"Fresh Off the Boat": Why I Understand Eddie Huang's Angst

Author’s note: I discuss Bill Cosby’s characters in I, Spy and The Cosby Show in this article. Please note that me discussing the characters is not an endorsement of Bill Cosby himself. In light of the sexual assault and rape accusations against him, I can’t support him. Now that these allegations have come out, one of the frustrating aspects of Cosby’s acting life is that he’s become so institutionalized in our society and with what he has done for black actors in Hollywood with these groundbreaking shows. This article is separating the achievements from the man himself in order to fully address aspects of the history of black Hollywood.

Just like in my article about manhood and Asian-black relations, Emery speaks some truth that coincides with some of the show’s larger off-script themes. The quote I’m using this time is from “Very Superstitious,” in which he tells Eddie, “You’ve got an everyman’s husky build, and a middle-class background so everyone can relate to you.”

The “husky build” part doesn’t apply to this post, but the “middle-class background/relate to” part ties in directly into what I’m about to discuss, which is the real Eddie Huang’s upset over Fresh Off the BoatHuang released several tweets about his growing displeasure over the show based on his memoir. Even though Huang has voiced his anger over what he perceives as the whitewashing of his life before, it seemed like “Very Superstitious” was the straw the broke the camel’s back since one particular part he discussed in his tweets was that child protective services did a lot more than chalk the visit to his home as a misunderstanding.

His tweets expressed not just anger, though. He expressed a range of emotions, from happiness, frustration, begrudging acceptance, and understanding, to resentment, and the most saddening emotion of all, disappointment.

I know there are some people who are like, “Why is Eddie so mad! Didn’t he know that they were going to change his life for TV?” Someone did tweet him that, actually, to which he replied that he did expect for things to be changed, but he tried to keep most of it true to the book and his life.

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I don’t think it’s a case of Huang not understanding what the television business is like. At the root of Huang’s disappointment is that even though we love Fresh Off the Boat and, as Huang himself said, can find some of ourselves in the characters, Huang feels like his life is being whitewashed too much, to the point where he can’t even recognize the moments on screen as moments that happened in his life.

Still, if you’re reading this thinking, “Well, shouldn’t Eddie have still realized that he wouldn’t recognize his life on screen? It’s not a documentary!”, here’s my take on what Huang is feeling and why Fresh Off the Boat isn’t as raw as the book.

Fresh Off the Boat is successful and, thankfully, seems to be out of the Cancellation Bear’s grasp, but the show is still seen as a shaky bet. It’s a show about an Asian-American family, and a show like this hadn’t been on TV since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (and, if you count it, Sullivan and Son). ABC has gotten a rather good track record for diverse shows this year, but still, a show like black-ish (which was also probably seen as a shaky bet earlier on) is easier to see as a success by executive standards than Fresh Off the Boat. For executives, Fresh Off the Boat is truly uncharted waters.

Because Fresh Off the Boat is, for all intents and purposes, the first of its kind, everything about it has to be “safe.” Any rough patches in Huang’s memoir have to be smoothed out so that the show won’t seem “threatening” to audience members not familiar with Asian cultures or Asians in general. Thus, the reason for some of the episodes focusing on tried-and-tested family sitcom storylines, like the ills of lying. Even the promotion of the show focuses primarily on the “they’re just like you!” idea. Why do you think they used American Gothic as inspiration for one of the ads?

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But, because there has to be some level of cultural service, some elements, like the superstition surrounding the number 4 and the Success Perm made it into the show. Also, these elements are funny and easy to market and write hilarious stories for. What kind of humor can a writer get from Eddie’s grandmother’s story of having her feet bound, or the trauma caused from Eddie’s grandfather committing suicide?

In college, I did a lot of study on entertainment history, particularly the history of movies and television. Due to what I’ve learned, I can say that I see a lot of similarities between Fresh Off the Boat and Huang’s dissatisfaction and what I’ve learned about the rocky road to Hollywood’s meager acceptance of black stories. As I’ve written before, Hollywood began with Birth of a Nation, which basically set up the dynamic Hollywood has been working on ever since. White people are lauded, while black people are exoticized, demonized, and excluded from stories unless they’re in villainous or subservient roles.

While there have been several all-black films made before the ’50s and ’60s, Hollywood really began making significant changes when Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Dorothy Dandridge turned business-as-usual on its head. Their movies broke the color lines that once existed and made Hollywood realize that yes, people do want to see black actors on screen. Television also woke up to this change by hiring Bill Cosby in I, Spy and Diahann Caroll in Julia. 

But, Poitier, Cosby and Caroll’s characters all had similar characteristics. To be accepted by the “majority” audience, these black characters had to be exceptional. Cosby’s Alexander Scott has to be the smartest, most charming, athletic black guy ever. Two of Poitier’s most popular characters, Det. Tibbs in In The Heat of the Night and John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, are both extremely smart, smarter than the white counterparts. Julia Baker is exceedingly gentle and kind, great at her job, yet non-threatening enough for her white apartment neighbors. In fact, all of the characters mentioned are extremely non-threatening, while posing a threat to the status quo due to their intelligence and capabilities.

Another one of Cosby roles that were based in the idea of the non-threat is Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show. The Cosby Show, which was created in part to show that there are affluent black families in America,  can be criticized similarly to how Huang criticizes Fresh Off the Boat; both shows make a point to show how all families are theoretically the same at the expense of not showcasing many of the difficulties minority families face.

