Calgarians We Love: Andrew Phung

As his show Kim’s Convenience sets to air its fifth season, comedian Andrew Phung reflects on growing up in Calgary, developing his instinct for humour and his enduring love for this city.

Photograph by Nick Wong

Fifteen years ago, at the former Outlaws Nightclub on Macleod Trail, Andrew Phung danced like nobody was watching. Twenty-two and single, he’d just been introduced to an attractive woman who was, indeed, watching as he lost his footing and went down hard. As he lay in a small ocean of spilled beer while Jamiroquai played on, Phung saw two choices: he could slink out the back door, or he could stand up and keep dancing. He chose the latter — proving his long-held suspicion that the more spectacular the failure, the bigger the success: charmed as hell, the girl married him.

Like many professional comedians, Phung, who plays sweet, goofy Kimchee on CBC’s hit television series Kim’s Convenience, isn’t laugh-a-minute in conversation. In a Zoom interview from Toronto — looking every bit his character in a backward baseball cap and surrounded by dozens of pairs of collectible sneakers — Phung is earnest and articulate.

“Kimchee leans closer to myself in my late 20s, but he’s more blunt than me, and he’s got different insecurities,” he says. Early on in the series, while workshopping his lines with his fellow actors, a mantra would loop through Phung’s mind: “He’s not you, Andrew.”

Phung was born in Calgary to a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father who was raised in Vietnam. His parents both immigrated to Canada with their families in the late 1970s. Phung is still piecing together his parents’ respective pasts in Vietnam, consuming what morsels they occasionally dish out, and filling the gaps through conversation with his close but vast extended family (his mother is one of 13 siblings, all of whom came to Canada together). “My mom is pretty guarded on her family history and I realize now that she doesn’t tell me a lot because she holds a lot of pain in her heart,” he says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, comic relief was appreciated in the Phung household. “My mom was a huge John Ritter fan,” says Phung. “We’d watch Three’s Company together and Murphy Brown re-runs and SNL, and that helped my parents learn some of the nuances of North American comedy to maybe connect more with me.”

Many Saturday nights, when his mom worked the late shift at Japanese Village, young Phung and his dad would pick up Taco Bell and rent Jackie Chan movies. “The cultural learning went both ways: my dad was teaching me Hong Kong comedy and I saw myself in Jackie Chan,” he says. Armed with some legit taekwondo skills for his age, Phung attempted to emulate Chan’s over-the-top fight scene from the movie First Strike. “My dad would find me in the basement and tell me to stop using our ladder as a Jackie Chan weapon.”

Phung’s mom worked various jobs, serving in restaurants and at a school cafeteria, and then opening a flower boutique near Marlborough Mall. His dad worked at a metal fabrication shop, saving money and learning the trade so that he could eventually open his own business.

“That place was my first job,” says Phung, an only child who was often left, quite contentedly, to fend for himself while his parents worked. “I was raised by immigrants who worked non-stop,” he says. “My parents took every opportunity they could to make our lives better.” The summers he worked at his dad’s shop were, up to that point at least, the hardest of his life, he says. “That time gave me the work ethic I still carry with me.”

Photograph by Nick Wong

That work ethic applied even to Phung’s hobbies, especially improv. In high school, on the advice of his drama teacher, who sensed he might have an affinity for improv, he and a group of friends walked into Inglewood’s old Garry Theatre — formerly the home base for The Loose Moose Theatre Company — looking for something to do on Friday nights and Saturdays.

“Improv classes were free, and I can tell you without a doubt that is the number one reason I’m on the path I’m on,” says Phung. “It was something I didn’t need permission or money to do every weekend.” His parents would have found a way to pay for just about any other type of class (preferably science or math tutoring) but comedy? He laughs at the thought.

Like all participants, Phung helped clean the theatre and rip audience show tickets. He enjoyed a steady diet of free popcorn and lime rickeys, but he was most gratified by the opportunities to fill his comedic toolbelt with tricks and skills gleaned while watching some of the world’s best competitive improv comedians in action.

