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Ken Jeong with tongue out
Ken Jeong urged the audience to make some noise in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The crowd obeyed. Photo by Shawn Rocco

10 Minutes With Ken Jeong

'I’m just living proof of doing what you love, and now, I want to keep cultivating the art of loving to give back.'

Ken Jeong ’90 is an international TV and movie star, and a very proud Duke alumnus. He was a self-professed “late bloomer,” starting his professional entertainment career after years working as a physician during the day and practicing his stand-up comedy skills at night.

He got his big break in “The Hangover” movies and parlayed that into a role on the sitcom “Community” for six seasons. Then there was his own sitcom, “Dr. Ken,” then “Crazy Rich Asians,” then “The Masked Singer,” and now he’s on just about every screen you lay your eyes on.

Jeong has given back to Duke a lot recently. He has volunteered on campus at several events and gave two different gifts to the university to support Duke Arts and financial aid. In January, Jeong emceed the Duke Centennial Kickoff Celebration, where he absolutely rocked – jokingly hyping a “Kentennial” that would follow. While in Durham for the centennial event, he sat down for a conversation with DukeMag.

DukeMag: As a young man, when did you first think you could attend Duke?

Ken Jeong: I didn’t know if I would get into Duke. I don’t think I was ever confident like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna go to Duke.” That was the dream, to go to Duke, because growing up in Greensboro, the ultimate dream would be if I could be close to home – an hour away – and then go to a school where it doesn’t feel like home.

For residents of North Carolina, it does feel – in the best way – like another wonderful universe, and that was amazing because then I could just go home over the weekend, or my parents could come over real quick. There was also that sense of home, and then – “Oh, now I have two homes.” It was really nice because the campus here is just the most gorgeous campus in the world. I’m biased, of course, but that’s honestly how I feel.

DM: How did you spend your time away from the classroom and studying while at Duke?

KJ: Honestly, that was the bulk of it because when I was a zoology major, and most zoology majors go pre-med, so really, I was pre-med, but that’s not an official major at Duke. For me, the adjustment – I went to a public high school in Greensboro, and then you’re going to literally a top 10 school, if not top five, or top three, or No. 1.

So, the learning curve was so steep for me, especially my freshman year. You get humble quickly, and then, I think your character is defined by how you respond to that learning curve. And so, I just made adjustments and got more organized. You work harder, you study earlier, you develop better habits, you get more disciplined, and then you get really into the art of learning.

There’s two ways to look at it – to be intimidated and to retreat, or to be inspired – and I think I was inspired by that. And then, you just enjoy being around great minds; it becomes fun. I think that’s the biggest life lesson I learned at Duke.

DM: You credit Duke with awakening your love for performing when you took an acting class. Why didn’t you pursue acting then?

KJ: By the time fall semester sophomore year rolled around, I was just like, “Maybe I’ll just try an intro to acting course.” Once I took that acting class, it was immediate. I was in love with acting, in love with comedy, no doubt. I was smart enough to be a critical thinker and just, “What are my chances?” and that it would be frustrating. So, I was weighing all these pros and cons. It wasn’t just following your gut and your dream. It was really also applying critical thinking as well. It was hard, but again, I was only 18. It was really, really tough.

A lot of things led to me being an actor full-time, but it started at Duke, and it’s something where I’m approaching show business and the entertainment business in my own unique way.

DM: Is that why you feel so passionate about Duke?

KJ: I’m beyond passionate about the arts department at Duke, just to give that awareness and spotlight. There was a student recently who told me – there was a Duke Arts block party that I hosted back in September, and a student told me, “I came to Duke because of you,” and she’s in the arts. She’s like, “I came to Duke because of comedy, because you do comedy,” and that moved me.

I have two organizations that I’d literally just do anything for. It’s Duke and Stand Up to Cancer, my wife being a cancer survivor for 15 years. This is just what I do. It’s a part of my own fabric, and as I get older, it becomes even more gratifying. It really does, man. I get a charge out of this. I get a charge out of being involved in the centennial, in any aspect. I don’t have to be the host. They could just have me just in any capacity. I think that’s part of it, too. There’s that sense of teamwork at Duke and the bigger picture.

DM: Does it feel like it makes a bigger difference to volunteer and give financially to Duke now, while you’re still working in the public eye?

KJ: Just by coincidence, there were two Duke students who came to a “Masked Singer” taping. They had some sort of independent semester where they chose L.A. to study film. I just remember during taping, I was talking to them for an hour backstage. Things like that really move me. You want to do things, especially for students, that can be impactful, and I feel like that sends a very powerful message. “He’s currently working, and he’s currently very passionate about what he’s doing and where he’s coming from, and he wants to pay it forward.” There’s something to be said about that.

DM: So you really feel that this is an optimal time of your life to give back, even though you are super busy?

KJ: Yeah. I think it’s because I’m in my mid-50s, so I’m older, and I’m more established in my career. When “The Hangover” first started – keep in mind, I only quit my day job maybe two years prior to it. So, there’s that impostor syndrome that you get.

I was 40 when I got famous, but in my head, it happened very fast, especially from an abrupt career change. I did not expect that good fortune to happen ever, much less that quickly. So, it’s a little frightening because conventional wisdom says you’re just going to be a flash in the pan – enjoy it. All I wanted to be was a character actor. I was not setting out to be famous, and I think that was the key. That’s something that I think my parents and Duke instilled in me.

DM: Are you still in love with acting?

KJ: I’m doing acting because I love it. I still remember, in my intro to acting class, doing monologues and improv scenes. It was amazing. It didn’t feel like work or stress to me to do a monologue. I was always excited. It was like putting on a play for everyone, so I felt like I was performing. It was putting on a show. It didn’t matter who the audience was. It’s a big deal to me, and I’ve never had that for anything else.

DM: You have kept your medical license current. Why make the effort to do that?

KJ: Honestly, it’s more of a reminder of where I came from. I’m not actively practicing. I don’t have a desire to actively practice. It’s a hard-won skill, and it’s just a reflection of that, to me, more than anything. Being in entertainment, you can lose yourself a lot, and you can lose a sense of perspective – of who you are – it’s very dizzying, especially when you first become famous. So, I did find myself subconsciously trying to cling to things that would just keep me grounded as much as possible.

DM: What’s next for you professionally?

KJ: My goal personally is just to keep working. I’m happiest when I’m working because you don’t know if you’re going to do entertainment for a living – what you love to do, what you’re born to do – so the work is the reward. Honestly, I just still get excited when I get offered any movie. You still get excited when people are calling you. Dave Bautista’s a friend of mine. He calls himself a dream chaser, so we have that dream chaser kind of mentality.

DM: It sounds like you are very comfortable being Ken Jeong, with all the many things that entails.

KJ: I’m just living proof of doing what you love, and now, I want to keep cultivating the art of loving to give back. I think that’s part of the cycle of life for me. This is a personal journey for me. So, when someone is thinking of giving back to where they came from, to me, it’s all about authenticity. Why are you doing this? Why am I coming back to do these activities? Why am I now having endowments in my name?

This is all under the umbrella of telling my own story and, as I get older, finishing my story. As someone who’s a storyteller for a living, this is all about the journey, to finish your story.