'Fresh Off The Boat' Repackages The Asian-American Story For TV : Code Switch The TV show, based on Eddie Huang's memoir, retains some of the book's raw sensibility, but as he tells it, it's been a fight to keep his life's story from becoming a "cornstarch sitcom."
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'Fresh Off The Boat' Repackages The Asian-American Story For TV

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'Fresh Off The Boat' Repackages The Asian-American Story For TV

'Fresh Off The Boat' Repackages The Asian-American Story For TV

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When we last talked to Eddie Huang, it was about two years ago, right when his memoir, "Fresh Off The Boat," came out. Eddie is a kind of renaissance guy with a string of careers: lawyer, TV host, restaurateur. His book is raw and funny and sometimes profane - a really honest story about life as an Asian-American kid reconciling two cultures. Now that book is going to be a TV show, a network show on ABC, also called "Fresh Off The Boat," and it has retained at least some of that raw sensibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT")

EDDIE HUANG: (As himself) I was blow-drying my hair, and I figured it out - how the restaurant can attract bigger crowds.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Well, how?

HUANG: (As himself) I need to hire a white host. Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and saying, huh, I thought this was an Old West steakhouse, they see a white face and say, oh, hello white friend; I am comfortable.

MARTIN: That's a clip from the pilot, which airs in February. But getting to that creative place was difficult. Eddie Huang recently wrote about turning his book into a sitcom in New York Magazine. We invited him back and asked him why he chose to put his stories so intense and nuanced on network television.

HUANG: We all knew that, you know, this is going to be tough. It's going to be a fight. But I talked to my team, my agent, and I was like, if we go on cable somewhere - whether it's HBO, AMC - we're preaching to the choir. These people, they've already seen "The Wire," they've already seen "Breaking Bad," and a lot of these things have been said to people that understand it. But there's a real challenge, and there's a real benefit, to saying this to people on a platform that usually does not allow these voices to be heard.

MARTIN: What was the first compromise you had to make in making this story something that was going to work on network TV?

HUANG: Well, I wasn't able to write it, so that was the hardest one to swallow. And I held off signing my contract all the way until they were shooting the pilot. But my lawyer told me, he was like, if you don't sign, man, you're never coming back from this, and all the work we've done is for nothing. No one's going to work with you again. And he's like, you came for a reason. We decided to do this. Don't go back now.

MARTIN: So was there a point in the process that you said to yourself, this - no way, like, this - absolutely I will not compromise on?

HUANG: Yeah, yeah, there was a day I went in the writers' room - and, you know, it was always contentious when I went in the writers' room because I'm not one of the writers.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I imagine it was a little tense.

HUANG: Yeah, and the first few times, I'd show up and then they'd stop writing. And it was like show and tell. Eddie, tell us stories about your family. We'll take notes, and we'll use it. And it was OK. Then I just started feeling, you know, I don't want to just be the guy coming in, telling stories and then leaving an hour later.

MARTIN: And having no control over how it's interpreted.

HUANG: And having no control.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HUANG: So I started just - when I was at the studio for other meetings, I'd just walk in and park myself. And it got weird. It got really weird. But I was like, who cares? This is my story. And there was one time they had a joke in the script. They were trying to portray the Asian work ethic - telling young Eddie, you know, your grandfather worked so hard. He used to castrate hogs with a stick. And I was like, wait a second, who came up with the idea that my grandfather castrates hogs with a stick? And they're like, it's funny. It's, like, Asian. Like, you guys would slaughter pigs, and its savage. And I was like, this is yellow peril. I was like, my grandfather sold buns on the street. And my Gua Bao that I made in New York in 2009 is derivative of that. And there is a link between our two generations - three generations. And I was like, if you need to talk about him working hard, talk about him selling buns on the street with his entire family on a blanket.

And I said, we stand for something. And we're proud of it. And my families - they need to be respected. And it turned the room over. And it was one writer, and I was like, why don't you just tell a joke about how the buns are so hot, it burned the fingerprints off his hands. And, I mean, it's not my style of joke. It's not the voice of the book, but I was like, fine, at least it's not offensive. You know, you have people going out, talking about how proud they are of this show, and it's heartbreaking to sit in sometimes and see what people's first instincts and intuitions of you are.

MARTIN: You did write this long piece where if you didn't read the whole thing, you started to think that you were abandoning the process, that you were completely dismayed by what the network had done with your story. But in the end, it is a reflection on your own compromise and what we've been talking about. Could you describe the moment that you write about in the piece when you were at home, watching a football game and you saw the first promo for the series.

HUANG: Man, I lost it. I was watching the game on TiVo, and I was getting a few texts from people like, oh, shoot, you know - expletives, all expletives, just from my friends, all expletives, you know.

MARTIN: Because they were all watching the same football game.

HUANG: Yeah, yeah, we all watch the game. All of a sudden - I was under the influence, as well.

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: So I'm there in the massage chair, totally relaxed, and the logo comes across, and I was just like, oh, my God. This is happening. When you see it in the context of the Ohio State-Michigan game, a game you grew up watching the day after Thanksgiving, it's totally insane. And the only other time I can remember really feeling like, whoa, I'm part of America was when about Obama got elected in '08. You know, when I saw that, I was like, for all I've said about never having a chance and never fitting in and everything, it was worth it. It was worth it because it was enough of who we really were. And I still want to push more. And I will never forget, like, where I want us to get. But as a milestone, as a kind of like the quarter-mile mark, I was like, this is crazy. And it gave me hope and promise for how much further we can go.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, what motivated you to write that piece? Were you trying in some way to preempt some kind of criticism you were anticipating about the show maybe not going far enough?

HUANG: No, I want to encourage criticism. I really encourage it. And I think I'm pretty clear in the article telling people you have to come, you have to talk about this, because the article, the conversation, Asians coming out - when the voices are heard, they have to adjust, you know, because it's a business, and they are trying to sell to these markets. And when the markets are explicit about what they want and how they want to be represented and not represented, the studio and network will acquiesce. They're not on a mission to not represent us. They just don't know how to.

MARTIN: Eddie Huang, he's the author of the memoir "Fresh Off The Boat." That book has been turned into a network television sitcom also called "Fresh Off The Boat." His article appeared in New York Magazine. It was great to talk with you again, Eddie. Thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. It's always fun.

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