Right now, he's in the national spotlight as one of the 10 up-and-coming comedians in NBC's prime-time talent contest, "Last Comic Standing."
He'll play the La Jolla Comedy Store on Wednesday, he's been signed for a spot on "The Tonight Show" later this summer. At 28, after seven years of striving and starvation, the native of Vietnam has fulfilled his dream – he's making a living, modest as it is, from comedy.
He spends most of his days driving from one gig to another, and often sleeps on the couches of other struggling young comics. But it wasn't that long ago that he lived in his car. Before that, he and his mother lived on the streets of San Diego and slept on bus stop benches.
Over the years, he's been a doorman at the Barona Casino, a bagger at Vons, a waiter, a busboy. One night, working as a doorman at a comedy club, he was robbed at gunpoint. He regrets none of it. His hardships have become an integral part of his humor, as has his upbringing in a cross-cultural family.
"I do whatever it takes to do stand-up," Phan said the other day. "There is an abundance of material in struggling and poverty and trying to make it. There is so much humor in that, it's unlimited. You have to be able to see it. You have to be very creative." Phan was speaking from his car. "I'm always driving," he said. "I'm going from one city to another, working on stand-up, nonstop."
The obsession hit him about seven years ago. He had graduated from West Hills High School in Santee and was taking speech classes at Grossmont College. "I realized I was making people laugh during my speeches, and I liked that feeling," he remembered. He went to the Comedy Store a couple of times, then got up the nerve to sign up for open mike night. But that first night, "I didn't do real well, I bombed. Something sick inside me told me to keep trying because I had nothing to lose. I gave it another shot, and I still bombed, but I got one laugh. And that laugh gave me encouragement to continue for the next seven years."
Phan was already familiar with adversity.He was just 21/2 months old, the youngest of 10 children, when his family escaped from the coming communist takeover of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The family was packed into the back of an ambulance when they came to a guard station. "If I had cried, the checkpoint people would have hosed us all down with machine guns. Luckily, I didn't cry."
The family went first to an Arkansas refugee camp, then to Chicago for five years. Eventually he and his mother, Dung Thi Ho-Phan, came to San Diego, where one of his sisters had found a job in a beauty salon. (Somewhere over the years, his mother and father separated, and his father has since died.)
"It was my mom that raised me," Phan said. "That's why so much of my material is based on my mom. Eighty-five percent of my material is true."
But they couldn't find his sister at first. "My mom and I lost touch with my family. We ended up homeless. There were times we slept on bus stops in City Heights. I was 5 or 6 years old. It was just me and my mom, we couldn't find the rest of my family."
Eventually, his sister saved enough money to buy her own salon in Santee – "That's where my beauty salon jokes come from" – and mother and son moved there with her.
He'd already had several years of odd jobs and sporadic comedy gigs when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers in September 2001.
"The 9/11 attacks woke me up and made me realize life is short," he said. "I decided it is now time to make a decision to either follow your dream or do what your parents say. I chose to follow my dreams. I got a job busing tables at Trophy's in Mission Valley to train myself to move to L.A. and get a job.
"I moved to L.A. in January 2002, and gave myself four years to get a job on a TV show. I got the part in 'Last Comic Standing' in January 2003. It took almost exactly one year to get on a TV show."
When he first arrived, he shared an apartment with a roommate but eventually had to move out. "In April and May last year, I lived in my car for two months.
"I was doing gigs to stay alive. I worked two or three jobs at a time, there were times when I stayed up for 36 hours straight. I slept in shopping mall parking lots. A stand-up gig paid $35, then I could eat for another few days until the next gig. Literally, I was performing to live. The money I made from my day jobs was to pay off my creditors so they wouldn't take my car away.
"But I never thought about giving up, because I remembered when my mom and I lived on the streets in San Diego. I realized that if we made it through that, I can make it through this."
Now, Dat Phan is tasting a little success. "Last Comic Standing" has finished taping, but he can't reveal what the final outcome will be. Nevertheless, the show has changed his life.
"I'm living my dream," he said. "I get to tell jokes for a living. My mom even realized that when she saw the TV show, that I am living off that, and I think that's what she wanted me to do.
"I believe I have a lot to say to the world. I believe that no matter how hopeless it seems, that there is hope. You can get to the next level if you're willing to give up everything and give everything you have in your heart to make it.
"My ultimate goal is to have a regular part in a sitcom, so I can buy my mom a house in San Diego so she can actually have a home of her own for the first time. I want her to have a nice, peaceful place."
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