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July 23, 2014

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Q+A: Comedian Dat Phan talks racism, hecklers, Las Vegas and … steak

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Comedian Dat Phan.

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Comedian Dat Phan.

Click to enlarge photo

Comedian Dat Phan.

Dat Phan at the Improv

Dat Phan at the Improv in Harrah’s on April 29, 2009. Launch slideshow »

If you’ve followed the career of Vietnamese-American comedian Dat Phan since his victory on Season 1 of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” on Aug. 5, 2003, you know the following: He’s been robbed at gunpoint and at one point was homeless and sleeping under a desk and living out of his car.

Phan, 39, isn’t one to rehash his past and instead perks up when the subject of food is addressed (pho and steak are favorites). He also answered questions about hecklers, being a trailblazer in comedy and his family in the San Diego area.

Here are excerpts from a phone conversation with Phan, who headlines South Point Showroom tonight, Saturday and Sunday as part of a tour that has taken him in recent weeks to Boulder, Colo., Boston, San Diego, Atlanta, Memphis and San Francisco.

You were a trailblazer when you won “Last Comic Standing” as an Asian American. Is there racism in the comedy world, the industry, in 2014?

In terms of the audiences, yes, of course, racism is still very strong, although not as bad as in the 1960s. But it’s still out there. I was doing a radio program to promote my show, and nearly every caller had something racist to say. Example: “The only good Oriental is a dead Oriental.” And that was one of the lighter comments.

How do you handle hecklers?

Do you want the analytical or funny answer? The analytical answer is I size them up, listen to the tone of their voice, figure out their gender, where they’re from, then attack them based upon the person I’ve figure them out to be. Otherwise, I start crying.

What’s the best part of your job?

Making people laugh. I get to sleep in? Traveling. These aren’t very funny answers.

And the most difficult part of your job?

Traveling. Sometimes I’m home only two days out of the month.

What do you like to do outside the world of standup?

I like to play music, guitar, acoustic guitar for fun. It’s a hobby. And vocal lessons.

Is your family still in the San Diego area, and how often do you get home?

They’re east of San Diego in Santee and in other parts. I visit them when I can, but I’m a bit of the loner in the family. I’m the only artist, the oddball, and they don’t fully understand what I do.

How long have you lived in L.A. now? Is it where you want to stay?

For 12 years, and, honestly, I sometimes don’t know if I am in the right place. But I think a lot of people here have the same feeling.

Do you want to do standup for the rest of your life?

I don’t know if I want to be 70 and doing clubs, walk in and do a set and tour. It’s amazing that the late Phyllis Diller did that. And Joan Rivers and Don Rickles now.

What would you advise someone trying to break into standup today?

The first few months, have fun and don’t let anyone record you. Treat it like a business, and speak about things you’re passionate about.

You headline in Las Vegas fairly often. What do you like to do here when you’re not performing?

I like to sleep. When I’m there, there isn’t a lot of free time after the shows and radio and media. I like to walk on the Strip. I like to go to Whole Foods and Town Square.

What I really love about Las Vegas are the employees of Las Vegas, the people of Las Vegas. They’re really who I relate to when I’m in Las Vegas. I love the Peppermill. I have a weakness for doughnuts, jelly-filled doughnuts, so I hit up Krispy Kreme. Zia Records off the Strip and Landry’s.

You just meet people from everywhere and have a good time. In L.A., people are trying to move their career forward. In Las Vegas, you meet people from Australia, Arizona, San Francisco, Asia, and they’re like, “Let’s go do something fun.”

When I’m in town, I’ll send a mass text message, and we’ll meet at Pho Kim Long, a 24-hour pho place in Chinatown. Twenty, 25 people will show up. I’m into normalcy, not into the fancy.

It’s like steakhouses, too. Steakhouses are expensive. I remember 18 of us going into a simple, community-table steakhouse where we ate steaks off a paper plate. And it was excellent at one-quarter of the price.

So … in closing?

Well let me tell you something about steak. That’s not funny, though.

Dat Phan is at South Point Showroom at 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday. Go to the South Point website for more information and to buy tickets.

* * *

Don Chareunsy is senior editor for arts and entertainment of the Las Vegas Sun.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

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