“Fresh Off the Boat” is the first American television sitcom in 20 years to feature and focus on an Asian American family. Launched in 2015, the show is now in its fifth season and ready to air its 100th episode on ABC network. Based loosely on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the show unapologetically dives into controversial topics and stereotypes around Asian Americans, while providing plenty of comedic relief. Although there is scrutiny over the depictions of Asian Americans, the show continues to run as a powerful platform and symbolizes a change in media representation of Asians and Asian American identities in the U.S.
Melvin Mar, the executive producer of “Fresh Off the Boat,” was a big catalyst and continues to be integral to the success of the comedy series. Along with the show, Mar has a full schedule: he is also working on several other television projects, like “Bless this Mess” with Lake Bell and Dax Shepard, and filming the sequel to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which starred Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart.
We talk with Mar about his experience in creating and producing “Fresh Off the Boat,” along with his thoughts on Asian American representation in Hollywood.
I actually got my start as an intern for (producer) Arnold Kopelson through an introduction from a friend. I started out by making copies of scripts, and running to get coffee and matzo ball soup every day for Arnold. But it was through this experience where I learned how to be a Hollywood assistant, and eventually I was able to get a personal assistant job at DreamWorks. I then went to work for (producer) Scott Rudin, where I met Jake Kasdan, my creative partner.
“Fresh Off the Boat” came at a time after I had worked on and helped produce a number of television shows, like “New Girl” and “Weird Loners,” and [the film] “Bad Teacher.” That’s when Jonnie Davis, (president of creative affairs at) 20th Century Fox, came and asked me if there was anything that I wanted to create in second position. What this means is that you’ve sold a show already that you’re going to probably develop and shoot a pilot for, and you want to do another one. The studio usually lets you work on a passion project, and I said to Jonnie in a very abstract way that I’d love to see an Asian male lead. I had no idea what that was going to look like, but I hadn’t seen an Asian male lead that didn’t involve martial arts, and I thought it would be really cool to figure out what that idea would become. Jonnie was really supportive of it and said, “I would love that. Let’s figure it out!”
So, for a long time I messed around with different ideas, like whether to make this show a romantic comedy. And then the idea suddenly dawned on me. I grew up in San Gabriel Valley in Montebello (CA), and one of my favorite things to do at home after school was to watch television. I used to watch every single sitcom that you can think of. I’ve seen every single one, from “Family Ties” to “Good Times,” and there are still episodes that I remember and love. And that’s when I thought to myself, what if this show was about a Chinese-American family? It didn’t have to be a romantic comedy or present any interracial love interest. That didn’t need to be the entry point. It’s just a family. And coincidentally over the course of a few months, I was introduced to Eddie Huang’s memoir through a mutual friend, and I remember reading it and emailing him, because his childhood was fascinating. I found a lot of similarities in his childhood with my own. I enjoyed that point of view and thought, this could be it.
The process of reading Eddie’s memoir to actually getting the show on screen took about a year. I was investigating and developing what would be the take and who should write the show after meeting Eddie, and I met Nahnatchka Khan. Nahnatchka (also an executive producer for the show) felt similarly because she grew up in Vegas and Hawaii, and she had a very similar childhood point of view as Eddie’s. Everyone was very excited about doing this, and I give a lot of credit also to Dana Walden, who was my boss at the studio and is now at Disney. She was very passionate about this show from the moment she heard about it and championed the show, along with everyone who worked for her. We then sold the show to ABC, wrote a script, wrote a pilot and the rest is history.
The title actually came from Eddie’s memoir, and it’s a title that I love. I remember being called that term, as well as calling people that. It’s a term that I felt like was used at some point as a put-down, but for us, because we were the first Asian American show in about 20 years, I thought it was worthwhile to sort of reclaim the term. Like, yeah sure, we’re fresh off the boat. We took the term and looked at it from a different point of view, which became a unifying idea. As much as the term is used to put people down, it also has a lot of positive connotation to it because when you think about it, everyone’s fresh off the boat. Everyone in the U.S. came from immigrants, unless you’re Native American. But everyone was fresh off the boat at some point.
I can tell you this: the 100th episode is going to be really great. [Laughs]
I’d be lying to you if I told you that I always thought the show would make it this far. The first season, we were just trying to put on the best show that we possibly could. We had thirteen episodes to play with, and once you’re in Hollywood long enough, you’re realistic about the possibilities of a show continuing on. Ninety percent of Hollywood shows and movies just don’t work out for whatever reason. We had a really great show with a great writing and production staff, though, and we also had great actors who just connected, and I think we’re very lucky. I also think—knock on wood—that we’re going to have a sixth season here, and we’ve come to have this sort of media family. It would be awesome to be able to continue working with this family on this show for a while longer.
For me, the best humor comes from the things that are controversial to talk about. It’s often a thin line, but you look at something from one point of view and then you suddenly shift it to another point of view, which gives you a bit of space for people to laugh about it, and usually that’s how you can craft a great comedy idea. At the same time, though, we live in a space where, if people might feel bad about it, we don’t want to do it.
We really have a great staff that brings their own experience into meetings and weave it into the stories. Our team is very diverse in both ethnicity and gender, and those stories all get put into the episodes. Eddie started it by writing a great book and was very specific about his own experience, but everyone on the team has a version that they brought to the show and the writers, directors—all of us—have been able to channel our own experiences in a positive way. It’s a really cool thing to do because I’ve always looked at it this way: We’re teaching people certain things and educating them on different perspectives. We’re not accusing anyone or putting anything on a soap box. I’ve always said that most people are most comfortable when they’re laughing, so when they’re having a good time, they’re more willing to listen and hopefully learn something valuable.
I think there’s a steady wave of it. Is it as big as what people want? That’s sort of an individual opinion, but I do think that the trend is a real thing. The biggest difference for me is not just looking at it from the perspective of what Asian or Asian American actors are out there, but also what types of Asian American filmmakers, writers and directors are in the market? Because I think that’s how things happen, and that level of inclusion works hand-in-hand.
My excitement comes from meeting people who are new to the entertainment industry because it’s awesome to see more Asian Americans coming and making things on screens.
Oh man, it’s been a little crazy with shooting shows that I haven’t had much time to watch anything, but one that I’m currently into is called “Shrill.” A good friend of mine is the showrunner on it, and I think she’s done a phenomenal job. It’s really great, and I think (actress) Aidy Bryant is really talented.