Again, Cliff Huxtable is extremely smart and he and his wife Clair go to great pains to make sure their family is just as smart and affluent as they are. But rarely discussed on the show are the realities of racism, even against affluent black people. One of the most iconic moments from the show is when the kids are lip-synching to Ray Charles’ “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” but, as many people have argued, how does this moment and other moments from the show relate to the average black person?

As stated above, these black characters were made non-threatening in order to not scare white audience members off, and the characters in Fresh Off the Boat were made non-threatening for the same reason. Some could call this “business as usual.” “But,” you might say, “What about The Jeffersons? What about Good Times? What about Sanford and Son?” Well, let’s take a look at them.

The only reason The Jeffersons can exist is because there were previous iterations of black characters that were non-threatening. By the ’70s, I dare say audiences had grown quite used to black faces on TV.

George Jefferson can crack jokes about white people because the tolerance for black people had literally been built by other black actors. Also, there’s the fact that The Jeffersons is a spin-off of All in the Family, created by the culturally and racially-aware Norman Lear. But again, if the tolerance for non-white faces hadn’t been built by the scores of black actors before Lear got into the business, All in the Family wouldn’t have been seen as a satire of the Good Ol’ Boy way of thinking, and The Jeffersons wouldn’t have been viewed as a viable show to air on network television.

Good Times and Sanford and Son could also only exist with those aformentioned non-threatening black characters firmly in its rear view mirror. Good Times and Sanford and Son, more shows created by Lear, are only seen as the antithesis to the Julias and I, Spys of television because those shows exist. The foundation had been set, and now people could explore different experiences of black life.

Ironically, Good Times suffered from some of the same things Huang accuses Fresh Off the Boat of. John Amos was famously written off the show because he didn’t like how the writing and executive decisions were beginning to showcase the goofy antics of J.J.  over the actual real world problems the family faced. Later on, Esther Rolle’s character would always be written as “working,” meaning Rolle wanted to get off the show as well. Eventually, the show became more like What’s Happening!!, which was probably one of the show’s biggest  competitors at the time.

In his op-ed for New York Magazine’s site Vulture, Huang writes;

“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?

Huang’s phrasing is harsh, no doubt, but his concern isn’t completely unfounded. Why wasn’t there an Asian-American showrunner, someone who might have more relation to some of the events in Huang’s book, available to head the show? One would say that there aren’t any Asian-American showrunners in television, save for Mindy Kaling. And anyone who would want to be a showrunner would have a hard time getting past the white boys club that is the showrunning circle. The lack of a showrunner or any other person of power that shared Huang’s background and similar experiences is telling about how far Hollywood still has to go when it comes to diversity at the top.

Also, the idea of a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story” is something that affects many sitcoms about minority (usually black) families, like The Parent’Hood, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Family Matters, etc., etc. Again, it’s the idea that people have to be comfortable that makes these types of stories get told over and over again. It’s only been this year, 2015, that we’ve gotten as explosive of a show as Empire on TV.

Empire is not PC and is filled with tons of gasp-worthy moments, including Lucious hating his gay son, Cookie and Anika getting in verbal fights (and one physical one), manhood issues, drug culture, unapologetic hip-hop culture and plenty more. None of it is predicated on this need to placate audiences and babysit them through the story.

Tavis Smiley said on PoliticKING with Larry King  how he thinks the show exhibits “the worst of every pathology that black people have.” I think Smiley’s wording is a little suspect, because it suggests that all black people have these “pathologies” in their bloodstream, as if we’re all born criminals. Also, I don’t know if they really are talking about the so-called evil that is Empire in barber shops since almost everyone in America loves the show; I don’t go to barber shops, so I can’t say that he’s right or wrong. But what I will say is that I don’t totally understand Smiley’s opinion because the very reason he’s against the show—the unapologetic nature to show the good and bad of this one particular family—is the essence of what Huang hoped for when it came to Fresh Off the Boat.

In fact, one of the main reasons Empire is a big success with the black audience and other audiences alike is because finally, there isn’t a black family that has the weight of the entire race on their shoulders. They can act as horrible as they want, and they are still accepted by their audience. That’s really the true marker of making it in Hollywood.

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I love Fresh Off the Boat as it is, as do scores of people, and Huang has written in his Twitter conversation that he’s glad it is successful and has found a home with viewers. But, if there was a chance for a do-over, I’d wonder if Huang would ask for his book to be marketed as a dark comedy or drama, if he would want it marketed at all. He wrote in Vulture that he began regretting selling the rights, after all.

I’d think if Fresh Off the Boat was able to be the show Eddie wanted it to be, he’d be happier, but, as I’ve hopefully outlined above, there would be many execs who would consider a hard-hitting show about an Asian family, who, by industry standards, are probably seen as an “untested” demographic, tough to sell. It’d literally take a Norman Lear-type to do that, and I’m not sure there are many execs out there that have that level of fearlessness. Huang needed a stronger advocate for his vision, to be sure. If he had that advocate, perhaps he would have gotten the results he wanted.

But, historically speaking, a show like Fresh Off the Boat has to play the game and that means getting the Cosby Show treatment. Execs are still slow to what America can handle; they still think audiences have to warm up to the idea of an Asian family being flawed humans. But, we have shows like Badlands and Dr. Ken (another sitcom) coming up and hopefully many more after that. Perhaps, once networks deem America ready for more daring fare, we’ll get that Asian Empire,  in which Asian characters are behaving however they want without getting, as Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu has coined, “rep sweats.” Hopefully, it won’t take decades.

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