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

Eddie Huang is a is a renaissance man with a string of careers: lawyer, TV host, restaurateur and author. His raw, funny and sometimes extremely profane memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, came out two years ago. It's a brutally honest story about his life as an Asian-American kid, reconciling two cultures.

That book is now an ABC sitcom, also called Fresh off the Boat. The show has retained at least some of that raw sensibility, but getting a story so nuanced and intense onto network television was very difficult for Huang.

They're not on a mission to not represent us. They just don't know how to.

"The network tried to turn Fresh Off the Boat into a cornstarch sitcom, and me into a mascot for America. I hated that," Huang wrote for New York Magazine. "This show isn't about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won't take that gamble right now."

An extended version of that article appears on

But in the end, he tells NPR's Rachel Martin, Huang feels reconciled with the show. "As a milestone, as a kind of quarter-mile mark ... it gave me hope and promise for how much further we can go," he says.

"It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word 'chink,' yet it works because it's the safest bet the studio could have made."

Fresh Off the Boat premieres on Feb. 4.

Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of taking a sensitive subject to network TV

We all knew it was going to be tough, it's going to be a fight. But ... 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.

On not being a writer for the sitcom

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, 'If you don't sign, man, you're never coming back from this, and all the work we've done is for nothing.

On a time he wouldn't compromise with the network

There was a day when I went in the writers' room — and it was always contentious when I went in the writers' room ... 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?' They were like, 'It's funny! It's Asian! You guys slaughter pigs and it's savage!' This is yellow peril. I was like, 'My grandfather sold buns on the street. ... We stand for something. My family, they need to be respected.'

On seeing a commercial for the show during the Michigan-Ohio State football game

I lost it. I was watching the game on TiVo, and I'm there on 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 really insane. The only other time I can remember feeling, like, 'Whoa, I'm part of America,' was when Obama got elected.

Why he's taken his criticism of the show public

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. Because it's a business and they're 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.

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