“That whole period with the Tampa, I was almost ashamed,” comedian Anh Do  admits. “I didn’t want to tell anyone I was a refugee because refugees were ‘baddies’, you know?”
The so-called ‘Tampa affair’ – involving the ship that rescued refugees who were alleged, by the Australian government, to have been throwing babies overboard – proved a turning point for Anh Do. He is now embracing his background in his comedy, talking about his own life as part of a refugee family who made it to Australia, and who – against some odds, but with hard work and determination – made good thereafter.
It’s common for comedians to explore the disjunction between how life is universally accepted to be, and how they experience it; for second generation Australians, it’s often about how their necessarily different family values and experiences – informed by the ‘old country’ – set them apart from their friends and peers. Not so for Anh Do, however. As a stand-up comic – well, to be honest, ‘all-round entertainer’ is more accurate, since Do acts, makes films, hosts game shows, speaks inspriationally and dances to boot – Anh Do has never really played up his Vietnamese origins for humour. A lot of his comedy could be performed by anyone with his talent, irrespective of racial background. Admittedly, this is in part because a lot of the early stuff was prop-based. But even the personal stories were universal: driving the clapped-out car that matched his favourite mode of dress: ‘flanno’; a clapped-out car that was still able to outrun the cops, until they got into their car.Occasionally, Anh would land a non-comedy role on the strength of his exotic background – you’d catch him wielding a samurai sword in the Cornetto ad, in order to slice the confection open to prove there were no boring bits; or turning up unexpectedly as an enigmatic, initially distrusted outsider in an episode of SeaChange…
These parallel career elements would coalesce deliciously when he appeared on stage as part of an all-star show featuring other ‘wog’ (read, if that word is offensive in your culture: ‘non-Anglo Australian’) comics, called Show Us Your Roots. The irony was particularly golden: the guy who happens to be of foreign extraction who doesn’t actually do comedy about being of foreign extraction, cast in a show featuring a bunch of comics of foreign extraction, but still not doing material about being of foreign extraction in that show! In fact, his comedy was possibly more ‘Aussie’ than anyone’s, since it didn’t speak of the non-Anglo Australian experience at all.
“That’s something I do consciously,” Anh said at the time. “People see me on stage and expect to hear the old ‘eating the dogs’, this, that and the other.” Anh’s comedy wasn’t going to be about playing to racial stereotypes, he explained. “I go looking for material elsewhere. In writing comedy, I go back to my personal experiences. Most of my experiences are just of a kid growing up in a working class background, rather than being Vietnamese as such.”
Anh Do is currently performing at the Sydney Opera House, and nowadays, his comedy is a lot more autobiographical. While audiences are still laughing, they’re also quite moved by some of the stories. Like the one about how Anh and his family came to Australia by boat. “It quite a harrowing journey,” Anh says. “There were 40 refugees on an eight-and-a-half-metre fishing boat. We were shot at by communists, we ran out of food and water, we were attacked by pirates twice. And then we were finally rescued by a German merchant ship.”
Understandably, Anh explains, his parents are grateful to this day and continue to have a great regard for Germans and German culture. “My mum’s got a recipe for sweat’n’sour schnitzel,” he adds, insisting that “that’s not even a joke, man. It’s delicious!”
The Do family’s life in Australia after arrival wasn’t easy. There wasn’t a lot of money, he says, “especially after Dad left when I was 13 years old. Mum was looking after three kids on about six bucks an hour…” Still, this experience is the source of humour, not despair – as it always has been. “I mine my life for laughs,” Anh reminds me, “growing up in the suburbs and what it was like as a bogan kid and, furthermore, a Vietnamese bogan kid. I mean, I was the only Vietnamese kid with a mullet – I looked pretty funny!”
So here it is: non-Anglo Australian comic Anh Do, whose material thus far has been about being an Aussie that happens to be from elsewhere, is now talking about the ‘being from elsewhere’. Anh maintains that he’s still avoiding the broad generalisations of his racial background. “I’m talking about my life as a Vietnamese refugee, which is quite different from just looking for Asian stereotypes,” he says.
Not that deriving humour from stereotypes is evil – that’s where a lot of comics begin. Experience, sophistication and the need to be less like other comics leads to the refinement of telling their own, individual stories. “It’s something I wrestled with for some time,” Anh admits. It was the Tampa incident that proved a watershed.
“I remember being at a dinner for John Howard,” the comic recalls. “This table was bagging refugees and someone asked me, ‘Anh, so, you’re not a refugee, are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not; I’m… I’m a migrant.’ I lied through my teeth. And felt very bad about it afterwards. But at the time, I just wanted to… you know, I wanted to… they just slagged refugees and I just didn’t want to… you know…”
The comic finds it uncomfortable, remembering that moment when he wasn’t prepared to take on the table, or indeed, the room, as the single voice of dissent. It was easier to lie and fit in.
Anh’s faced similar situations before, and been able to deal with them as a comic. There was a Diggers’ reunion, he once told me, where he had to play to old soldiers who’d fought in Vietnam, Korea and World War II against the Japanese.
“I walked up on stage, looking like guys who these old guys have shot. I struggled for the first five minutes, but then after ten minutes they realised, ‘He’s just a Westie kid, really; he’s just a lad’. I went all right, and after the gig, an old guy came up to me and said, ‘Mate, you’re quite funny for a slopehead; do you want me to buy you a beer?’”
