BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — As a child, Suzy Nakamura recalls, she was content to quietly observe and leave the talking to others. These days, the actress and comedian is making noise as a smart, self-possessed sitcom wife on ABC’s “Dr. Ken.”
It’s a career milestone for Nakamura, co-starring on a successful series after being part of some 20 pilots and a few short-lived series — which, she says cheerfully, brought variety as well as paychecks to her life.
“I haven’t gotten bored,” she said. “And I’m very proud of that (the tally). It’s difficult to get a pilot every year.”
If she’s finally in a durable show, she’s glad it’s “Dr. Ken.” The comedy about an Asian-American family does more than use ethnicity as window-dressing, Nakamura said, which she’s found to be the norm. Characters she played often were “my face with some white person’s story,” Nakamura said. “What we need is to have the stories be more diverse.”
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This Friday’s Halloween-themed episode exemplifies just that, she said. “Dr. Ken,” starring and produced by physician-turned-actor Ken Jeong (“The Hangover,” ”Knocked Up”), airs at 8:30 p.m. EDT.
“We’re doing a Korean ghost story and (the producers) researched the crap out of it” to make it authentic, she said, down to the look and contents of a Korean peasant hut. “It’s not the money or the time given. It’s the respect to someone else’s story.”
In the story, Nakamura’s character frets that son Dave (Albert Tsai) is leaving childhood behind because he appears blase about the holiday that used to scare him. Ken’s father, D.K. (Dana Lee) comes to the rescue with a tale about Korean gwishins, often-fearsome spirits that linger in the world, with the ghosts portrayed by the Park family and friends.
Watching the actress hold her own as psychiatrist Allison opposite the high-energy Jeong’s Ken, or chatting easily during a coffee shop interview, it’s hard to picture the child who was so soft-spoken in a grade-school production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” that the teacher told her she needed to scream to be heard.
Nakamura embraced dancing and then gave comedy a try.
“I wasn’t funny, I don’t think. But I wanted to be funny,” she said, recalling her first attempts. “Lots of stand-ups say they use it (comedy) as armor or defense. I like to call it padding. It was a way to interact with people that wasn’t as scary.”
On an impulse, the Chicago native applied to fabled The Second City improv company and, to her surprise, was accepted to start with its touring company. That meant the end of her studies at Columbia College Chicago and, ultimately, joining a sphere that included Second City performers Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Tina Fey.
“It was bananas,” Nakamura said, recalling everyone involved as “just normal, kind of weird, doughy losers like me” and the “nicest, funniest people” she’d ever met.
(For the record, the trim actress describes herself as “a little heavier back then.”)
She says she could have remained happily in Chicago, but the expectation was that performers would “graduate” from Second City and use it as a calling card for their next career move. Just shy of five years, Nakamura headed for Los Angeles.
In her first pilot, a 1997 non-starter based on the movie “The Player,” she was cast in a role written for a 40-year-old white man. “You just have to be the funniest,” she explains. With the 1998 series “The Closer,” her role as assistant to star Tom Selleck was originally envisioned as an Italian-American woman.
“I thought, ‘They just want someone who can go toe-to-toe with Tom Selleck. They don’t know who she is or what she looks like,” Nakamura said. That confidence has helped the actress accumulate more than 100 credits, including recurring roles on “The West Wing” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and guest parts on “Veep,” ”How I Met Your Mother,” ”Castle” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Jeong is a big fan of his “Dr. Ken” co-star, who played his spouse in a deleted scene of filmmaker Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.”
“Our chemistry was so good I told her she has to play my wife again in the future. … She has a unique ability to steal a scene and keep it grounded at the same time,” Jeong said.
Although Nakamura is trying to wrap her mind around the possibility of sticking with one character season after season, she said she’s proud of what “Dr. Ken” is bringing to network TV.
“I can’t help think that if something like this Korean ghost story had aired when I was a kid, it would have changed my life. Even if my mother had said, ‘We have Japanese ghost stories, too.’ Or if a kid the next day had said, ‘Are you Korean?’ I would have said, ‘I’m Japanese,’ and that would have been a conversation, too.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.