Rage, mania and disinhibition are the common factors in Ken Jeong’s comedy. That’s whether he’s springing naked from the boot of a car in The Hangover and landing crotch-first on Bradley Cooper’s mouth like the face-hugger in Alien. Or stalking the stage at the start of his new Netflix special, making slow-motion masturbatory hand gestures, his fingers miming the spray of ejaculate in his fans’ faces. Far from being offended, the crowd squeals delightedly, recognising it as the trademark of Mr Chow, the camp, motormouthed gangster played by Jeong in all three Hangover movies, which cemented his move from physician to jobbing comic to film phenomenon and ensured that, should he so choose, he could leave behind the standup circuit for ever.
And yet here he is, back on the road again after a decade of film and television success, and heading to London for his first UK date a few weeks shy of his 50th birthday. “I never, ever want to quit standup,” he tells me from his home in Los Angeles, his default tone one of grave and emphatic humility. “Standup has become a deeply personal journey for me, and I’m very grateful to have the career I do.”
If that sounds like an implausibly strait-laced response from the man who named his Netflix show You Complete Me, Ho, it’s important to know that the last word in that title is not a misogynistic epithet but a reference to his wife, Tran Ho. It is her experience of breast cancer – she has been cancer-free now for 11 years – that lends weight to a set that would otherwise be dominated by callbacks to Jeong’s movies, shout-outs to famous chums (there’s a meeting-Obama anecdote) and war stories from his medical days.
Twelve years ago, he stole several scenes as a volatile doctor in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up before going on to play assorted uptight child-men, including the taunting, short-fused Spanish teacher Señor Chang in six seasons of the smart-aleck sitcom Community, and a petty tyrant who dresses as a medieval king in Role Models. He had a cameo in the romcom Crazy Rich Asians and created his own autobiographical sitcom Dr Ken. When that was cancelled in 2017 after two seasons, he found himself itching to return to his comedy roots. “I missed writing and creating stuff. Through doing Dr Ken I learned to write personally – we’d even done an episode inspired by Tran’s cancer – and I wanted to bring that into my standup.”
Something else has changed, too. Compare Jeong’s performing style and material from 20 or even 10 years ago (much of it is still accessible on YouTube) and there is a marked softening of tone. It may partly be that we now know him better: it’s hard to feel intimidated by someone who has not only flailed around naked on screen but also seizes every opportunity to draw attention to his own supposed shortcomings. It was his wife, after all, who predicted that The Hangover would be a feelgood hit because the most insecure male viewer would consider himself well-endowed compared with her husband.
But it’s more than that. Jeong’s jabbing delivery has lost some of its off-putting aggression, and his language now is more considered. “When I started I had 15 strong minutes. I was on the bill with Adam Sandler at the Improv, and when you’re opening you have to fight to survive.” Two decades ago, he compared and contrasted various Asian accents, describing the more elaborate Vietnamese delivery as “kinda faggy”. The rudiments of that routine have endured into the Netflix special but without the homophobia; now he says that the Vietnamese sound like “Koreans on weed”. (Jeong was raised in North Carolina by Korean parents, and refers to Koreans as “the hottest-tempered of all Asians”.)
In another early joke, he recalled being inundated as a doctor with hypochondriacs who were convinced they had cancer. His remedy, he used to say, was to prescribe chemotherapy for all. “No, no, no,” he shudders when I ask if he would include that gag today. “Never ever. My wife and I have talked about that. You evolve as you go along. And comedians, like all people, should be allowed to do that. In the days of social media, that’s all changed. But I believe we should be given space to evolve our viewpoints and our philosophies. As triumph and tragedy strike us, we do change. I certainly have.”
One significant alteration in his life has been material, as he reminds his audience at regular intervals. “I live in Los Angeles – the rich part,” he boasts, while another joke begins: “Even if I wasn’t rich and famous, which I am …” He hoots when I point out this tendency. “Oh my God, I love doing that! I’m not that rich really. I’ve done it sometimes when I’ve performed with much wealthier comics – Ray Romano or Chris Rock – and it tickles me no end. I’m sure I’ll lean on that in London if a couple of jokes don’t go so well. I’ll just say, ‘It’s OK, I could buy this whole theatre …’”
• Ken Jeong is at the Adelphi theatre, London, on 23 June.