Anh’s material at the time would have demonstrated that he was indeed a Westie kid – your typical young Aussie – who just happened to be born in another country. And he wasn’t selling himself short by accepting the beer rather than taking offence at the ‘slopehead’ remark. But that’s different to having to lie about something so fundamental to your life as how you came to survive and live and thrive in another country. Although, to be brutally honest – and totally theoretical – it’s the plight of most comics: it’s an underlying need for acceptance and love – to ‘fit in’ – that leads them, in the first place, to the stage, where they get to bend the perception of reality and prove that there is a world view – their own – that recreates a world in which they are successful, in control and loved. When they do it well enough, it becomes a reality that exists beyond the stage and into their everyday lives.
But bringing it back to a practical level, being confronted, at a dinner for a Prime Minister who was exploiting racial insecurities, and feeling the need to fabricate a biography, was a wakeup call: it was time for Anh to be true to himself. This is what his new material is about. “It’s me saying, ‘this is my life; I’m refugee, I grew up poor; judge me if you will, but that’s who I am’.”
Not that this diminishes Anh’s earlier work. It doesn’t make his older jokes less funny. As Anh explains, this new phase of his career is about “maturing as a comic”. Earlier on, playing pubs and clubs, it was all about “having to get quick and cheap laughs before the bikies start throwing stuff at ya”. Nowadays, he’s playing the Opera House, “where you can actually tell a tale and have meaning and depth and all the rest of it”. It’s all about developing the artistry of entertainment. “But it’s not just about being a refugee,” Anh adds. “It’s also about other things… like being on Dancing with the Stars…”
Yes, of course. Beyond his stand-up career with appearances on The Footy Show helping make him known to people who wouldn’t necessarily see live comedy, Anh Do has had numerous television appearances as an actor and as himself on the small and big screen. Anh made it all the way to the grand final on Dancing with the Stars.
“I was doing eight hours of training a day for six days a week,” Anh says of the experience. “I lost 13 kilos. None of my clothes fit anymore. I was rockin’ up to Channel 7 Studios in my Year 10 school pants, the only things I could wear that wouldn’t just fall off. So I went and gave all my fat clothes to St Vinnie’s and I bought a new wardrobe at my skinny weight. Of course, as soon as Dancing with the Stars finished, I packed the 13 kilos back on within a month.” Anh returned to “Hornsby St Vinnie’s” to relocate his clothes, but they’d been sold. “I couldn’t find a single item,” he says. “There’s a dude out there with all my stuff; if I see him, I will mug him to get my stuff back!”
In addition to appearances on Dancing with the Stars, Anh has appeared on Thank God You’re Here (winning the ‘Most Valuable Player’ trophy on his first appearance) and Deal Or No Deal (where he won $200,000 for a home viewer). He was also a regular on Fat Pizza. He is currently back on SBS fronting The Squiz – the Spicks and Specks of sport, if you will – co-hosted with fellow comics Amelia-Jane Hunter and Jordan Raskopoulos. It’s in keeping with a sporting bent that Anh has demonstrated throughout his career, culminating, of course, with Footy Legends, the movie he made with his brother, Khoa Do. Turns out that footy was Anh’s first love.
“Growing up, all I wanted to do was play football. I wanted to play Origin for New South Wales,” Anh says. “That was my dream.” Part of the reason lies with a very basic lesson Anh learnt very early on: “You get picked on for being different, but as soon as you’re good at sport, all of a sudden you’re one of the guys. I became a pretty decent footballer. I trialled for the Parramatta Eels and the Sydney Roosters in the Under 19s. I didn’t make it – my talent only took me so far. But that was my dream.”
According to Anh, his love of “Aussies and sport” is down to the fact that “we’re always the underdog, but we get in there and we give it a bloody red-hot go”. He offers the Olympics as the best example – a perfect segue for a joke.
“My favourite Olympic sport is Synchronised Swimming,” he says. “I love watching it. I’m always hanging for one of the four girls to get a cramp and start sinking to the bottom because I want to see the other three having to synchronise with her.”
The underdog making good, of course, is as much of a draw in comedy as it is in sport. The comic has to come out to a cold audience that doesn’t know him, that will have fun watching him die if they don’t have fun watching him succeed. But that moment a comic can point out a truth that an audience wasn’t even aware that it knew – that is golden. Anh agrees. He was on a panel of people brought together for Channel 7’s Sunrise program, to discuss The Chaser when it was in the doghouse for its touchy ‘terminally ill kids’ sketch.
“I don’t agree with the sketch,” Anh explains, “but everyone was saying that no one is allowed to make jokes about sick kids. I brought up the point that no one is allowed to make jokes about sick kids… other than sick kids.” Anh does a lot of corporate and charity events as MC and keynote speaker, and, he relates, there was one charity gig at which a father, who had lost a son to cancer, made some jokes about his son and his son’s symptoms. “This room was laughing in empathy with the father,” Anh says. “Other parents, who had kids who were sick, were empathising with laughter. That’s the power of comedy. It can be healing. It can be a great tool for breaking down barriers. It’s powerful.”
Anh Do is proof of the power of comedy – having faced the danger of treacherous seas and pirates as one of several refugees on a tiny fishing boat, now starring in television shows and films and appearing in theatres and even the Opera House. But when Anh couldn’t make it as a footy player and first decided to turn to comedy, was it with one eye on the stardom of film, television and theatre? Or was it just the love of doing comedy itself? According to Anh, it wasn’t either, really.
“I discovered that I just enjoy telling stories,” Anh says. “Within a couple of years of doing comedy, there was a part of me that wanted to tell stories that weren’t funny as well. So I started writing a film, which was made. Now I’m also writing a book – my autobiography. And I’ll continue to tell stories, whether it be in the form of funny stories, as a comedian, or in the form of books or movies. I just like telling yarns.”