Dat Phan – From Homeless to Headliner
A SacramentoComedy.Com Interview
From homeless to headliner, Dat Phan knows what it means to work hard to achieve your goals. His story is another "American dream" come true for someone willing to put it all out there.
Phan, the youngest of 10 kids, started in Saigon, Vietnam, and landed in the ghettos of San Diego with his mother. There were times when they slept on bus benches.
"I credit my mom for keeping me out of gangs as a child,” Phan said. “My babysitter was Cox Cable, and it kept me off the streets."
It was during this period that he was inspired by the celebrities he watched on TV.
"It was during the time that Michael Jackson was still black and awesome!"
This all was happening as the ghetto violence surged around him, and it propelled him to get out by any means and not look back.
"When you grow up poor, you have to either work really hard to try and get where you want to be, or you’ll just stay put," he said.
Even though Phan took a drama class while in high school, he admits to being shy and introverted until after he graduated and enrolled in Grossmont Junior College in San Diego. After leaving school at 21, he decided to make his mark in the comedy world.
For the next seven years, Phan worked tirelessly at his trade as a starving artist, driving from one gig to the next, taking odd jobs, (he was once robbed at gunpoint while working as a doorman at the Improv in Irvine, Calif.), sleeping in his car or on friends’ couches.
All that time, he was working on his writing, graphing and charting each sentence and keeping his notebook with him because, as he said, "I was too poor for a laptop, and the notebook was all I had."
"I’m still am very obsessed with my techniques as I am writing my material. I analyze where the beats are, the wording and how many syllables," he continued. "Movies are never done without storyboards, timelines, formulas and equations. They are engineered for success. James Cameron didn’t make Avatar without a plan!"
In 2003, while no longer homeless, but renting a space so small that there was only room to sleep under his desk, he continued to pursue any opportunity that presented itself.
While living on cheap ramen and generic Red Bull, Phan scraped together enough money to send a demo in to NBC for an experimental reality show they were looking at. That experiment was the inauguration of "Last Comic Standing."
After auditioning in person, he was chosen by the talent scouts for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" to be a part of the show, beating 2,000 other comics.
On the show, his obsession with verbal technique brought him ridicule from other comedians, as the nation watched more experienced comics like Ralphie May, Rich Vos and Dave Mordal verbally abuse and taunt Phan for his inexperience and his "Zen-like" approach to comedy.
Through it all, Phan kept his cool, and his technique proved them all wrong as he took the top prize in the show, beating each one of them week by week until he was crowned "Last Comic Standing."
"Was the meanness depicted on the show accurate?” we wondered.
"If you are going to throw a steak (development deal), into the middle of a pack of wolves (comics) that are hungry, you are going to turn a lot of comedians into animals,” Phan said. “Stick all of them all in the same cage (house) for a month, and you get the madness that is a reality show."
With the national primetime exposure the show provided, Phan landed a part in the Kim Basinger movie, "Cellular," did voiceover work for "Family Guy" and began touring the country.
"That’s my movie claim to fame right now. Five minutes as the only Asian character in a movie full of Caucasians!"
Phan went on to be named by the Smithsonian as one of the "Top Ten Most Influential Vietnamese-Americans" and frequently assists Stanford University’s The Jade River Campaign, which provides research and assistance to Asian victims of hepatitis B and liver cancer. Phan’s mother suffers from a form of the disease.
"How’s life today?" we asked.
"Well, I am in a relationship now so my life is a lot more boring than before,” Phan replied. “I used to be the guy out on the hunt for girls – now I just hunt for Girl Scout cookies. How does it define you when you are trolling supermarkets for Girl Scouts like you are looking for your crack cocaine dealer?"
“Do you know ‘Flight of the Conchords?’ ” he responded when asked about his next projects. "I am trying to add the guitar to my act to accent the Asian material that I do."
Going back to his technical and perfectionist outlook, Phan said, "If you look at music theory and comedy theory, they have a tendency to contradict each other on beats, counts and callbacks. Because of this, I am working with a team of people to get this right. It’s fun, and it has refreshed my enthusiasm for writing comedy as well."
Will he be performing music at this Sacramento appearance?
"Not this time,” Phan said. “It just isn’t ready. I will, however, be slipping in some new comedy material. I am constantly trying to keep my act fresh."
Phan has a DVD he recently released called "Dat Phan Live" and his first R-rated CD called "You Touch, You Buy!" Both are available on Phan’s website: www.DatPhan.Com.
Dat Phan will be appearing at the Sacramento Punchline this week, from Thursday through Sunday for five shows.
The Comedy Guy
Steven Bloom (a.k.a. The Comedy Guy) is the founder of SacramentoComedy.Com, the Official Guide to Sacramento Comedy. This Sacramento comedy website is dedicated to interviews, comedian bios, videos and consolidating all of the Sacramento comedy events to a single site. You can send your questions directly to The Comedy Guy at Steven@SacramentoComedy.Com