STATELINE, Nev. - It's that time again, when friends of Dat Phan start making their annual pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe to see their favorite performer on stage. Has it been that long? Dat really has quite the fan base. I mean when I found out that more than 80 percent of his bookings came from Facebook alone, that blew me away. Wow. I'm happy that someone has found a way to capitalize from that social networking service. That's a big "like" right there, huh?
Even without the social network, Dat always seems booked almost a year in advance. That's because he's motivated and knows the business of comedy, in addition to making people laugh and having such a great time. Oh, sure, he was able to catapult himself after the success that was "Last Comic Standing" on NBC; but to sustain that momentum takes drive and lots of planning. OK, it helps having good people working for you, too. I always find it interesting that not a whole lot of people want to assist you until after you're generating a buzz. Human nature, I guess.
After he appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the phones were ringing like crazy.
Born Dat Tien Phan in Saigon, Vietnam, Dat grew up in San Diego before migrating north to Hollywood. And, yes, he did live out of his car for a while, taking whatever work he could get while perfecting his stand-up routine at night. He was so grateful when he was able to get a gig answering phones at The Improv in Hollywood on Melrose Avenue. I think when other comics called in trying to get booked at The Improv, Dat had a greater appreciation for that side of the business and being on that side of the phone gave him a new perspective about how tough it can be in the world of stand-up comedy.
It eventually paid off, though, and Dat was able to hone his craft while going out for any audition that would have him.
When the opportunity came to appear on "Last Comic Standing," Dat jumped - no wait, he leaped - at the chance to get on that show, if anything for the national exposure. That little reality comedy television show came along on NBC. After winning that season, Dat moved into doing movies, TV specials and getting booked into rooms he once could only dream of.
He does give back, though, being a mentor to young Asian comics just starting out and also to those not even in the entertainment business. I think that's why he's been rewarded by such prestigious organizations as The Smithsonian Institute when he was mentioned as one of its "Top 10 Most Influential Vietnamese-American Individuals."
Between Dat Phan, myself and Ronnie Schell, we have 200 years of comedy experience this week (180 of those being just Ronnie).
I still find it mind-boggling that Ronnie's career started back in the 1950s when he was a contestant on the original "You Bet Your Life," hosted by the legendary comedic actor Groucho Marx, and professed to Groucho that he wanted to get into show business.
Ronnie billed himself as "America's Slowest-Rising Young Comedian" and is still rising, if not as young anymore. Comics to this day love hearing his stories - even if some of them sound a little exaggerated.
I forgot that Ronnie was for years a Bay Area boy, having been raised in the Richmond area before moving down to southern California to make it in Hollywood. Most people recognize Ronnie as the guy who played Duke from the classic '60s sitcom "Gomer Pyle, USMC" and on "The Jim Nabors Hour." I remember his character as Marlo Thomas' agent, Harvey Peck, on ABC's "That Girl." He also co-starred with Goldie Hawn for two seasons on the CBS series "Good Morning, World."
It's inspiring to see him still doing comedy because he wants to by choice. He just loves performing in front of an audience. He's also great to just hang with. OK, he can be non-stop, but we can only dream of having that much energy at his age. As mentioned earlier, Ronnie has some of the funniest showbiz stories including one (OK, many) that involve the late Harvey Korman. Ronnie says that "Harvey used to borrow part of my act," which I just assumed was the norm back in those days because not everybody had a television where they could see your act and know it was yours. He has some classic tidbits on the legendary Milton Berle, who was known for lifting many works from other comics. It's just funny that even after 60 years, some things in this business never change.
Ronnie has worked with all of the legends, including Tim Conway and the late Rodney Dangerfield, to name just a few. In addition to his television work, Ronnie has appeared in numerous motion pictures, including "The Cat From Outer Space" (that's Ronnie's voice you hear as the cat), "The Revenge Of The Red Baron" starring Mickey Rooney and Laraine Newman, and Carl Reiner's "Fatal Instinct." In 1999, Ronnie co-starred in two independent films, "View From The Swing" with Tim Conway and Jennifer Grant, and the comedy "Pride And Peril." Ronnie was installed as the "Honorary Mayor of Encino" for the 10th year and continues to do comedy shows with his fellow comedy group, "Yarmy's Army."