When “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered in 2015, only a handful of shows with a predominantly Asian American cast had ever aired in primetime — and none of them lasted long. But the success of that ABC sitcom, which spanned six seasons, 116 episodes and made it to syndication, finally inspired a long-overdue boom in series and films featuring Asian American leads — including “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” from “Fresh Off the Boat” producing partners Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar.
“Fresh Off the Boat” may have ended, but Kasdan and Mar — who have been based at 20th TV for more than a dozen years — are continuing to lead TV’s expansion in Asian American and Pacific Islander representation. As AAPI Heritage Month coincidentally gets underway this May, Kasdan and Mar currently have eight active TV and film projects, all showcasing different elements of the vast AAPI experience.
“It’s all part of the fabric of being American,” Mar says of the slate. “Every sort of American story has a specific that needs to be told. ‘Asian American’ is such a big term, with so many people a part of it. This is an opportunity to narrow down and tell [unique stories].”
That roster includes the action series “American Born Chinese,” an adaptation of the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, showrun by Kelvin Yu and starring Michelle Yeoh, currently in production for a January debut on Disney+. The duo has two pilots set up at ABC: The South Asian-themed “The Son in Law” from Ajay Sahgal, and “Josep,” starring comedian Jo Koy and inspired by his Filipino family. At Freeform, they have the pilot “AZNBBGRL,” from Natalie Chaidez and Dinh Thai, about young women in Southern California’s Vietnamese community.
Kasdan and Mar are also at work on Season 2 of Disney+’s “Doogie Kamealoha,” the reimagined take on “Doogie Howser, M.D.” from exec producer Kourtney Kang and starring Peyton Elizabeth Lee. Also at Disney+, Lee stars in the TV movie “Prom Pact,” which Kasdan and Mar are currently shooting. And at Netflix, the producers have reunited with “Fresh Off the Boat” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan for the film “Advantage Play,” starring Ali Wong.
Next up, Variety can break the news that Hulu is developing an untitled comedy from Kasdan and Mar starring comedian and “The Daily Show” correspondent Ronny Chieng, who has been tapped to play the new GM of the Brooklyn Nets. The story is inspired (but not about) real-life Nets owner Joe Tsai.
Chieng, whose credits also include “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” is a regular on “Doogie” and also pops up on “American Born Chinese.” “He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” Mar says of Chieng. “And Joe Tsai, who’s a good friend, that’s just another level of illustrating the AAPIs in America.”
That puts Kasdan/Mar projects on nearly every Disney platform, which Mar says was a goal ever since the conglom purchased 21st Century Fox and the 20th TV studio became an in-house supplier for Disney+, ABC, Hulu, Freeform and others. “There should be an Asian American show on every platform,” he says.
Adds 20th TV president Karey Burke: “They saw an underserved audience and an unrepresented population of creative talent and they funneled all of their creative energy and clout and passion toward getting this audience served and this talent seen. ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ didn’t happen by accident. It took vision and tenacity and belief and so much of that is because of them.”
Mar remembers growing up in Los Angeles and getting excited when newscaster Connie Chung, who back then was one of the few Asian American faces on television, would appear on his living room screen.
“There’s a tendency to think, did I check the box as an Asian American TV producer?” Mar says. “But it’s not about box checking. The biggest thing for me personally was realizing that my 9-year-old daughter is not going to have the experience that I had growing up — which was, not seeing myself on television. For as long as she’s been alive, there’s been [young ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ star] Hudson Yang on TV, or somebody like that.”
He adds of the new visibility: “That’s a cool feeling, and just makes me think that I have to keep pushing.”