Before it premiered last month, Fresh Off the Boat was looking like it was going to be the latest in a long line of Critically Admired ABC Comedies With Suboptimal Nielsen Ratings, such as Happy Endings, Cougar Town, and Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23. The network slotted the show Tuesdays at 8 p.m., opposite ratings juggernauts The Voice and NCIS, and with no established comedies around it to attract audiences. And yet, thanks to those rave reviews and great marketing by ABC — the network aired two episodes on its top-rated Wednesday comedy block before it landed on Tuesday — Boat has more than managed to stay afloat. It’s averaging over 7 million viewers each week and is drawing solid ratings with younger viewers. Season two isn’t assured, but it’s looking more and more likely (despite the misgivings of the real Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the fictional Huangs). Vulture caught up with Boat creator/showrunner Nahnatchka Khan to talk about how the series has evolved, what might be in store for a season two, and how she’s been dealing with Huang’s criticisms.
So, it seems like you just premiered, and yet season one is about to wrap up. Looking back now, was there an arc to the season? Did you either go in or end up telling a specific story about this family over the course of season one?
Yeah, there was definitely a thing where we all felt like, Okay, we have 13 episodes, but we don’t know if we’re going to get any more beyond that. So if these are the only opportunities we get to tell stories, let’s do something that would feel satisfying to viewers that have watched this family from the beginning. Especially because we make such a point in the pilot of showing the Huangs struggling in Orlando (particularly Jessica and Eddie), we thought it made sense to check back in with them at the end of the first 13 to see how far they’ve come. Which led us to ask the question that we address in the finale: What happens if Jessica feels they’ve come too far?
In a lot of two-parent-family comedies, writers often tend to favor one parent over the other, even if slightly. With Fresh, Constance Wu’s Jessica is obviously the most forceful presence — and yet, I don’t know that the show favors her over Randall Park and Louis. It seems like they’re really co-parenting these kids.
Totally. Jessica and Louis are in this together: They each have a take and opinion on what’s happening. Whether it’s Louis giving Eddie advice on how to appeal to girls (treat them like a restaurant), or Jessica teaching Eddie not to date-rape (by pummeling him with a large stuffed rabbit), it’s very much a co-parent household.
Did your view of any of your characters evolve over the course of the writing and production of the first 13 episodes?
Definitely. I think that happens often. When you’re writing a pilot, unless you already have an actor attached to the project, you’re writing it with all the voices sort of in your head. Once you actually cast it, the actors become the voices of the characters, and you start to write for them and their strengths. Constance revealed early on that she was an amazing singer, so we wrote that in for her. Randall has the ability to play single-minded enthusiasm so well, so we had him drive a lot of comedy that way. And the boys were just amazing to watch, the way they kept improving every single day, getting stronger and stronger so that we were able to give them even more story to carry. It was great.
You seem to have been blessed with three exceptionally talented kids.
They honestly are like brothers! It was National Sibling Day recently, and they all posted pictures of themselves hugging each other on set, being like, “My brothers!” They have sleepovers at each other’s houses. It’s so sweet.
Hudson has a really tough job to do as Eddie, I’d argue. He’s playing a kid who’s trying to fit in, and he’s doing so by adopting the mentality of a young hip-hop artist — as seen through the eyes of a preteen. So he has to put off this air of not giving a damn all the time, and yet also be a vulnerable kid and a lovable co-lead of a show.
Hudson has done such an incredible job balancing that character. [He’s] a pre-teenage boy who identifies with, and loves, hip-hop music so much that he tries to emulate his idols without really understanding why, not having any other motivation than just, “I want to be like these guys.” The advantage of getting older is that you can look back and understand more of what hip-hop artists and rappers at that time were representing. But when you’re an 11-year-old kid, you’re just in it, you’re not looking for a deeper meaning. These guys are just your idols.
There’s a sweetness and innocence that Hudson brings to it, where you can tell he’s putting on a front and mimicking behavior he’s seen in videos and movies — but he’s so genuine about it, he believes in it so much, that it gives you a nostalgic feeling, almost. You miss that time in your life where you just loved something purely, before you started to question it.
I also see a bit of teenage Darlene Conner from Roseanne in Eddie. Have you been inspired by any other past TV kids?
I never thought about the Darlene thing — that’s funny! I mean, I think inasmuch as you felt like Darlene didn’t think she belonged in her family and was as stubborn as her mother, which led to her and Roseanne butting heads in a way that made you feel like, Oh, these two are cut from the same cloth. I can see that in the way Eddie and Jessica relate to one another. And I would also say a little Bart Simpson as well — the original/perpetual 10-year-old bad boy.
As a balance to Eddie, is it important to have his two brothers provide those more conventional warm and fuzzy comedy moments for us — especially Ian’s Evan? He literally makes everything cuter.
I think his brothers are so important because they show how unique Eddie’s struggle is to Eddie. Emery has no problems making friends; Evan is his mother’s son, always striving for perfection. These are both important because they cast Eddie into starker relief, and make his differences really stand out — in a good way.
Last week’s episode took advantage of the fact that you’re a single-camera show more than any previous one. And by that, I mean there were a lot of Scrubs-like visual jokes, flashbacks, and fantasies. What’s been the debate in the writers’ room, and maybe with ABC, over how much of this you want to do versus being more straight-ahead, à la Modern Family?
I love using the single-camera format to help with storytelling and jokes. I think it’s a huge asset. In the writers’ room, the challenge is always to tell interesting stories in unexpected ways, so we try to never limit ourselves in how we accomplish that. Modern Family is unique in that it’s telling the story of three different families, which is a huge amount of characters to service. We’re able to play with the format because we have the luxury of only having one family to service. And ABC has been fully supportive, which is cool.
