LAS VEGAS - Ken Jeong was on a cross-country trip recently when a flight attendant took the microphone and asked if there were a doctor on board to treat a passenger suffering from vertigo.
Jeong, who stars in The Hangover Part III (opening Thursday), told the attendant he was a physician and followed her to the dizzy passenger, who looked askance at him.
"You're no doctor," Jeong recalls the passenger blurting before he could examine the man. "Get outta here. You're Mr. Chow!"
Jeong was once considered the funniest physician in the country. He may have to change that to the nation's most Hippocratic Oath-bound comedian.
"I still love medicine," says Jeong, an actor whose screen credits keep getting bigger but who still maintains the license he earned after graduating with a medical degree from the University of North Carolina in 1995. "I don't ever want to give up that side of me, the ability to assess and listen. I think it makes me a better comedian."
So far, it's worked better than an apple a day. Jeong, 43, has as large a story as any member of The Wolfpack in Hangover III, and he just saw his TV series Community renewed for a fifth season.
He also renewed his medical license for another year, making him perhaps the best-educated actor in Hollywood - even if he did leave a six-figure job to jump naked out of the trunk of a car in the originalHangover, a scene that made him one of the industry's most recognizable new comedians.
Despite a Hollywood résumé that now includes 60 roles in TV and film (including movies directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bay), Jeong still has trouble fathoming the stark career shift, particularly with a wife and friends who are still in the medical field.
"That's still a huge part of my life, and I love talking through cases with my wife." That would be Tran Ho, with whom he has twin daughters Alexa and Zooey. "When I was a doctor, comedy was my golf. Now it's the other way around."
Born in Detroit to South Korean immigrants, Jeong moonlighted as a stand-up comedian while completing his internal medicine residency at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. NBC president Brandon Tartikoff caught his act there 15 years ago and urged him to move to Los Angeles.
But it wasn't until 2009's Hangover that Jeong demonstrated how far he would go for a bit - namely, suggesting that his character, the unscrupulous drug dealer Mr. Chow, do a nude scene. Director Todd Phillips, who gave Jeong an expanded role in the finale, says he could not get the nudity-waiver form into Jeong's hands fast enough.
"He is always willing to turn the energy up to 11," Phillips says. "It's easy to draw an actor back. It's harder to get him to dial it up. Not with Ken. He's fearless."
Which may keep Jeong employed. "You can't be afraid to tackle the things that make you uncomfortable,'' says Jeong. "Even if it means taking off your clothes."