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As Dat Phan's 2009 stand up tour picks up, enthusiastic audiences are lining up to see the Last Comic Standing winner's unique brand of comedy. But even a funnyman gets overworked.
Onstage, Dat Phan is a complete firecracker. A stand-up comedian and physical performer unafraid to writhe like a serpent, kick like a ninja, and shriek like an old Vietnamese mom in order to garner laughs from the audience. This Dat Phan spews out jokes a mile a minute. This Dat Phan has the ability to keep his audience imprisoned in their own laughter, chuckling the entire set through. This Dat Phan holds nothing back, revealing stories jam-packed with references from his own life as a Vietnamese American growing up in San Diego, California. From nail salons to angry Asian moms, William Hung to gay Thai waiters, Phan's jokes are outlandish, hilarious, and refreshingly relatable to any Asian American youth.
Offstage, Phan is a little skittish, a little paranoid (calling three consecutive times when one didn't pick up in a matter of three minutes qualifies as a little paranoid, wouldn't you say?) and a lot somber. Offstage, Dat Phan is still full of energy but it's a controlled energy. You can see the wear and tear that the past few years have caused. Though there's still an Asian boyish youth to his presence -- multiplied by his Dragonball Z-styled fireball hair and Nike sweatsuit -- there are also heavy bags under his eyes, and he walks as though his shoulders carry the weight of the world. Offstage, Dat Phan hasn't eaten all day and doesn't hesitate to scarf down a box of Panda Express ("Hey, this is surprisingly good," he mutters between bites). Our hour-long conversation (and then another long phone chat) drew me to one conclusion: Dat Phan is tired. He needs a bowl of pho. He needs a vacation. He needs a girlfriend.
Since winning NBC reality show, Last Comic Standing in 2003, Dat Phan is known to many as the "funniest Asian man in America." His victory on the show has led to non-stop touring and several film projects in the works, including Disney's When in Rome. Night after night, Phan performs in front of audience members, ranging from hundreds to thousands, Asian to Caucasian, young to old. Phan's fans adore him; they can barely stay in their seats laughing at his hilarious stand-up act. But if you assume that Phan's success keeps him laughing, you'd be surprised.
APA: Congratulations on your busy schedule! It must be nice to have some job security in this economy.
Dat Phan: You want the honest answer or the answer for your interview? The answer for your interview: Yeah, it's great. I love it. I'm very grateful. [He musters up a rippling laugh, reminiscent of Dr. Evil.] But I don't want to insult you, so I'm going to give you both answers. I'm very grateful to have a job. I really am. We're living in very, very dark times right now. We're on the brink of the depression. But I work 340 days and nights a year. I work a lot. I have 20 employees depending on me to stay alive financially. I haven't had a vacation since 2004. I have bags under my eyes. I'm fucking tired, but I can't afford to take a vacation because these people will be out of a job if I do. That's the real answer. I appreciate having a job. I feel very blessed having a job where I bring joy into people's lives. I feel very grateful for all the people in Vietnam and Australia looking up to me. But at the same time, I just want a fucking nap.
APA: How do you feel about all these people looking up to you as a role model?
DP: There are more and more young kids. High school kids look at me now. It's really weird to me because I'm older. I don't want to tell how old I am, but I'm much older and these kids could be my kids now, but they see me as one of them and I'm like, "Dude, I listen to Norah Jones. I listen to Enya."
Sometimes I feel like I identify myself as Asian American, and I'm trying to do things for our people. I really am. Even though I grew up in San Diego, and I was born in Vietnam, I know the struggles and the shit we go through. I'm trying to represent for us. And the other times, I forget I'm Asian. I just think of myself as a normal person. As Julia Roberts once said, "I'm an ordinary person with an extraordinary job." And that's all it is: she's this normal human being who happens to be very lucky. I'm one of the less than one percent of society doing what I'm doing. So I'm doing my best to not to fuck it up. Hey let's put that down: "Dat Phan does his best to not fuck it up." I think that's probably why I'm losing my mind. I'm getting overworked, and so many people are looking up to me as a role model, and I'm just an average human being, but I'm stretching myself a bit thin right now.
APA: Do you think people ever take advantage of all the work you do as a comedian?
DP: You know when you see a magician or somebody who comes up with something really amazing on TV? And you're like, "That's awesome," and you're on a couch and just woke up from a nap. You say, "That's fucking great. I could do that" [He pretends to smoke a blunt] "Why don't you come over to my house and throw a party, tell some jokes." But they don't see all the work it takes. They don't see that you busted your ass. They don't see the work that it took behind the mirror. All they see is the smoke and mirror. I'm trying to give you the real answer you deserve as opposed to, "Oh yea baby, it's great. I love Hollywood." But that's bull. It's work. That's the real answer. Are you depressed now?