There was a feeling in the TV business before you launched that you might be in for a very rough time, ratings-wise, because ABC had scheduled you Tuesdays. Except for The Goldbergs, its track record for comedies on the night has been pretty awful over the past five years. And yet: You’ve done very well! Have you been at least a little surprised?
Very much so! We joke that our lead-in is Wheel of Fortune, so at least Jessica’s mom would be happy, since she thinks that’s the best show on television. I mean, you love and believe in what you’re doing, but there are so many elements that go into finding and connecting with an audience, so you never really know if that’s going to happen. You hope, but you don’t know. And yes, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. has been a notoriously tough time slot for ABC comedies, and you’re up against brutal competition, so all of that certainly made us a little nervous. But ABC did such a fantastic job in promoting the show, so it was great to see people find us. The fact that we’ve done as well as we have there is pretty crazy to think about.
ABC doesn’t officially renew any of its shows, new or old, until just before it reveals its new schedule next month. But based on feedback you’re hearing from the network, are you hopeful?
I am cautiously optimistic, yes. I just walked into another room to knock on a wood table because there isn’t any wood in this room. I’m back now.
Last year, Adam Goldberg wasn’t shy about expressing how much he wanted to move his show, The Goldbergs, to Wednesdays. Do you share his love for the night?
For sure. ABC’s Wednesday-night comedy block is where you want to be if you’re a family sitcom, no doubt about it. Four great shows, just a really solid two hours of smart, funny comedies that people have come to rely on and look forward to.
Let’s assume the best and count on season two. What kinds of stories do you want to tell? How does the show move forward?
Oh, man, there are so many. At the end of the first season, we made a story file document in case we got an opportunity to make more — and there’s a lot of stuff in there that we didn’t get a chance to do in these first 13 episodes. The idea of dealing with success is always interesting to us: You spend so long struggling to make good, and then what happens when you finally do? It would be interesting to see Louis deal with that with the restaurant. We actually touch on that theme in the finale episode as well. And just the evolution of the boys and of Jessica, the fight for independence that will inevitably ensue, and how she’ll deal with that. And we’d love to do an episode where the Huangs go back and visit their family in Washington, D.C.
Do you want to expand the universe of the show more — either by adding in new characters or diving deeper into others?
Definitely, both of those things. I think that’s what so great about television in general — you get to keep deepening and expanding this world you’ve created. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of as well, the additional characters we’ve introduced and developed in the first 13: Nicole, Honey and Marvin, Walter, the employees at Cattleman’s Ranch, Phillip Goldstein, Oscar Chow, Uncle Steve, and Aunt Connie. And, of course, Scottie Pippen.
Will we see anyone from Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 stop by? Obviously not in character, but …
I would love it. I would love to have a pre–Dawson’s Creek James Van Der Beek come through, still playing himself, of course, with no idea that he’s just two years away from becoming a huge teen idol. I don’t know if James can still play an 18-year-old, but we’ll work on it.
Do you still miss those characters? Or are you too busy for grief?
I definitely do. I was working on a project with a friend, like, a good eight months after Apartment 23 was canceled, and I wound up writing a cold-open for Chloe and June! It just popped into my mind, and I had to pitch it to her. She was like, “Um, okay … definitely confused.” Being busy helps because you don’t have time to think about it, but then something will hit you, and you’ll suddenly be sighing and gazing out the window, playing Belle & Sebastian, thinking about what could have been.
You paid homage to All-American Girl last week. Did you reach out to Margaret Cho before doing so, or hear from her after it aired?
We heard she retweeted the tag where we gave All-American Girl the shout-out, which was super cool. From the beginning of the season, we knew we wanted to acknowledge her show, because it was the first and only one that came before. And since our show is set during the same time that her show aired, we thought that would be a cool way to do it.
I’m wondering what your rules are regarding ‘90s nostalgia. You’re not a show about the ‘90s, so how do you decide what retro stuff makes the cut?
It really depends on the episode or the specific reference. Lots of times, a writer will have a personal connection to something (Hi-C Ecto-Coolers!), and other times it’ll just feel right for the characters — like Eddie being desperate to get the Shaq Fu video-game.
So we should talk a little about Eddie Huang. Constance Wu said something on Twitter I found interesting. Somebody tweeted that he needed to “shut his mouth,” and she replied, “He shouldn’t be told to shut his mouth nor quiet his voice simply [because] it’s one of dissent.” Whenever he’s made his disagreements with the show public in the past, you’ve taken a similar tact as Constance. But I still have to imagine it hurts to have someone so closely associated with the show speak the way he has. Even if you respect his right to say what he wants, are you not impacted at all?
Eddie has had a complicated relationship with the show, something he’s been very clear and open about from the beginning. And he continues to have a complicated relationship with it. But something that we’ve been very clear and open about from the beginning is that the show is not a documentary or a biopic. The TV Huangs are fictionalized; they do and say things that the real Huangs never did or said. Regardless, we all wish Eddie well.
Even though Eddie’s comments generate lots of attention, you’ve also gotten some amazing support from the Asian-American community. People watch and tweet together. There’s the post-show webcast Fresh Off the Show. And, of course, you’re getting over 7 million viewers each week.
It’s been incredible. This show seems to hit people in a way that makes them almost feel all the emotions. They laugh, they relate, they cringe —sometimes because they relate, they feel nostalgic, they cry, they talk, they discuss … and I mean discuss down to the smallest of details. It’s been a very special thing to witness and be a part of.