Artist David Choe on His New FX and Hulu Show

by Msnbctv news staff


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An hour into our interview, the artist David Choe admits that he lied about something.

He said he had turned down two offers to do a television show many years ago, one from the producer Scott Rudin, the other from the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. He had said the same thing during his first burst of media attention nearly 10 years ago; and he said it again during a Zoom call last week from his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Mr. Choe, a street artist known for his colorful and explicit imagery, became known outside the art world in 2012, after reports that he would be worth more than $200 million because of his decision to take stock instead of cash for the murals he had painted at Facebook’s headquarters.

The news media descended on him, and he gave interviews to Howard Stern and Barbara Walters. He told them about his daredevil life before he became super-rich — hitchhiking across the United States, working on a kibbutz in Israel, nearly losing his life while on a mad quest for a lost dinosaur in the Republic of Congo. He discussed his struggles with gambling, sex addiction and rage. He called himself a narcissist and a liar.

And he said he had turned down two TV offers because the medium could never capture his true self. Plus, he added, he was already wealthy. So why bother?

That was the lie, the one he repeated early in our interview.

“I told you I turned those down,” he said, his face lighting up on Zoom as he confessed. “They actually turned those down. And then in my head, I go, ‘You won’t reject me — I reject you.’ So I started telling people, ‘Oh, yeah, I walked away from it.’ And that makes me feel better. I’ve told that story so many times that I believed it.”

Now Mr. Choe, 45, has an actual television deal with the cable network FX and the streamer Hulu. “The Choe Show,” a limited series debuting Friday, is part interview, part performance art and part therapy session. The host interrogates the famous (Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson) and the semifamous (Kat Von D, Asa Akira) in unorthodox fashion, and each episode ends with a portrait of the interviewee painted by Mr. Choe.

In the first episode, he chats with Ms. Akira, a porn actress and one of Mr. Choe’s longtime friends, who is pregnant. He asks her how she plans to tell her child about what she does for a living.

“I don’t want to teach my kids that watching porn is bad, because that’s not what I believe,” she responds.

Mr. Choe then slips into the role of her future child, calling Ms. Akira “Mom” and telling her, “Every kid at school is making fun of me!”

“Sex is a beautiful, positive thing,” she tells him. “It’s nothing be ashamed about.”

At its core the series appears to be an extension of the years of therapy Mr. Choe has gone through. He said his confession to me was part of his continuing mental health work.

“I’m a recovering liar,” he said. “Instead of being hard on myself and judging myself, I just correct myself.”

He relayed the internal dialogue that had rolled through his head: “Why am I scared of Edmund? Well, he works for The New York Times. Well, why am I scared of The New York Times? I don’t even read that.” He added: “He’s a writer — you shouldn’t trust writers. They’re going to write it the way they want. And you don’t have any control. You got to trust Edmund. You got to release control.”

Mr. Choe has had unusual dealings with the news media before. When Rolling Stone asked him for an interview soon after his Facebook fame, he sent a list of his demands, including that he appear on the cover and that the story be assigned to Neil Strauss, a contributing writer to the magazine. If the issue that had what he described as “an Asian dude” on the cover did not sell as many copies as the ones featuring stars like Eminem or Rihanna, he added, he would “pay the difference.”

After Rolling Stone refused, the letter made its way to Mr. Strauss. “It was really like a work of art in itself,” he said. “It was so unreasonable that it was brilliant, because I think great artists work outside the bounds of possibility.”

Before the Facebook windfall, Mr. Choe said, he quietly made his first million gambling in Las Vegas casinos and selling his work to Los Angeles art collectors. The Facebook riches were unexpected — and not entirely welcome. “I don’t want this much money,” he said.

He noted that he was an “out of control gambler” whose “insane” way of life gave him an almost equal chance of leading him to jail, an early grave or great wealth.

“Death, prison or super-rich,” he said. “No middle for me.”

In 2005, Mr. Choe spent two months in a Japanese prison for punching a security guard at an art show where he was presenting his work. He said he had sometimes had sex with several women a day. Everything in his life was about the extremes.

Eight years ago, he started a boundary-pushing podcast with Ms. Akira. In a 2014 episode, he described an encounter in a massage parlor during which he appeared to coerce the masseuse into having sex. Ms. Akira said that what he had described sounded like rape. It was “rape-y behavior,” Mr. Choe said.

He later said the masseuse story was fictional, a work of performance art, a position he maintains to this day. But he was condemned for making light of sexual assault.

“At that time in my life, I was done with life and chasing a bottom. I wanted out,” he said. “I never raped anyone.”

He added that he had been motivated to tell the story by a “morbid curiosity to feel an external response to the internal shame I felt,” he said.

“It was strangely comforting to be so despised,” he continued. “It matched how I felt about myself for the first time.”

The pain originated when he was 4 years old, he said. Since his parents couldn’t afford to house him and his two brothers, he alone was sent from their home in Los Angeles to South Korea for a year to live with relatives. He was devastated. He barely spoke the language. In one episode of “The Choe Show,” he reveals that he was sexually abused during that period.

David Chang, the chef and media entrepreneur, said Mr. Choe had radically changed after thousands of hours of therapy and his recent fatherhood. “I’ve never seen him happier,” Mr. Chang said.

The two have become close friends, in part because they represent a subset of fringe Asian Americans, the oddballs who never followed the immigrant playbook: dean’s list, Ivy League school, professional degree, then a career in law, medicine or business.

The rise in anti-Asian violence over the past year, culminating in the mass shooting in Atlanta, has created a thorny question for prominent Asian Americans.

Mr. Choe said he had recently met with the comedian Ali Wong, the actor Steven Yeun and Mr. Chang and asked them if they felt the pressure to speak up. “They’re like, ‘Absolutely, everyone wants me to say something,’” Mr. Choe recounted.

He mentioned “these videos of old people getting pushed down,” and speculated on what he would do if he faced that kind of attack. “I’d freeze, or I’d go the other way and I’d kill them, and I’d be in jail for the rest of my life,” he said.

He went on: “I spent my whole life’s work rebelling against the model minority that I was thrown into against my will, that I had to live, like, loud and pronounced. I had to show you that, you know — like, ‘You’re Asian, you’re supposed to be like this!’ So I need to show you I’m the complete opposite.”

Mr. Chang sees Mr. Choe’s eccentricities as part of his persona as an artist, a rare template for Asian Americans.

“Dave is probably one of the most important people — whether people want to accept it or not — to change the stereotypes, and the misunderstandings of Asian culture, particularly Korean Americans,” Mr. Chang said.

In other words, the very existence of “The Choe Show” is an act of Asian American defiance. Mr. Choe said he had funded the series out of his own pocket, with a plan to post it to YouTube if no one picked it up. FX came along, but executives at the Walt Disney Company-owned network expressed reservations before reaching a deal, he said.

Their concern was that “I might be getting canceled,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’ve said anything to you right now that I’m going to get canceled for, so I just assume any time I do anything, the haters come out,” he said. “If you want to come and try to cancel me, that’s OK.”

He added: “I don’t live in fear.”



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