Originally published on March 19, 2018
George Chung has a long line of credits as a producer, director, and businessman in the media industry; including as executive producer for Myx TV’s CALL TO COSPLAY and oversees the streaming platform, JungoTV, as its CEO. Following a string of acting credits and a brief stint producing low-budget movies, the former five-time World Karate champion used the knowledge he obtained from working in the film industry, when he, along with Anthony Chan, created ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY.
The show was a way of fulfilling Chung’s goal to mainstream the martial arts. When he previously worked as a martial arts instructor, the idea of getting kids involved in learning martial arts was almost unheard of.
“At the time I started teaching, it was early in the 1980’s,” he said. “It was still uncommon for a normal, everyday person to do martial arts. It was very foreign. Today, it’s as common as soccer.”
Around the time his children were born, both BARNEY and MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS premiered on television, and quickly rose in popularity. But Chung was quick to observe how they both existed on different sides of the spectrum; the former teaching kindness and respect, the latter exploiting the violence of martial arts.
Pulling elements from both, Chung was able to channel them into creating KANGA RODDY.
“I believe that one of the things we did really well was we were able to communicate the martial arts in a very mainstream fashion, when we focused on many of the benefits of martial arts: respect, discipline, honor,” he stated.
Chung brought on friends to help make this idea a reality. Chan – who not only had helped him expand his martial arts schools, but also was a competitor of his in the martial arts world – worked on financing and commercial mechanisms for the show. Chung, on the other hand, focused on the creative side.
Having previously coached the San Francisco 49ers in martial arts, Chung also got Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott involved as the show’s executive producers.
KANGA RODDY had Pat Morita in the cast as Uncle Pat; the owner of Uncle Pat’s Bookstore, who kept a magical laptop that the kids use to transport to the Land of Hi-yah. Having just come off of a decade of KARATE KID films at the time, getting him onboard was a challenge.
“My lack of knowledge on the Hollywood industry gave me the confidence, because had I known more about the Hollywood industry, I would never have had the confidence to go up to him as an independent,” Chung admitted.
After going back and forth with Morita’s retiring assistant, Chung managed to catch his attention with one name: Redd Foxx; Chung’s childhood hero whom Morita had a recurring role on his show, SANFORD AND SON. Morita opened up on how Foxx loaned him $3,500 to buy a house, on the condition that he one day helps someone else out. It is believed that this was his way of fulfilling that.
In addition, Chung also guaranteed him creative control, as a sign of showing respect for his craft.
“Knowing that Pat did a lot of sketch comedy, I told Pat and said, ‘Look, I know as an Asian American that oftentimes, we are pigeonholed into a certain type of character,’” Chung recalled. “‘In my show, your character, Uncle Pat, will literally be a sketch comedian and I’ll let you play every character you ever imagined’.”
Morita wasn’t the only big-named actor in the cast, as Starship’s lead vocalist, Mickey Thomas, was brought on as the voice actor for Kanga Roddy. A big 49ers fan, he would come to the Bay Area every year and sing the National Anthem before a game. He was recommended by the show’s songwriter, Peter Dergee, and Chung was intrigued by his high vocal range and Southern accent.
With six to seven songs per episode, triple threat child actors were sought out from a pool of Bay Area talent.
“They weren’t really polished,” Chung explained. “But they were extremely talented, and they had chemistry, and they were like little adults. They had souls. I try to cast with substance, and so I wanted all the characters to have some substance to them.”
Chung was also adamant about having a diverse cast, for that was something that wasn’t seen, let alone addressed a lot, at the time on television.
There were two particular episodes of KANGA RODDY – one about death, the other about divorce – that really resonate with Chung. Despite airing the episodes, PBS thought they would be too controversial.
“But with divorce happening in 50 percent of marriages and death being an inevitable thing that happens to all of us, we wanted to address it in a really respectful way, and still to this date, those are some of my most memorable episodes that we created,” he reflected.
The main challenge when it came to running the show was actually figuring out how to run a show. Filmed at the former KTEH Studio in San Jose, it was difficult to do when they were not filming out of Hollywood. However, with the help from a San Francisco editor and two directors from the soap opera industry in Los Angeles, Chung eventually learned how to pace the show much more quickly.
The work paid off, for when the show was awarded with a Northern California Regional Emmy for Best Direction in 1999, the presenter for that year, Dina Eastwood, complimented the show by saying, “I thought this show was made in Hollywood.”
It’s been 20 years since KANGA RODDY first aired, and Chung is considering doing a retrospect of his own.
“I think I need to contact Netflix now,” he said. “This might be the time to bring it back. You don’t know how it’s going to resonate with an audience, but I think it has a certain nostalgia that it still holds up to.”