You know an interview is going to be fun when, after a digression during his very first answer, your subject asks, “Sorry, what was the question? I got completely ADD.”
Comedian Dat Phan is as funny and entertaining on the phone as he was on the first season of Last Comic Standing, and the Vietnamese comic will be this week’s headliner at The Improv at Harrah’s.
Phan has been recognized both as the first winner of Last Comic and as one of The Top 10 Most Influential Vietnamese-American Individuals by the Smithsonian Institute. Pretty good for a guy who used to be homeless and failed high school English.
The Weekly caught up with Phan as he was moving across town to a larger house in San Diego. Read on to see where his journey started.
After seven years of community college while doing comedy, are you like the Van Wilder of stand-up?
Yeah. My mom probably thought I was going for my PhD, but what she didn’t realize was half of my classes were P.E. and weight training. I would love to have a degree one day, but it doesn’t really mean that you know how to make a living. I feel very blessed that I’ve made it this far.
You were included in The Smithsonian Institute’s exhibition of the Top 10 Most Influential Vietnamese-American Individuals. That is a pretty big honor, what was it like?
It’s kind of funny how that happened. When I was a child, I had a dream of one day becoming very influential and being in the entertainment world. I really wanted badly for that to happen, and in the last couple of years, my manager told me I was nominated for the group of the Most Influential Vietnamese-American Individuals in the world, along with generals and ambassadors and surgeons. It’s an honor. It’s mindboggling. … I’m a college dropout; I’m a high school failure, someone who came from a homeless background, but I understand the American pop culture and doing comedy from my heart led me to be in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
How did it feel to win the first season of Last Comic Standing?
I’m glad you at least know I’m from Last Comic Standing and not American Idol. I didn’t sing “She Bangs.” People have thought I’m William Hung. I’m not quite that guy. He’s actually better looking than me.
When you were filming Last Comic, did you think it was going to be as big as it turned out to be?
I had no idea. I knew that by the time I was 26 years old, I was living under a desk after living out of my car in Hollywood. The only thing I invested my money into in that closet (his apartment) was electricity and Internet. So, I got an email saying there was an experimental show, and if we wanted to send in a package, they would check it out. Next thing I know the NBC Tonight Show bookers watched my stuff and I auditioned. I went up the ranks and had to beat out about 2,000 comics across America to become the Last Comic Standing.
You were up against some veteran comics. How did that feel?
I never once thought I was going to win. I thought maybe I was going to come in second place. Ralphie May, I think, is a very powerful comic. I was pissing my pants because these were very established comics. Ralphie May has toured across the country and opened for Jay Mohr. Rich Vos has been doing comedy for 30 or 35 years. It was basically the green belt coming in and fighting all of the black belts in the house.
After coming to America from Vietnam when you were only a few months old, it sounds like you had a very American upbringing. What was your childhood like?
I lived in the gang-infested area of San Diego called City Heights. My mom kept me alive and away from the gangs by getting me cable. My babysitter was Cox Cable. I grew up watching Dukes of Hazzard. I didn’t grow up trying to figure out why fish sauce is shipped in from Saigon from a certain region. They have a whole different culture. They don’t have Hee-Haw or Benny Hill.
Can you tell me about your recent work in films?
I had a very small role in Cellular where I was an artist but my big debut is actually called When in Rome coming out in January with Josh Duhamel, Danny Devito, Jon Heder and Kristen Bell. In the film, I’m a master magician! I’m Jon Heder’s master. He played the role of Napoleon Dynamite. I don’t know anything about magic. I know, it sounds ridiculous. I’m selling this really well, right?