In 1994, Margaret Cho broke new ground by becoming the first Asian American to helm a sitcom which featured mostly Asian Americans. Though it was supposedly inspired by her stand-up act, the decidedly unfunny show was quickly subsumed by executive meddling and was axed after 19 episodes.
No show with a heavily Asian-American cast made it on air again until this past fall’s “Outsourced,” an NBC comedy set at a call center in India. Though the primary lead is a white guy, the cast is primarily of South Asian descent. Reviews have been mixed, but ratings have been good enough for NBC to give it an entire season run.
Now in Atlanta, creator and lead writer Will Hollins is trying to mine humor from Asian-American culture in a sitcom he’s calling “The Chin Chens.” It focuses on a family with three children led by a Chinese American father and a Vietnamese-American mom. They own a successful chain of nail salons and Chinese restaurants.
“I felt the Asian community didn’t have a proper voice on broadcast television,” said Hollins, a Mississippi-born African American who once ran a local recording studio and has been working in TV and film the past decade.
Vickie Eng, an Atlanta actress who plays the mom, thinks the show could be “like ‘The Cosby Show’ was for African Americans. The family is wealthy and educated. It brings core family values, Asian values. We hope to be funny while doing it.”
The show started production this week at Hollins’ Bright Ideas Entertainment company in Norcross. There, the actors gathered to go through the first scripts and learn their way around the sets, which cost $325,000 to erect.
Hollins will direct the first two episodes and Debbie Allen, the choreographer and TV producer known for her work on 1982’s “Fame” TV series, will direct some future episodes, according to Tom Nguyen, a University of Georgia graduate who plays the son on the show and is helping tweak the scripts to ensure they have a proper Asian-American feel.
There are no big name actors along the lines of Cho. Some, like Eng and Vince Canlas (left), have years of experience with credits on shows such as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Drop Dead Diva” and “Good Eats.” Others, like Nguyen, are neophytes.
Nguyen said more than $3 million has been raised to fund the first 13 episodes, mostly from Chinese and Vietnamese investors.
“The Chin Chens” has a year-long commitment from a small Denver-based non-profit cable outlet Colours TV, available on Dish Network. That network has a relatively small viewer base so Hollins hopes to get the show on a bigger network once they film a few episodes. From there, he hopes to leverage success on a U.S. network to big licensing fees from international syndication.
Hollins also has another project in the pipeline: an inter-racial family comedy called “My Parents, My Sister & Me,” which features Robin Givens. (Jasmine Guy initially joined the show but quit partway through.) Ten episodes have been shot and he hopes to get three more in the can.
Jeff Yang, who writes a pop culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is an expert on Asian-Americans in media, said Asian Americans have become more prominent in TV comedies of late, notably Ken Jeong on NBC’s “Community.”
He also likes “Outsourced.” “The actors are talented and there are good writers,” he said. “They are allowing things to develop as characters to stand alone as a source of humor, not just their ethnic nature. The show could be a lasting hit.”
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