APA: No, not quite, but you seem to be.
DP: I've just had the madness for 12 years, so I'm like fuck it. I once asked my limo driver why is success such a lonely place, and he said, "I guess it's because it's traveled by a very brave few." And Confucius says the top of the ladder is a nice place to be, but it's a very lonely place. So I'm in unchartered territory. I don't know where the fuck I am right now. I feel alone, really. Even though there are millions of people that support me. I appreciate people enjoying my work. I want them to appreciate my art, but I don't need their attention all the time like, "Look at me, look at me."
APA: There must have been a time where you had wanted all this to happen to you. How did you get your start in stand-up?
DP: When I first started 12 years ago, 7000 shows ago, I did it because I was a failure in school. I couldn't make Calculus; I was failing Biology. I didn't know what I was doing. And I was taking a speech class, and I found out I was making people laugh, and comedy was the only thing that didn't make me feel like an Asian loser. Because all these Asians go to UCLA, UCSD and Berkeley, and they're studying and getting psychobiology degrees, and me, I can barely read. I'm a retard. My parents, they're probably like, "Is our son retarded?" I eventually just dropped all my classes and took weight training and drama. And as time went on and on, I didn't know how far it would take me. I just knew that I wanted to pour all my heart into this, because this was something that I found I was good at. I didn't know I was going to win Last Comic, competing with 2000 others across the country. And now I'm competing with comedians all over the world. I guess I kind of stumbled across my calling. But at the same time, when you get to a certain level, the hurricane becomes madness. It goes from a category 2 to a category 5, and there are just so many people depending on me and looking up to me, and I'm just a human being. It's become so crazy.
APA: If you could continue working without all the fame, would you do it?
DP: Yes, I would still do it without the fame. In a heart-beat. I appreciate it because I appreciate my fans. I wouldn't be where I am in my career without them. But at the same time, fame is a very unnatural thing. Because what the fame does is it builds a machine around you, and the machine doesn't necessarily have the best interest in the direction you're trying to go. I have 14 agents, and 20 employees. I have my managers, my writers and sometimes they're trying to force me to do something I don't want to do.
APA: What is it that you would like to do?
DP: There are two things that I'm always going to be married to. My art: whether it's doing accents, music, comedy -- something that has to do with expressing myself in front of the live audience, because that's the legacy you can leave behind in the human race when you pass on. If I'm crunching numbers all day, no disrespecting the accountants, 100 years from now, nobody will care about you. But if I express my heart by creating these characters that are memorable, and I create songs, a million years from now, I hope that Asian Americans, that have evolved by then and merged with other races, will look back on their ancestors and maybe they'll run across my work. Maybe that's something they can look at.
And the other thing I'm married to is love. Whether you love your art or you love someone. I want to have a woman that I can respect as much as she respects me, fight beside me, and I can have a moment of intimacy with her where we can cuddle, have a fire, watch a movie, read a book. I think that's what drives me: the element of love for another person and the element of love for my art. Right now, all I want to do is to cuddle with a girl, experience a little bit of love and create a little bit of music.
APA: What's stopping you from finding a girlfriend?
DP: I want a girlfriend, but I can't because every time the breakup comes, I know it's coming. Because I've been through it over and over again. I leave for three weeks and when I come back, I don't even know her. She'll be like, "You're never home." I miss cuddling with a girlfriend and watching a sunset with her and watching a movie and talking like normal people without interviews, cameras and -- I appreciate my fans, but -- without signing autographs while I'm trying to eat a bowl of pho. I'm grateful to have all that but sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind. Seriously, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I just want a girl who likes me for who I am as opposed to, "You know this Dat Phan? Can you invite him to parties so that he could tell jokes?"
You have a boyfriend? Not that I'm hitting on you. I date white girls anyway, not that Asian girls are not worth it or anything.
APA: Yes, you talk about dating white girls a lot in your stand up, and you even have a short online called, "Bringing Home the White Girl." Why do you like dating white girls?
DP: I like dating mixed girls. It's hot, and you get the best of both worlds. For a while, 70% of girls I've dated have been white, and the rest are Asian or other. But it started changing. Because a lot of the girls are too white. That sounds racist. TOO WHITE. They don't understand pho or boba or why Asian families do the weird things they do. Pho is like the white test. If you date someone that's white, and they don't like pho, it's a deal breaker. I don't care how hot she is; I'm done. You don't like pho? Are you kidding me? That's like a staple of Vietnamese life. It's like dating a white person, and I don't eat chicken noodle soup or pizza. You got to at least handle the soup. The chicken pho is very basic: chicken, noodles and nothing else. You can't handle the pho gau, then you're fucked. [An older couple next to us eyes the profanity-laden lad a bit. Dat nods to them and says, "What's up."]
