In a scene from the second episode of the webseries Just Doug—currently available on Facebook Watch—a director of a fictional television show asks Just Doug’s main character, an Asian actor named Doug, to try out what he euphemistically calls an “ethnic verbal approach” for the part he’s playing.
It’s a story we’ve heard from countless Asian actors trying to break through in the entertainment industry, but seeing it actually play out on screen really drives the point home.
“Fresh Off the Boat, Doctor Ken,” a producer lists to a cool-headed but incredulous Doug. “You guys are in right now.”
It’s a cringe-inducing and angering micro-aggression, and it’s partly why Doug Kim, who portrays the titular Doug, created the show.
“The reason why [Asians are] not getting roles is because we don’t have people in the writers room representing us,” Kim told me over the phone. “So of course they’re not going to know what an Asian American looks like.”
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Just Doug revolves around a former professional poker player who heads out to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood actor. As weird as that sounds, it’s actually the story of Kim’s life; in 2006, he became the youngest player to make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker.
Just Doug picks up six years after Doug moves to Hollywood. He’s still struggling to get parts and continually comes face to face with the same moral quandary: should he sell out and do whatever it takes to get the part (including an accent), or stay clear of stereotypes and stay out of a job?
“It’s like, how much are you willing to sacrifice of your values into order to have your career?” Kim said. “What makes you value that career that much?”
Just Doug was born out of Kim’s frustration with the entertainment industry’s clear pigeonholing of Asian voices and talent. For Kim, this frustration hit home particularly hard after he auditioned for the role of Josh on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (it eventually went to Vincent Rodriguez III).
“There hadn’t been a role like this since Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead, and it’s like, are we as Asian actors going to have to wait every three to four years for a role like this to come up?” Kim said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of casting and when Hollywood decides to make these roles available.”
So Kim took matters into his own hands—and wallet. He teamed up with writer Brian Shin and spent $165,000 of his own money to produce a pilot—literally, as he puts it, taking a gamble on himself.
The show has found a home at Facebook Watch, a new video streaming service Facebook launched in September. The original pilot, which has been broken into three shorter episodes, gives us a unique glimpse into a struggle many know all too well.
In the show, Doug decides to acquiesce to the producers’ request to do an Asian accent because it seems his career hinges on the part.
“It’s like, oh, if I don’t play ball I’m not going to get the next role,” Kim told me, explaining his own experience dealing with off-color jokes or accents. “I’m already here. Why don’t I just do this?”
But a few extra changes are made by the producers to the scene to suit Doug’s new accent. Instead of kissing the woman who plays his girlfriend, they rub noses, and a joke about his character having a small bladder is changed to one about him having, you guessed it, a small penis.
Unable to contain his anger, Doug explodes into a raging tangent, furiously and sarcastically disparaging the other characters while maintaining the accent. But instead of losing the gig, the director decides to use the take in earnest, leading to a Twitter backlash against Doug because of the accent.
While Doug is gutted by the response, the controversial role leads to more (albeit equally stereotypical) offers, which he eventually takes. It’s an entertaining crash course in the vicious cycle of racism in Hollywood that avoids overt preachiness about the situation.
And while Kim has found a lot of frustration with getting gigs as an actor, he also expressed some degree of irritation with his own peers and other Asian actors.
“I don’t want to naysay, but we are looking for handouts to some extent,” Kim said. “We have to earn it. A lot of the time Asian American entertainers spend too much time complaining, bemoaning their situation, without being like, okay, how can I change this myself? How can I build content for myself?”
While creating content is crucial, it’s probably safe to assume that most Asian Americans actors, who are duking it out over the 4.3% of regular series roles given to AAPI actors on TV shows, don’t have access to the kind of budget Kim used to spend on a pilot. “A lot of that has to do with the systemic institutions that do not exist for us, and we as a people need to build these institutions,” Kim added.
Nonetheless, Just Doug joins the ranks of a number of other Asian American-created webseries like Quiet Tiny Asian, Single By 30, and Millions, all of whom are helping construct a realistic and diverse look at the Asian American experience.
For Kim, it seems the biggest issue that keeps Asians out of more mainstream roles is writing. “We need Asian American creators and Asian American writers,” he said. “A lot of the writing talent is where a lot of the creating comes and I feel like that’s neglected a lot.”
And Kim extended this sentiment to Just Doug. “It was important to me that the director was Asian American [and] that people in front of and behind the camera were Asian American too to preserve the authenticity of the voice creatively.”
Just Doug remains a refreshing and engaging watch, one that succeeds by embracing the flaws of its characters in an even more flawed system.