Most two-year-olds have it pretty easy. They pretty much just eat, watch cartoons, kick me in the nuts when I come over to babysit, and then sleep. Not so for Anh Do. In 1980, he found himself cramped into a nine-metre long fishing boat with 47 other Vietnamese refugees sailing across the Indian Ocean in search of escape from the horror of their homeland. He was violently sick from dehydration. Water had run out days ago, and one person had already passed away. Thirty-years-later, and Do has become of Australia’s most loved and admired comedians. His inspiring autobiography – The Happiest Refugee – has received much acclaim from not only critics, but as it turns out, Russell Crowe.
“I get this phone call and the voice says, ‘Hello Anh. It’s Russell Crowe’ and I dead-set think it’s my mate Johnno taking the mickey. Lucky I didn’t say, ‘Nick off Johnno!’ He really was a gladiator. He told me he started reading [my book] the night before and it kept him up til 3am and he really enjoyed it. And I had a couple of meetings with him and hung out and so he’s optioned the movie rights. It’s very exciting times,” Do explains.
Before he adapts the book to the big screen, Do has developed a stage show that mixes his brilliant comedy with moving anecdotes as he weaves through the joys and sorrows of his life.
“Basically it all started a few years ago. I’m sitting around having a few beers with Dave Hughes after filming an episode of Thank God You’re Here and I’m telling Hughesy a couple of real life stories and he goes, ‘Mate you’ve gotta do that onstage’. So I’ve been doing a little bit of it onstage and it turned into a book, and recently my stand-up has evolved into funny but also moving and emotional [material]. There’s a lot more storytelling and a lot more depth and meaning to it and audiences are really responding to it.
“The beauty about this show is it’s not just me doing stand-up; it’s gonna be video I’ve filmed with my family doing stuff, telling stories…there’s old family photos. It’s half a theatre show”.
However, Do admits that reliving some of the darker moments of his life and drawing humour from his horrors may invoke a particularly bizarre feeling.
“It will be strange. Most comedy comes from pain anyway. That’s how human beings [deal with pain]; it’s a coping mechanism. And you’ll probably find talking to a lot of comedians, there’s a lot of pain underneath all the laughter. I know personally, there’s something underneath all the jokes.
“The funny thing is, hearing stories of escape and war and pirates, my family tell it with laughter and humour. On our journey on the way to Australia, we were attacked by pirates, and one of my uncles was 15 at the time, and he was so scared he wet his pants. And he’s now like a 45-year-old man, but a few months ago we were all sitting around having dinner and his daughter just mentioned that she hired out The Blair Witch Project on DVD and all my other uncles say, ‘No no no, don’t show your dad that. When your dad gets scared he wets himself’. So they’re still giving it to him after 30-something years. It’s a family of larrikins that deal with very tough stuff through laughter and humour, and I guess I have them to thank for where my comedy comes from”.
Do emphasises that while the pains of his youth left an indelible mark on his personality, his moments of despair eventually enriched him as a human being.
“If you look back on your life, often it’s the tough stuff that’s made you better or stronger. And you say to yourself, ‘Actually maybe if it weren’t for that really dark period where I would’ve given anything to not feel that, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am. I wouldn’t be where I am’.
“[Such as] my father leaving when I was 13. I was 13, my brother was 11, and we suddenly became ‘the man’ of the house. I started some businesses at the age of 13 selling tropical fish at the markets and stuff and basically I grew up very quickly. If it weren’t for all the tough stuff from my childhood, I wouldn’t have a book.
“I’ll always have a barometer, whenever I feel fear coming on, I’ll always think to myself, ‘This is nowhere near as important and dangerous as being in charge of 40 lives in a nine metre fishing boat in the open ocean. So I’ll always have that as a barometer to take away my fear.”
With his father gone, Do’s mother played a vital role in ensuring he had a mindset that understood the irrelevancy of failure.
“My mum used to say, ‘Anh, give yourself permission to fail’. And I’d go, ‘Why would I try fail?’ and she’d say, ‘No don’t try and fail, just give yourself permission to play a bigger game’. Like when I was on Dancing With The Stars, my goal was don’t get kicked out first week. That was my goal. Then my mum said, ‘Why don’t you just try win the whole thing?’ And I said, ‘Mum that’s ‘cause I can’t dance’. She said, ‘That’s alright, try win the whole thing’ so I got to the grand final and then I lost. I called up my mum and said. ‘Mum, I lost, I failed everyone’. She said, ‘No no you didn’t fail mate. You went ten times better than your original goal – don’t get kicked out first week. You got to week ten!’ I’m very lucky to have a mum who thinks like that, and [she also said],‘By the way, you lost because you can’t dance!’”
BY NICK TARAS
Anh Do's The Happiest Refugee visits the Arts Centre on Tuesday July 17 and Wednesday July 18.