When Fox announced last month that its new singing competition “I Can See Your Voice” would launch this fall behind Season 4 of smash hit “The Masked Singer,” it surprised almost everyone. While most programs were still investigating how and when to get back into production during the pandemic, “Voice,” which debuts Sept. 23, had already wrapped an entire stealth shoot by early August.
The network’s secret weapon? Ken Jeong, the comedian who may be the most ubiquitous face on Fox this season. Jeong is the centerpiece of what Fox has now jokingly dubbed “Kensday,” a Wednesday lineup that includes both “Masked Singer,” where he serves as a panelist, and “I Can See Your Voice,” which he hosts.
As the rest of Hollywood now gets back to work, Fox credits Jeong’s physician bona fides for giving them a bit of a head start. By now, pretty much everyone knows the star’s background as a real-life doctor — Jeong even toplined the ABC sitcom “Dr. Ken,” inspired by his previous career. The comedian’s involvement in both “Voice” and “Masked Singer” gave cast, crew and other stars a bit of comfort knowing that the safety protocols on set were good enough for him.
“Ken is really tough on anything COVID-related because he wants to protect his family and everyone else,” says Craig Plestis, an executive producer on both shows.
Jeong hung up his stethoscope nearly two decades ago, after “Knocked Up” and “The Hangover” turned him into a household name. But the star says his medical background has been reawakened a bit this year in light of the coronavirus.
“It was really the most surreal experience filming anything in my career,” Jeong says of “Voice.” “I had to go into host and comedian mode on camera, and then off camera, I had to go back to being a doctor and really just kind of think medically, think of safety. I would take my own steps as well, and I really think that helped set the tone.”
On set, Jeong says he befriended the occupational health reps from WorkCare, who were there to administer regular COVID tests, enforce social distancing and regulate the different zones where crew was stationed. “It was important to me that not only the lead talents were safe but every single crew member was safe,” he says. “It really is so scary out there, and easy to slip. I was the one really saying, not to be a Debbie Downer, but that we have to finish safely.” (They did just that; the show wrapped without any positive COVID tests.)
Beyond COVID, Jeong was already tackling a new challenge with “I Can See Your Voice.” Although he has fronted awards shows and been a guest host for talk shows such as “Ellen” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” this represents the first time Jeong has served as a regular TV emcee. Plestis says Jeong was his first pick for the new show.
“Ken is my good luck charm; he’s Fox’s good luck charm,” Plestis says. “He’s new to the hosting gig, but he took charge and he owned it.”
Like “The Masked Singer,” “I Can See Your Voice” is based on a South Korean format (in this case, from entertainment company CJ ENM). On the Fox show, a celebrity panel — including Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Bailon-Houghton and a rotating roster of guest stars — assists a contestant who’s been tasked with figuring out who’s a good singer among a group of performers. After sifting through clues, asking questions and witnessing lip-sync challenges, the contestant makes their selection, who then duets with a famous musician. With a $100,000 prize on the line, the contestant then learns whether their chosen singer actually
Jeong says his mother, a “Masked Singer” fan who convinced him to join that show, is also an “I Can See Your Voice” viewer and again advised him to take the job. While “Masked Singer” is a bit of a lark, with celebrities competing for a trophy, there are real stakes and the potential for a life-changing prize for the players on “I Can See Your Voice.”
“There’s been one moment in particular on an upcoming episode of ‘I Can See Your Voice’ that might be one of my favorite moments of my career,” he says. “I get choked up thinking about it — something I had no idea was possible on a game show.” (Sorry, no spoilers!)
Jeong says the biggest creative challenge on the new show was finding the right tone, but he was inspired by seeing how “The Masked Singer” evolved into a pop cultural phenomenon via a similar feel-good approach to reality TV. Heading into Season 4, the hobnobbing among Jeong and fellow panelists Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke is almost as much of a draw as the costumed celebrities themselves.
“The chemistry is just off the charts,” Jeong says. “We just know each other’s rhythm so well. No one else can probably talk to Robin Thicke like I can. We have a very unique bond.”
McCarthy Wahlberg says the byplay has naturally developed over the years. “So I think that’s what you’re seeing and what we feel,” she says. I’m totally OK screaming at Ken that he’s an idiot. And I love him, but because our friendship is so tight now, we feel so much more freedom to just have fun with each other, and none of us take it seriously.”
“The Masked Singer” came at a perfect time for Jeong, who was still nursing the wounds over the cancellation of “Dr. Ken” after two seasons. Not only was “Dr. Ken” about his life, but it was a deeply personal affair: He’d run scripts by his wife, Tran, who’s also a physician, and even cast his daughter Zooey in a recurring role.
“I was devastated,” says Jeong, who was also an executive producer on the show. “If anyone wants to know who I am as a human being or what I think about my family, just watch old episodes of ‘Dr. Ken.’ Because that to me is creatively, the most fulfilling thing I feel like I can leave my mark on. And when that went, that particularly stung.”
After six seasons of “Community” followed by his all-consuming two years on “Dr. Ken,” Jeong says he’s not sure when he’ll be ready to return to scripted episodic TV. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate that,” he says. “Do you want to create another ‘Dr. Ken’? I don’t know, because I created one and that got canceled. To go through that again, I don’t want to do that unless I’m 100% sure, and 100% passionate of what I’m doing.”
Jeong’s still plenty busy, and immediately bounced back with parts on “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Avengers: Endgame” before hitting the unscripted jackpot with “Masked Singer.”
“People just swarm to him; he is so approachable,” says Fox alternative entertainment president Rob Wade. “He’s got a phenomenal work ethic and a great morality. He’s been a huge rock throughout this whole COVID situation not only because he is a doctor but also because he’s a good human being.”
Even now, Jeong still marvels at the career path that led to Kensday. “It was not a goal of mine to buckle down, work hard in college, go to med school, be a doctor, do my residency for three years, work full-time as a physician, so I could quit it all and correctly guess the Unicorn is Tori Spelling,” he quips. “I never thought that would be possible in life. But somehow that happened. And I’m a better person because of it.”