Anh Do takes things pretty seriously. At just 14 he launched his first business, selling tropical fish to excited, if somewhat ill-advised schoolmates. By the time he’d reached university, there were four franchised stores selling his range of American Indian artefacts and it wasn’t long before law firms across the country were making offers for Do to join their ranks.
Now, with a best-selling book (The Happiest Refugee) telling the story of life in a Malaysian migrant camp, of his family’s boat journey to Australia and of growing up as an outsider in his new home, it’s easy for some to forget that Anh Do is actually a comedian.
And a funny one, too.
“I was told by some people not to put the word ‘refugee’ in the title because it’s an unpopular topic, but luckily it hasn’t been too much of a turn-off,” he tells Time Out. “The book has become one of the highest selling Australian autobiographies in history”.
The secret to Do’s success isn’t timing, although he pretty much has that down too. His genius is to wrap heartbreaking life stories in humour, a bit like Greg Fleet discussing his own tragic history, but this time not self-inflicted.
“I don’t really try to tackle serious issues. I just talk about my life, like most comedians do. It just so happens that my childhood has had lots of ups and downs. I knew it was a bit different, but didn’t realise it was extraordinary until readers told me so.”
The book took a year to write, during which time Do continued to perform his ever-popular stand-up routine. He also took the time to grow his profile as Celebrity Speaker, another of his many skills. “They expect a comedian who makes the room laugh, but also inspires the audience and makes them feel pretty good about life in general.”
Now that The Happiest Refugee has been critically acclaimed around the world, Do is back on the comedy circuit. He’s peddling his book as a stage show and is feeling a lot more comfortable with the stand-up format.
“You can’t control timing, inflection or volume in print,” he points out. “Except for the occasional capital letter shouting, exclamation marks or dots … to … force … a … pause…”
As the Anh Do success story continues, next is a film of The Happiest Refugee. Russell Crowe has already optioned the rights and Do is preparing to play the role of his own father.
“He weighed 55kg when he was on that boat. I currently weigh around 90kg, so there are two things I’ve got to do; lots of research and stop eating donuts.”