The untold truth of Fresh Off the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat was a breath of fresh air when it hit ABC in February 2015. The nostalgic, single-camera comedy set in 1990s Orlando is based on a memoir of the same name by chef Eddie Huang. A hit with critics and audiences, the sweet, insightful, and funny series about a Taiwanese-American family is the first series about Asian-Americans to air on U.S. television in more than 20 years, and it's made rising stars out of Constance Wu, Randall Park, and Hudson Yang. Here's a deep dive into Fresh Off the Boat.

The writing staff is wonderfully diverse

While a lot of TV shows have been called out for their disproportionately white male writing staffs and showrunners, Fresh Off the Boat has one of the most culturally diverse writing staffs on TV today–and probably ever. 

Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and told Southern California Public radio that the while the show is specifically about a Taiwanese-American family, the show to her is "about feeling like an outsider, feeling like you don't belong," adding, "so I put together the staff with that in mind." The show's writing staff includes "Indian-American writers, African-American writers, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean-American," as well as gay writers and a white writer who grew up in Hong Kong. Further, the show's staff is half women, which Khan says is "rare for a comedy writers' room."

The real Jessica Huang approves of Constance Wu's portrayal of her

Often when an actor portrays a real person, it's somebody from history, and to get the character down they must rely on written accounts, and some audio recordings. Constance Wu portrays Jessica Huang, a real person whose real life from only 20 years ago is the basis of Fresh Off the Boat. After Wu landed the role, producers gave her a link to a video of the real Jessica Huang reading the "Jessica Huang" lines from the pilot script. Wu used the footage to nail down an accent and mannerisms. "It's actually really funny because she's reading all my lines, but she's making commentary on them with facial expressions," Wu told Vulture. "You could tell some of the lines she does not like." 

Wu told the New York Times that Eddie Huang says that the real Jessica Huang approves of Wu's interpretation. "She likes it, and for the most part, likes my portrayal. But you know, to be honest this is one of the lovable qualities of Jessica Huang — she also doesn't really care. That's why it's so fun to play her. She doesn't really care what people think of her."

The show's cast and creators hilariously took down an insensitive reporter

Fresh Off the Boat often touches on the cultural clashes and outright racism experienced by immigrants to the U.S. During a panel at a 2015 Television Critics Association event prior to the debut of the show, the cast and its creative team faced some of that ignorance and insensitivity. The very first question came from a reporter (unidentified in news accounts of the event), who asked, "I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?" While the Fresh Off the Boat contingent could have called the reporter out for his remarks or yelled at him until he left the room, they instead eviscerated him with wit. "Yeah, we got some chopsticks," star Constance Wu replied. "Yeah, we got a lot of chopsticks," Eddie Huang added. "Wait till Episode 5," creator Nahnatchka Khan said. "It's all about chopsticks." 

Amazingly, the reporter didn't know when to be quiet and reworded his question: "Will there be more about the culture or is it more about the becoming more American?" The actors and creatives couldn't let him off the hook. Huang told him that "It's more about the chopsticks." Randall Park joked that the original title of Fresh Off the Boat "was Chopsticks."

It's the first TV show to ever have a Chinese New Year episode

Hundreds of TV shows have featured Christmas episodes, Thanksgiving episodes, Halloween episodes, Valentine's Day episodes, and other holiday-themed episodes. There's even a Charlie Brown Arbor Day special. Perhaps because there's only ever been a handful of TV shows in the U.S. to focus on Asian-American characters, a show has never produced an episode about one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world: Chinese New Year. 

With its episode in 2016, Fresh Off the Boat made TV history as the first American show to base an episode around that celebration. The episode, titled "Year of the Rat," is in line with the show's premise of a family that often feels like it's struggling to fit in. The Huangs try to fly to Washington, D.C. to spend the holiday with family, but a problem with their airline tickets leaves them in Orlando, where they try in vein to find an authentic celebration. 

ABC almost nixed the theme song

The young, fictionalized Eddie Huang loves hip hop, and so does the adult, real-life Eddie Huang. He asked rapper Danny Brown to write and record the theme song for Fresh Off the Boat. It totally makes sense, but some honchos at ABC didn't like the idea of a rap theme song for the sitcom. "They're like, 'Oh we're worried about what Middle America will think,'" Huang told the Los Angeles Times. The "brass" was worried that the aggressive song would lead viewers to turn out. "You know what? If they tune out, f*** them," Huang added. "You can't get everybody." Huang ultimately won the battle and Brown's theme song went in–a song that Vice said is probably "the greatest theme song since Cheers."

