laughs]. A friend who worked there introduced me to her brother, a development executive for [Oscar-winning
”Platoon“ producer] Arnold Kopelson on the Fox lot. I became an intern for him, and even though I wasn’t being paid for anything, I was serious about it. I started out making copies, since everybody had to read their scripts on paper still. I also ran and got coffee and matzoh ball soup every day for Arnold. I didn’t know anything, and I think my answer for everything back then was to do everything really fast [laughs]. Eventually, I learned the ropes of being a Hollywood assistant, and [Fox colleagues] helped me get a personal-assistant job at Dreamworks where I saw “American Beauty” from spec script to an Academy Award. After that, I went to go work for Scott Rudin and met Jake Kasden, my creative partner. The internship, seeing a movie through at Dreamworks, working for Rudin—through it all, my parents doubted what I was doing. But I thought to myself, “I’m really deep in this, so I can’t really fail.”
While we can see a growing number of people of color onscreen, tracking progress in behind-the-camera diversity is more difficult. From your perspective, has there been a change?
For [a place] that is supposed to be on the forefront of change, it takes a moment for things to change in Hollywood. The idea of having minority leads [before 2015] was almost seen as a hindrance. Not to say that those movies weren’t being made, but if you mentioned that you wanted to do something with an Asian lead, there was always a pause. Now it’s totally different, thanks maybe to “Fresh Off the Boat” but also to “Dr. Ken“ and “Master of None.” Whenever I meet [people in Asian-American advocacy groups], I thank them because they’ve been working a long time to turn the ship around along with people like me who work in the industry. Executives and studios now get the message that diversity is important.
It’s difficult to basically have people tell you, “This story that has some resonance with your sense of humanity isn’’ going to sell.” How do you persevere?
You look for your spots. It sucks to hear a project with an Asian-American won’t work. There’s two way you can handle it: You can say, “Fuck this. I’m done,” or you can keep your head down, do some really great work and look for your opportunity.
I’ve always been sort of an entrepreneur and told no throughout my life. That’s how I built my thick skin. I’ve now since taken the philosophy that when someone tells you no, it’s only the beginning of the conversation.
Have you been able to use your power to give opportunities to people of color looking to break into Hollywood?
It’s something [my colleagues and I] think about a lot. We were the first Asian-American show out in nearly 20 years, and as I crewed-up for the first season, I noticed how few Asian-American comedy directors there were. One success story I’m very proud of is a woman named Jude Weng, who’s directed multiple episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat.” She came out of the ABC directing program that is very minority-focused within [parent company] Disney. Jude came and shadowed a bunch of episodes before we gave her one—she wanted to learn the rhythms of network TV directing, and she’s tremendous. Since then, we’re trying to find a way to diversify directors [at other networks].
“Fresh Off the Boat,” while being a watershed moment for Asian-Americans on TV, also came under significant fire—in no small part because of Eddie Huang’s accusations of the show Whitewashing his story. When you see these criticisms, especially given the reality of projects never quite looking how they’re originally envisioned, how do you respond?
None of us know what it’s like to have a sitcom made about our lives. With Eddie specifically, I love him to death, and he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. He’s my generation, and I don’t know many people in that generation who would have poured their heart out into a memoir. Everybody has a right to their criticism, which I think is what makes it great. I don’t begrudge it. All we can do is do the best version of [the show] as we possibly can.
Is it a victory for the show when folks like Constance Wu stand up against Whitewashing of Asians from big Hollywood stories?
It’s a victory for the show and our community. I applaud her so much. I think she’s one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. This is her first real gig in Hollywood—she’s worked a lot, but this is the thing that’s made her a household name in certain circles. To use it the way she has, I really applaud her. It’s awesome for Asian-American little girls to see that. She’s really one of a kind and never ceases to amaze me.
A major part of Eddie’s (played by Hudson Yang) identity, like so many Asian-Americans, is his relationship with American pop culture—specifically, Black culture and hip-hop. Given both historic tension and solidarity between Black and Asian communities in America, do you feel any need for “FOTB“ to dive into these issues?
For me, it’s where you grow up and what you identify with. The character of Eddie comes from a place of genuine appreciation with African-American music and culture. I was a hip-hop head and loved gangster rap. Everyone in the writing room is like that too. It comes from an authentic place for us, and it makes its way into the show. These are the things that didn’t get to be on network TV when I was growing up.
Does that authentic connection to hip-hop also reflect a desire to engage with contemporary racial tension?
I was thinking about this, catching the replay of the presidential debates and learning about everything in North Carolina [around the killing of Keith Lamont Scott]. I wondered, “Is history repeating itself to the ’90s?” Different set of circumstances, of course, but same sort of unrest. I lived around L.A. during the 1992 riots. I remember the Rodney King verdict, O.J., all of that stuff. It’s troubling, but at the same time, I feel like…maybe the right way to say it is that it’s something that has to happen in order for us to unify again. After the riots, in the ’90s, maybe we got a little too comfortable. But I think there’s a major problem with race relations in the United States, and what’s happening is deeply troubling.
Will Season 3 tackle any current social justice issues?
We have some stuff coming up where we talk about immigration in America. That’s one topic Nahnatchka and I thought we could talk about really well. When it comes to social issues on our show, we look for the right moments to do it where we don’t stand on a soap box, because nobody actually wants that. The first responsibility is to entertain, but we look for great moments to make a point. One of the episodes I’m most proud of is the one about the Long Duk Dong stereotype. When (Randall Park’s) Louis Huang talks about it, that was a big moment for me. When I grew up in the ’80s, I was teased about Long Duk Dong and held upside down on the playground to emulate a scene, and it’s a powerful thing to confront that on television.
So let’s talk about the Season 3 premiere, where the Huangs go to Taiwan. What can you tell us about that episode?
It frames a lot of Season 3. Nahnatchka and I were talking about what were the moments in our lives where we had big realizations of our identity. She shared about the first time she went to Iran as a kid, and I had a similar experience where I went to Southern China. I remember going to my parents’ ancestral village in the Guangdong province, and my great grandfather’s house was still standing. This was in 1997, right before the handover of Hong Kong. My mother’s attitude about it is very similar to Jessica’s in this episode, where she’s excited to go home. My parents always framed it as “going back to China” but I remember quickly realizing that wasn’t home for me. I was there for a while on that trip, and I was very uncomfortable [laughs]. I didn’t feel like I belonged there the way that my mother was telling me that I should. I really quickly realized that I wasn’t Chinese from China; I was Chinese-American. We wanted Season 3 to start with that idea, to tackle the issue of not belonging in Taiwan. You belong in America and you have to find your place.
How did you get the go-ahead to film in Taiwan?
When Nahnatchka and I went to the studio to talk about this desire to go to Taiwan, as you can probably guess, there was some hesitance [laughs]. [The studio asked] “Why did you have to do this in Taiwan? Can you do this in Chinatown?” All legitimate logistical questions. But we were passionate about it, and they let us take a trip to scout it out. I talked with a friend from Taiwan who is tapped into the Taiwanese film industry, and he really helped guide me through the government bureaucracy. It became very possible. We came back to the studio and said “We can and should do this, it’s the only series on network TV that can do this.”
“Fresh Off the Boat’s” third season premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.