So if they have a hint of Asian, not only is it hot, but it's convenient because they understand the Asian culture already. It's like Intel Pentium. It's already embedded inside the program. And plus, when you have the Asian skin mixed with the white skin, they're very pretty. And it shows they're a byproduct of open-mindedness to mix two cultures together. I wish there were more mixed people in the world.
APA: You could procreate more with your white girlfriends.
DP: Yea, by dating white girls, I'm trying to help America. Shake and bake. I don't date white girls because they're white. They have to be interested in the Asian culture. I wouldn't date a white redneck.
You know what it is? I look at you, and I think you're very pretty, but you're part of the second generation so part of me feels like you're my sister. Because I had eight sisters, so I was raised by nine women that are Asian. I shared a bathroom with nine Asian women. I know everything about what Asian women do. Everything. So if I date an Asian woman, as sexy as she is, I feel like I'm dating my sister. Some people say, "Dat Phan, you're not proud of your people," but I'm so proud of my people. I expose their culture to millions of people around the world, hundred of millions. And I will never be ashamed to say that I'm Asian American. Ever. But I just don't want to date my sister.
APA: How has growing up with so many Asian women influenced your comedy?
DP: My strongest accent is the Asian woman, because I was raised by many Asian women. First of all, if you want to do an accent you have to want to learn it. You have to have the desire. Second of all, you have to hear it a lot, and third, you have to really listen to it and hear how it comes out of your voice. Being around women my whole life, I start seeing the nitty-gritty, raw side of being an Asian woman. You know how you see them on TV, and they make them all pretty all the time with the makeup, lighting and hair? That's an illusion, because nobody is beautiful all the time. And I would see my mom squatting in a skirt, chopping chicken on the floor, or I'll see my sister without makeup or on their period. I see how hard it is. They're plucking their eyebrows and armpit hair. They're picking their nose. They do stuff around me that they don't do around other guys, so I already develop that character in my head. A lot of it is observing and mimicking and being honest in your mimic and trying not to be forced. A lot of funniness comes out in the naturalness.
Our parents pressured us to do what we want to do, but they don't see the bullshit. They're just like, "Become a doctor, go to school for 12 years" and you're like, "You didn't go to school for 12 years." They say, "I didn't have the opportunity," but there's more to it than going to school for 12 years. I know they had to escape Communism and people pointing guns at their heads. I know there's bombs. I get it. Maybe I don't fully get it, because I've never run away from an exploding building before, but we have stress too, we have pressure. We've got high tuition, debt. You don't have time to date. Because you're Asian, you've got pressure. You've got to do good in school. It's stressful. We live in dark times, the economy. Nobody has any fucking money. I identify with the second generation. I get it. That's why my humor is probably so popular, because they hear what I'm talking about. We're just trying to deal with it. We're just trying to do our best to survive.
APA: How does your mom feel about your success?
DP: I don't think she fully understands what I'm doing. C'mon, I joke about how I want to bang white chicks and how I don't like the Pottery Barn. Do you really think an Asian parent really understands what the hell I'm talking about? But she watches my shows and plays it to her friends. I guess she's proud I'm not a drug dealer or anything, out there driving a bus.
APA: And you? Do you ever watch your own shows?
DP: I don't really get a kick out of watching myself. That's really bizarre. It's like you enjoy having sex but if you videotape yourself having sex and you watch yourself having sex? That's just fucking weird. Who wants to watch themselves having sex?
APA: Then which performers do you enjoy watching?
DP: I like watching performers and entertainers at the level that I want to get to, and even if they stumble, I want to see where they're stumbling and why. I watch Flight of the Conchords, I watch Adam Sandler, I watch Tenacious D, I watch Benny Hill, and I want to do something that's comparable to what they're doing. In my mind, I could never do something that classic, because they're always going to be my heroes in my book. I like watching Asian artists sing their songs. I borrow a little from all of them. I don't really like to watch myself. I have a DVD I'm selling right now, and I have never watched the DVD. I don't even know what the menu looks like. Lot of my fans write to me and say they love it and watch it over and over again, and I don't even know what the hell is on there.
APA: Why are you watching Asian musicians?
DP: I'm learning guitar. I'm going to add music to my comedy, so it'll be international. Flight of the Concords? Imagine that with a Vietnamese twist. I'm trying to use music to take it to the next level. I guess the good news is: sometimes when they ask me if I know an Asian that can replace me, I try really hard to find that replacement, but there's no other Vietnamese American that does what I do, women and men. With all the humility, I'm kind of a rare anomaly. There are not a lot of Asian standup comedians. I'm kind of a freak show.
For more information on Dat's upcoming schedule, go to his official website.
Date Posted: 2/6/2009