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Fresh Off the Boat is one of the best new comedies. Its producers seem to be at war.

Hudson Yang plays the young Eddie Huang on the new sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
Hudson Yang plays the young Eddie Huang on the new sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, debuting next month, is one of the season's freshest, funniest new comedies. Using Eddie Huang's memoir as its basis, the show explores growing up Asian-American in a community that's majority white, and it does so with equal amounts of laughter, heart, and guts. It goes beyond its '90s nostalgia trappings to get at something real about feeling alienated from everybody around you.

The first episode's climax, for instance, involves one of his classmates calling the young Eddie (Hudson Yang) a racial slur, and it cuts to the quick, slicing through the inherent artifice of comedy to get at the frustration and anger Eddie feels in that moment. The follow-up scene in the principal's office is even better.

But Fresh Off the Boat has been met by a fair amount of controversy as well. Some of that stems from the seemingly insensitive title (which makes sense in the context of the show). But even more of it this week has stemmed from an essay Huang published in New York magazine about how he felt his memoir had been compromised in its shift to network television — particularly by two of its producers, executive producer Melvin Mar and showrunner Nahnatchka Khan.

In reference to Khan, Huang wrote:

The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

By the end of the essay, Huang comes around to the show as a possible force for good when it comes to Asian-American representation on television, but that's after a lot of shit flung at the program. And remember: this is a show Huang still works on. He has to talk with Mar and Khan frequently.

With all three of these people on yesterday's Television Critics Association winter press tour panel and the subject of racial diversity — always a potential minefield for reporters' questions — very much on everybody's mind, there was plenty of room for drama. The session didn't disappoint.

Fresh Off the Boat

Eddie Huang (ABC)

Bad questions and a big argument

In fact, things got awkward from the word go. For the very first question, a reporter (not a TCA member but someone separately credentialed by ABC) — asked a question rife with Asian stereotypes.

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?

The panel, somewhat aghast, eventually came up with a few jokey answers to the question, but the die was cast. This was going to be super awkward.

The atmosphere only got more tense when a different reporter asked Khan how she felt about Huang's essay, given that it seemed to implicate her in the ruination of his memoir, and Huang forcefully pushed back.

After questioning why the reporter was asking these questions, Huang followed up with, "I'm just debating your reading comprehension skills," leading to a weird escalation of the reporter reading quotes from the piece, followed by Huang trying to explain what he really meant. (At one point, he said, "It's an experiential inversion article." This is true, but also probably not the way to defend a piece in the soundbite-obsessed media.)

At one point, Huang said:

When you frame a question like that incorrectly, that's why we have terrible laws and the EPA doesn't have to talk to scientists anymore, because the framing of questions. So, sir, I'm going to debate you and make you frame this question in the proper manner because that statement was made on about page 3, and if my doc is right, it's a 15-page article. So of course people's opinions change and meramorph and then they reach resolutions. I mean, that's even how TV shows work.

After several minutes of this, Khan, one of the better young comedy showrunners out there, finally spoke:

I appreciate what Eddie's trying to say. For me, it's like, I related to this. When I read his memoir, the specifics were different to my growing-up experience, you know, being Persian-American, him being Taiwanese-American. But what I really related to was the immigrant experience of this show, and being first generation and having parents who weren't born here and that, to me, was my access point. And I think that when you take something from the source material that is such a strong voice, and you try to develop it for a broader audience and make it into an 8 pm family sitcom for broadcast TV, you need a lot of different access points. And mine is that. And I think that feeling like you don't belong and trying to figure out the rules and trying to help your parents figure out the rules and being, like, almost a scout going out and into the world and reporting back to them what you see, to me, that's what a lot of people are going to relate to. I think if you've ever felt like you don't belong or feel like an outsider for whatever reason, this show is a show that you're going to be able to relate to.

Huang followed her up, trying to clarify the point of his original essay:

The thing I want to make clear is I absolutely feel that we should have more writers of Asian-American descent in the writers' room, but I do not debate Natch's ability at all to do the show, because if you watch the pilot episode, that's one of the most proud things that we have in Asian culture today in America.

It's refreshing that in an industry obsessed with looking like everybody loves each other, Huang, Khan, and Mar have essentially opened up about the struggles of getting this show on the air in a form that works for all of them. But what's even more telling here is that the producers seem to believe that this conflict has made the show better. And given that what's on the screen is as solid as it is, it's hard to doubt them.

Khan brought that point home:

I really value Eddie's voice in the process, and I think that the fact that we're here is a historic thing. I always value free speech, especially now with what's happening. He's the heart and soul of the inspiration for the show, and I think that to have somebody who is always sort of there and really coming from a place of just wanting to make everything better and understanding that we're making a great show, let's just keep making it better.

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