Andrew Phung is photographed in Toronto on Thursday, December 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Andrew Phung on seeking authenticity for Asian family comedy ‘Run the Burbs’

Andrew Phung on seeking authenticity for Asian family comedy ‘Run the Burbs’

TORONTO — Andrew Phung says he brought plenty of lessons from his hit “Kim’s Convenience” over to his new show “Run the Burbs,” which shifts the focus from a family of Korean immigrants to first-generation kids.

The Calgary comedian, who starred as lovable Kimchee Han on the Toronto-set series, said that while “wonderful things” were done for inclusion on the CBC show, he felt there were “opportunities for improvement” when co-creating his own project.

“It was things like building a really inclusive writers’ room, but even the process to which we communicate and share ideas, thoughtfulness on how we ask questions, have conversations about culture,” said Phung, who co-created the show with Scott Townend.

The new series, which debuts Wednesday on CBC and CBC Gem, draws on Phung’s own experiences as a Canadian-born Asian father raising his kids in Toronto.

He plays Vietnamese-Canadian stay-at-home dad Andrew Pham, who, alongside his entrepreneurial South Asian wife Camille, played by Rakhee Morzaria, faces the trials and tribulations of raising Khia and Leo, played by Zoriah Wong and Roman Pesino.

Storylines revolve around Camille’s blogging aspirations, the family’s relationships with their neighbours and the hurdles of growing up.

Phung said he wanted to make sure the show is inclusive and authentic to its characters. It sought advice from Vietnamese and South Asian cultural consultants and even leaned on a local food consultant “because food plays such a big part in the show.”

But those details were only part of the formula, Phung said the Vietnamese consultant once reminded him.

“I kept saying, ‘I want to get it right,’” Phung recalled.

“And he said, ‘It’s not about getting it right. It’s about getting it less wrong than the people before us.’ ‘Right’ is something really hard to determine because culture is constantly evolving… what one Vietnamese person thinks is different than what the other Vietnamese person thinks.”

Many of these conversations played out in the writers’ room, one of the most sacred spaces in a television show’s production.

When “Kim’s Convenience” abruptly ended last year, star Simu Liu complained about a lack of representation among its writers, saying in a social media post that aside from creator Ins Choi, “there were no other Korean voices in the room.”

This time on “Run the Burbs,” the writers’ room invited co-star Morzaria to share her own perspective.

“As the actor, I was giving notes and feedback on scripts,” she said.

“They were very thoughtful about taking in my notes, and either implementing them into the scripts or letting me know why they may not. I really appreciated understanding that and feeling heard.”

On set, COVID-19 dealt the cast and crew an extra set of challenges.

Among the biggest, co-creator Townend said, was building the chemistry and “close family dynamic” that’s central to the show when the actors were often kept at a distance.

“The cast didn’t meet each other really until a week before the production; we cast everybody over Zoom,” he explained.

“Then when we’re in production… there’s all these physical limitations on what we can do with characters that are supposed to be very close.”

Phung said he put extra effort into making the set “really friendly, really fun, really outgoing.”

“The big thing for us was, ‘How do we write a show that’s really relatable to families of today and to families that live in the suburbs?” he said.

“It was really just creating a process that was really inclusive and open to not knowing and then finding the answers. So that was my mantra the entire way.”

— Marriska Fernandes is a freelance writer based in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2022.

Marriska Fernandes, The Canadian Press