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Video: 'Fresh Off The Boat' Writer Nahnatchka Khan Tells Stories From The Inside Out

This week, Code Switch takes a look at the past and present of immigrants on TV with video profiles of a quartet of groundbreaking artists who are changing the game for how immigrants are depicted on the small screen. Read the intro essay for this package, "Fresh On The Screen: How TV Is Redefining Whom We Think Of As 'American.'"

Although not an immigrant herself — she and her brother were born in Las Vegas and then raised in Hawaii — the quirks and character traits of Nahnatchka Khan's immigrant Iranian parents shaped the unique comic sensibility that she's brought to her work as a television writer and creator. And, as showrunner of ABC's groundbreaking Asian American family sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, she's been responsible for TV's most visible and viable depiction of immigrants in over two decades.

"For immigrant families, television is what connects you to American culture, but it's also what makes you feel like an outsider," says Khan. "When we were growing up, the only person we saw on TV that vaguely resembled us was the Iron Sheik — the pro wrestler whose signature move was the 'Camel Clutch.' He was always depicted as the bad guy in tournaments, but to us, he was a hero."

Though a career in television was never her goal, her skills as a comic writer became evident in high school, and she decided on a whim to attend the University of Southern California's School for Cinema and Television. After graduation, she landed a development job with Disney TV, helping to create televised spin-offs of Disney's animated features. Eventually, she was paired with animator Sue Rose to adapt a comic strip about a feisty tween girl for television, and ended up as Pepper Ann's executive producer for several seasons. She then found writing gigs on Malcolm in the Middle, Good Morning Miami and American Dad, before successfully pitching a brilliantly oddball show called Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 2B as a series for Fox.

Despite lasting just two seasons, the series, about an innocent midwestern girl who moves to New York and ends up with a sociopathic party girl as a roommate, remains a cult hit and a critical favorite.

It also established Khan as one of the most hotly in-demand creators in the business. So when Melvin Mar asked her if she was interested in showrunning a series based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's hilarious childhood memoir, the unlikely project immediately gained legs and was picked up to series — and, under her guidance, became a breakout hit as part of ABC's slate of family comedies. "The key," says Khan, "was creating a show about immigrants that worked from the inside out, not the outside in. The Huangs are the center of their world, and we see the world through their eyes, without excuses, explanations or apologies." In developing the show with Mar, who is Chinese American, "we didn't know if audiences were ready for it, but" — as individuals who grew up in immigrant families — "we knew we were."

Check out the other profiles in this series:

Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi

Comedian and star of HBO's Insecure Yvonne Orji

Grey's Anatomy star Sara Ramirez

This special package is made possible by the Vilcek Foundation

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Yang