Dennis Cahill, founding director of Loose Moose, recognized Phung’s drive and diligence: “Andrew worked really, really hard to get where he is,” he says. Still, in the arts especially, hard work alone is no guarantee of success. Cahill recalls that 16-year-old Phung was typical in that, like a lot of young people who showed up to the theatre, “he was full of enthusiasm and not very skilled.” And, Cahill says, future stars are not always obvious. “We learned that a long time ago — when someone starts out at this, you don’t know how they’ll do, but Andrew not only stuck with it, he had charm.”

Cahill recalls Phung’s penchant for volunteering at the box office on show nights, animatedly chatting up everyone who came to the window and making new friends all around. Later those evenings, when audiences were asked to award points to favourite players and eliminate others, guess who owned their hearts before they even sat down? “He started winning all of those Maestro Impro rounds,” says Cahill with a laugh. “It’s not that he wasn’t talented, but that charm went a long way.”

More surprising, perhaps, is that Phung never considered himself particularly funny in those early days, nor did he see comedy as a viable job option for himself. “I didn’t have dreams of doing this,” he says. “I joined the theatre with a bunch of other kids who wanted stand-up to be their career. They were the funnier ones — I was just trying to learn and hang out with these cool kids.”

In fact, Phung was set on a career in oil and gas because, well, it was Calgary in the early 2000s. (It was also a respectable consolation for his mother, devastated that her son wasn’t aiming for med school.) Instead, after completing an economics degree at the University of Calgary, he wound up running the robust Calgary Sport & Social Club and later, overseeing Child and Youth Friendly Calgary (now Youth Central) — a non-profit aimed at providing leadership opportunities to youth, many of whom are considered at-risk. It was that work that earned him a spot in Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40 Class of 2009 and put him in a position to facilitate a session with youth and then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean. “I considered doing an MBA and getting into the corporate sector,” says Phung, who showed up for the program’s introductory session in a T-shirt rather than the de rigueur power suit, and promptly changed his mind.

Phung was 26 when he came to terms with the real possibility that he could pursue comedy for a living. “That’s when I finally realized that I could hold my own with anyone on stage — that I’d created my own toolbelt,” he says. He cut down his hours at the youth agency and, for four or five years, was Calgary’s most sought-after emcee (tied only, perhaps, with Dave Kelly), charismatically hosting upward of five events a month, from huge shows on the Bell Stage at the Calgary Stampede, to an annual chicken wing festival. He white-hatted Michael J. Fox rocking a pair of Nike Air Mags from Back to the Future Part II (“a boyhood dream come true”).

Phung also started initiating his own productions, co-hosting a live late-night show called Past Your Bedtime with Renée Amber, a friend and fellow comic who, Phung says, educated him on avoiding the low-hanging fruits of misogyny that plague comedy. He wrote for and co-starred in a video series called Cowtown , a project that also featured one of his closest friends, Calgary artist Mandy Stobo. “I had such big dreams and Andrew would always check in on me and say, ‘Mandy, I’m hustlin’, you hustlin’?’ And I’d say, ‘I sure am,’ and then we’d go on with what we were doing,” says Stobo.

Phung also devoted himself to connecting Loose Moose to the community and pulling youth in. He breathed new life into the company’s annual high-school Theatresports tournament, which was experiencing a bit of a lull, and made it rock again. “Andrew really took to heart what the Moose gave him,” says Cahill. “He became instrumental in a lot of our high-school programs and that’s part of his legacy here.”

Photograph by Nick Wong

In the summer of 2015, Phung performed his improvised action-movie parody Kill Hard at the Edmonton Fringe. Toronto-based Korean-Canadian playwright Ins Choi was also performing at that year’s festival, and ended up in the audience. In development at the time for the TV adaptation of his hit play Kim’s Convenience, Choi approached Phung after the show and took down his contact info on a piece of paper. Months later, Choi handed the paper to the show’s casting director.

Kim’s Convenience revolves around the relationships and issues faced by a Korean-Canadian family and their friends. In classic sitcom form, messy misunderstandings and problems — most often fuelled by Mr. Kim’s Archie Bunker-like stubbornness — are endless; obvious solutions are elusive; and conclusions are generally absurd, heartfelt and gratifying.

