“It’s only fitting that my show should be eaten by one of its children,” says Dan Harmon with a wry smile. As the creator of Community, Harmon cast Ken Jeong and gave him the opportunity to grow as an actor — so much so that Jeong was able to create and star in his own show, Dr. Ken. And now the roles are reversed: Harmon guest-stars (along with Community alum Alison Brie) on the Season 2 finale of Jeong’s show. During shooting, we spoke to them about Community‘s influence on Dr. Ken and whether the fictional Dr. Ken will follow in the real Dr. Ken’s footsteps.
“At some level the show was always to reflect my life,” Jeong says. “It’s about a person’s journey leaving — and potentially considering leaving — a 9-to-5 job to pursue something else.” But he credits Gillian Jacobs and her guest spot with the push to cast Harmon. (Almost all of the Community cast has now guested on Dr. Ken.) Jeong pitched Harmon the idea of having him play, essentially, himself, and casting Jeong on, essentially, Community — making the show less of a metaphor for his life and more of a meta reflection.
“As a producer on the show,” says Jeong of Harmon, “I really am in love with him as a performer right now.” Though not known for his onscreen work, Harmon cut his teeth doing improv comedy in Milwaukee and knows how to sell a joke. During the rehearsal process, Harmon did a lot of improvising, much to Jeong’s delight: “I’d go back to the writers’ room and me and my writing partner, we’d literally just write down all of Dan’s [alternate takes].” Harmon sees it differently. “I’m just trying to punish him,” he deadpans as Jeong laughs. “I just showed up and started saying random words.” In truth, though, he takes the job of acting seriously. “I won’t lecture you on why it’s a madman’s job, but I have the deepest respect for people that do it for a living.”
Harmon credits much of the success of Community, as well as the cast’s post-Community success, squarely on the actors. “Joe and Anthony Russo — who executive-produced the pilot and directed it and had a huge hand in the casting — I learned the whole time from them about the art of casting.” Harmon says he focused on the content of the show, but it was the Russo brothers’ eye for “people with that star quality” that made the series special. “They were the ones who said, ‘Put Donald Glover in the show. It doesn’t matter if the part seems tailor-made for him; just put a star in your show and we’ll figure out what his character is later,’” says Harmon. “We did the same thing with Ken. They were pushing for stuff like that the whole time. ‘Put Alison Brie in your show. We’ll figure something out with her Mad Men [schedule].’”
The lessons Jeong took away from Community were twofold. First, as an actor, he says, “I always look at Community as my postgraduate work, my acting school.” While much of his work on the sitcom involved slapstick and physical buffoonery, he was also stretched in ways he had never been before. Jeong confronted Harmon and asked for something more grounded. The notoriously contrary Harmon replied, “Just eat this pine-cone sandwich for Uncle Dan and I promise you, next episode, I’ll write you a scene where your daughters will cry.” True to his word, Jeong says, “he literally used pockets of that email that I wrote him and put that in the scene. And to this day, I still get choked up about it.”
Harmon isn’t the only one with advice for Jeong, though. “I remember Todd Phillips [director of The Hangover] told me — as a producer, not as an actor — ‘You wake up. You get into 10 fights. And you go to bed.’” As a producer on Dr. Ken, Jeong knows what it means to be intimately invested in a show. “Every little detail matters to me. Everything. Whether the viewer knows it or not, it matters to me,” he says. “You would think as the lead of a show you have all the time in the world. Saturdays and Sundays, I obsess about details that I shouldn’t obsess about, but I love it. This is my only opportunity ever to do it. I have no regrets.”
So what happens now? If there is a Season 3 — Dr. Ken hasn’t received an official pickup yet — will Ken Park follow in Ken Jeong’s footsteps and give up his medical career? Probably not … or at least not yet. “I love this character,” says Jeong of Harmon’s role. “I want to bring this character back next season as a patient.” Of course, Harmon has different plans. “What do you mean, as a patient?” he says with comic severity. “I’m your new boss. You can’t write your way out of that. Now that I’ve tasted this life, I’m just setting up shop here, man.”
The season finale of Dr. Ken airs Friday, March 31, at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.