ERIC VOLMERS, CALGARY HERALD
It did not take long for Andrew Phung’s success story to enter the annals of Canadian improv lore.
Andrew Phung: that TV guy who was discovered… while performing improv.
Not long after he began filming the CBC comedy Kim’s Convenience this summer, the Calgarian was keeping his improv chops sharp by performing two nights a week at Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre.
When he first went into the theatre to introduce himself, he found his story had preceded him.
“A girl said ‘Are you the guy that got discovered at an improv show? There’s a story floating around that you got discovered at an improv show!’” says Phung. “I said: ‘Well, yeah, sort of.’ She said ‘That’s amazing, can you tell me the story?’ So it’s kind of become folklore in the improv scene.
For Calgarians, the idea that Phung needed to be discovered may seem strange. He has been a consistent presence in the city for more than decade, having joined the venerable Loose Moose Theatre as a 16-year-old. He’s been a go-to guy for hosting and emcee gigs for years, whether it be for corporations or other organizations. He’s topped local “best-of” lists for his comedic prowess.
But, the simple fact is, national shows rarely cast in Calgary, or anywhere else other than Toronto and Vancouver. And Phung, who has a two-year-old son and another baby on the way, made the decision years ago to stay in his hometown. Television, he thought, was not in his future.
But in the summer of 2015, he was performing his two-person improvised action-movie parody called Kill Hard with fellow Loose Mooser Jamie Northan at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. In the audience was writer Ins Choi, the man behind the hit 2011 play Kim’s Convenience. He told Phung he liked his performance and thought he would be perfect for the role of Kimchee in the upcoming TV adaptation.
“I was shocked and I was really happy and excited and we exchanged contact information,” says Phung. “I didn’t hear anything from him for months. Around February or March, I got an e-mail from the casting director of Kim’s Convenience saying ‘you’ve been requested to submit an audition.’ I found out later on that when they were casting the show he went to the casting director with my name scribbled on a piece of paper and told her ‘he needs to audition.’”
Kim’s Convenience, which debuts Oct. 11 on CBC, expands on Choi’s hit comedy about the generational divide in a Korean-Canadian family that run a convenience store in downtown Toronto. Kimchee is the best friend of Jung Kim (Simu Liu), who is estranged from his father Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) after a falling out that led to Jung leaving home at 16.
Now in his mid-20s, Jung attempts to turn his life around as the family rallies to mend hurt feelings.
While the series is being lauded for its diversity and for presenting nuanced Asian characters, Phung says the humour and tensions of the show should be relatable to virtually every Canadian.
“I think people have used the term immigrant upbringing, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a Canadian upbringing,” Phung says. “If you have the German grandmother, the Italian grandfather, you understand this play. If you have any ethnic background — and I think anyone in Canada does, every Canadian should — then you will connect to (Kim’s Convenience).”
Still, Phung admits that it is nice to see Asians being represented on television. During the Emmys last month, screenwriter and producer Alan Yang bemoaned the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood while accepting a comedy writing award for the American show Master of None. He pointed out that the 17-million Italian Americans in the U.S. have The Godfather, the Sopranos and Goodfellas, while the 17-million Asian Americans have Long Duk Dong, a reference to the cringeworthy, heavily accented foreign student from Sixteen Candles.
“When I got the call sheet for this character, it was the first time I read a character that was Asian but had a purpose in the world,” said Phung. “He wasn’t Asian just to be Asian. He wasn’t Asian just to be the friend, or the guy in the office. He had a purpose. It said that he was into basketball, that he runs his mouth a lot, that he was always there for (his friend). I read it and said ‘Oh, I’m Kimchee.’ I felt like I knew this character.”
The son of a Vietnamese father and Chinese mother, Phung says he can certainly relate to the pressure of living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, a recurring theme in Kim’s Convenience. At 16, Phung says he became a lifelong “a student of comedy” by joining Loose Moose Theatre. But Asian parents want their kids to be lawyers, doctors or engineers, Phung says. When he told his mother he wanted to act for a living, she burst into tears.
But over the years, the family has gotten used the idea. In November, Phung will also have a recurring role on Comedy Network’s The Beaverton, a Toronto-shot series based on the satirical website. With every success comes a little more acceptance.
“My parents love it,” Phung says. “They were suspicious when (Kim’s Convenience) got offered. They just couldn’t believe that someone would hire me and move me to Toronto and pay me money to be on a TV show. They’ve always thought this was a side thing. Over the past few years, my mom and dad help me with my taxes, we kind of do them together. They were seeing how much I was making from acting and they were like ‘What?! People pay you to do this?’ So, yeah, they are pretty proud. When aunts and uncles see me on TV, they are so proud.”
Kim’s Convenience debuts with back-to-back episodes Oct. 11 on the CBC.