John Cho on How ‘Harold and Kumar’ Approached Race: ‘We Were Ahead of Our Time’

"Its posture towards race is to laugh at it," Cho explained of the 2004 buddy comedy co-starring Kal Penn.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
"Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"

Almost two decades since a trip to White Castle and John Cho is still hungry for more roles that break down AAPI stereotypes.

The “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” star reflected on the legacy of the 2004 buddy comedy co-starring Kal Penn.

“Its posture towards race is to laugh at it,” Cho explained to The Guardian. “Instead of elevating it, it took the stereotypes and turned the sock inside out. Looking back, I think we were ahead of our time a little bit.”

The iconic comedy followed two college friends, Harold (Cho) and Kumar (Penn), who set out to escape the pressures of corporate life and grad school applications by smoking weed and fulfilling a craving for White Castle burgers. A trek across New Jersey to find the nearest fast food chain location leads to unexpected adventures with standout guest stars ranging from Christopher Meloni to Neil Patrick Harris.

The film spurred two follow-ups, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” and “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.” Co-star Penn even admitted to E! Online earlier this year that studio executives didn’t “know if America [was] ready for two Asian American men as leads in a comedy.”

With references to both Penn and Cho’s respective AAPI backgrounds in “Harold & Kumar,” including a meta quip at Cho’s turn in “Better Luck Tomorrow,” Cho told The Guardian how the film reflected the Asian-American experience while breaking barriers.

“In America, everyone sees your race first, but that’s not the way you feel,” Cho continued. “I never feel Asian, necessarily — it’s the world that makes me think about it.”

He added, “I don’t want this to sound whiny, but we have been seen as less than men for so long. I fully appreciate that Asian men who are younger than me may be living in a different world, but certainly my generation was dismissed by larger society so much, and I just know from all my friends that they had a breaking point. And when it happened, you didn’t want to be around to see it, because the clenched fist in the pocket was often literal — it could come flying out. It was definitely a young man thing, but it was also informed by a culture that doesn’t value us very much. We grew up with that, and it took me some time to untangle it and to calm down and to not think that people are after me.”

Cho, who currently stars in Prime Video’s father-daughter road trip dramedy “Don’t Make Me Go,” is continuing to debunk stereotypes onscreen.

“I have always seen Asian families depicted as very serious, non-loving, and kind of burdened by culture,” the “Cowboy Bebop” actor previously told Entertainment Weekly. “If you were Asian and reading a script, you knew that you could only play a person who would not have another relationship. And times are changing.”

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