There were massive viewing parties for the first episode

To commemorate the first sitcom about Asian-Americans since the brief run of Margaret Cho's All-American Girl in 1994, Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang (and father of the show's star, Hudson Yang) organized a viewing party for the first episode of Fresh Off the Boat. He wrote that he expected "many dozens of people" might be interested, so he needed a space "larger than [his] apartment," and found a willing host in Circle NYC, a hot club in Manhattan's Koreatown neighborhood. 

Many dozens indeed showed up: more than 1,000 people in all. Even Eddie Huang and Randall Park turned out. Out in Los Angeles, Phil Yu, who runs the popular blog Angry Asian Man, and comedian Jenny Yang hosted a huge, public viewing party, too. The theater was full before the event even started. During an open discussion with the audience, one attendee said, "This is f***ing huge. We're watching a sitcom that's not making Asians out to be 'the others.'" Yang said, about the show and the event, "I almost feel like some black people did when Obama got elected." Viewing parties continued for other episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, both at Circle NYC and elsewhere.

Randall Park felt he wasn't right for his part

Fresh Off the Boat makes for more diverse television, but its creation underscores a deeper, systemic problem with Hollywood: there are so few Asian-American actors that TV shows and movies can't always cast in a culturally accurate way. For example, Randal Park, a Korean-American actor, plays Taiwanese-American Louis Huang on Fresh Off the Boat. Park (best known for The Interview and on Veep) was at first reluctant to take the role. He told Vulture that he approached Eddie Huang and said, "'I don't know if this is right. I don't feel right playing this character.' But he was so supportive, and the fact that it was his father that I was playing, and I remember him saying, 'No one else can play this part but you.'" I really took that to heart.

Park added that he still has doubts here and there, but hasn't gotten "any flak" from the Taiwanese-American community to speak of, but that in "an ideal world, you won't see a Korean-American playing a Taiwanese character."

Eddie Huang wanted to do an episode about domestic violence

While the show is based on Eddie Huang's adolescent memoir Fresh Off the Boat, the show has veered away from the source material, establishing its own "world," as opposed to relating Huang's actual experiences. In a piece for New York magazine — which ran the week Fresh Off the Boat debuted — Huang explained that while he understood why the show had to be broad and friendly, he was frustrated with how some of the characters were presented. Specifically, he said that that Randall Park/Louis Huang was "neutered" and Constance Wu/Jessica Huang was "exoticized." 

Huang also really wanted the show — a family-friendly sitcom on a network owned by Disney — to go a bit darker and address domestic violence. Huang told the Hollywood Reporter that it's "one of the biggest issues this country faces now," and that it's something he experienced firsthand and wrote about in his memoir. "They tried to take my brother away and my parents away from my family because of domestic violence, and it's something I really struggled with as a kid. It's formed a part of my psyche." The show's producers never did make an episode like that.

Eddie Huang picked Hudson Yang to play his younger self

Portraying Eddie Huang on Fresh Off the Boat is only the second on-screen credit for Hudson Yang. Despite that lack of experience, he was perfect for the role, according to an authority no less than the real Eddie Huang. After seeing him audition, Huang thought Yang had the kind of "DGAF" attitude he was looking for. "Hudson had a natural kind of orneriness to him," Huang told the Wall Street Journal. "He didn't seem to care," if he got the role. "Hudson is comfortable in his own skin, and he's not overeager to please. That's rare in a 12-year-old."

Eddie Huang disowned the show, and then quit narrating it

Fresh Off the Boat became its own thing very quickly — too quickly for Eddie Huang. While he was often outspoken about his displeasure with the series based on his book (and in turn based on his life), the chef and writer went on a bit of a Twitter rant in the middle of the show's first season. He admitted that he doesn't watch Fresh Off the Boat, but that he's "happy people of color are able to see a reflection of themselves" in the show. However, he didn't like where the show went, claiming that "it got so far from the truth that I don't recognize my own life." He lamented that the comedy didn't "speak from pain" the way that Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. had done in their work. The disconnect was ultimately too much for Huang to reconcile. While he narrated the show's first season, he didn't return to that capacity in season two.