The ensemble cast is stacked with deft physical comedians, including Phung, whose whole being registers surprise, warmth and hurt in broad theatrical strokes.

“I play Kimchee as a mix of a bunch of people in my life — he’s a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, a sibling, an old friend. I want people to see him and know that guy,” says Phung, who won the Canadian Screen Award for best supporting comedic actor in 2017, 2018 and again in 2020. Despite his pride in his former protege’s success, Cahill admits he doesn’t watch Kim’s Convenience, the fifth season of which is scheduled to start airing in January 2021. “My wife is a fan but I only watched one episode, and I told Andrew I just cannot watch people I know on TV.” (Likewise, Cahill never watched former Moose players Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney on The Kids in the Hall.)

The success of Kim’s is part of a remarkable wave of positive attention for Canadian sitcoms. Schitt’s Creek made Emmy history last fall with a complete sweep of all comedy categories (a freaking CBC sitcom!). Phung, like many Canadians, grew up with the feeling that our TV shows were charming, but often seemed to be attempting to replicate their American counterparts, sacrificing their own unique qualities in the process. “Canadian TV used to look like Canadian TV.” says Phung, “But our production values have caught up, and a show like Schitt’s Creek opened the door to Kim’s Convenience, Workin’ Moms, Letterkenny and Jann. It put a spotlight on Canadian creators who are like, ‘hey, we got this.’”

A national profile hasn’t dimmed Phung’s love for his hometown. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more zealous about Calgary than Andrew Phung. “I love this city. For 10 years, people came to see me on Friday nights at Loose Moose, and they trusted me and cheered for me and laughed for me and so now, when I’m on a national scale, I want to represent Calgary in such a positive way,” he says. He recently starred in the Calgary-centric movie Events Transpiring Before, During, and After a High School Basketball Game. “It was so much fun, and it’s so special, because if you know Alberta high schools, you will smell your school while watching this.”

He is particularly fond of the city’s culturally diverse northeast quadrant, having grown up in various neighbourhoods including Falconridge, Pineridge, Temple, Coral Springs and Monterey Park. A devotee of Calgary culture and politics, Phung is known to rise to the defence of the city’s visible and religious minorities, calling out pejorative or discriminatory comments on Twitter.

Phung is also a vigilant champion for local businesses: when COVID-19 hit, he took to Twitter again, this time to urge Calgarians to order food from Chinatown stalwarts like Regency Palace and the Silver Dragon. “People got weird about Chinatown and I wanted to get ahead of any anti-Asian hate,” he says. “It really bothers me when people make this city look bad.”

On Kim’s Convenience, Kimchee is the funny, affable sidekick, but Phung would argue that his character has had some of the most growth on the show: “You’re seeing a young slacker turn into an adult with a job, healthy relationships, his own quirks.” And even though, he’s not Phung, many of Kimchee’s defining characteristics define both of them. Certainly, Kimchee is the show’s most exuberant and consistently kind character, its unexpected moral centre. In short, he’s the guy you want to be friends with.

Photograph by Nick Wong

 

Phung Facts

Favourite Chinese restaurant in Calgary: Regency Palace.

Favourite Thai restaurant: Spicy Hut.

Favourite Vietnamese sub: Saigon Deli, Forest Lawn.

Favourite pho: Nho Saigon, Marda Loop.

Most frequent Insta post: Cuddles and cartoons with his kids on Saturday mornings.

Hardest part of his job: Learning lines.

Stellar night at home: Takeout dinner, running KC lines and watching TV with his wife, Tamara.

Something someone said that stuck with him: “You can’t make everyone happy.” (Mayor Naheed Nenshi).

Most surprising place he has been recognized by fans: Times Square.

Favourite niche YouTube show: Cash Jordan’s NYC Apartment Tours.

Current book he’s reading: A Flawless Mistake: Tales From a Beautiful Life of Colossal F*ckups, by Tamara Woolgar.

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This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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