“I don’t wake up every morning thinking I’m Vietnamese,” says Andrew Phung, co-creator and co-star of the new sitcom Run the Burbs. “I’m Vietnamese-Canadian, and this a show about a contemporary Canadian family.”
Run the Burbs, which premieres Jan. 5 on CBC, features Phung as an Andrew Pham, an unsinkable stay-at-home suburban dad whose breadwinner wife is played by South Asian actress-comedian Rakhee Morzaria. Anyone who has watched primetime television lately will have noticed more and more television commercials featuring biracial couples and interracial families. Run the Burbs would seem to be an extension of that trend, but Phung pushes back on that notion.
“It’s not a trend – it’s a reality,” says the Calgary native, speaking on set during a break in taping for Run the Burbs recently in Toronto. “Obviously the character I play was always going to be Asian. But this is the world we live in. The family you see on this show is representative of a suburban Canadian family.”
The fictional Phams raise the bar for inclusivity: Besides the biracial parents, there’s a precocious preteen son (played by Roman Pesino) and a queer teenage daughter (Zoriah Wong). The sitcom’s first episode, which involves a block party for the diverse neighbourhood, reveals the Phams as a tight-knit and upbeat nuclear family. The effervescence is intentional.
“Growing up in the suburbs myself, I always thought the suburbs on television were portrayed in a stale and boring way,” says Phung, who developed the series with friend and collaborator Scott Townend. “I also find a lot of television families to be fragmented. I wanted this show to be a throwback to Family Matters and Full House. This is a family living their best lives.”
Phung will be familiar to many viewers for his role in Kim’s Convenience, the acclaimed hit CBC sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family who own a convenience store serving an eclectic urban community in Toronto. Based on Ins Choi’s 2011 play of the same name, Kim’s Convenience ran for five seasons, from 2016 to 2021. Phung comes from an improv background with Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre. His two-man show Kill Hard at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival attracted the attention of Choi, who brought Phung to Toronto.
On Kim’s, He played Arnold (Kimchee) Han, the best friend of the estranged son portrayed by Simu Liu, the Chinese-born Canadian who starred in this summer’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After Choi and co-creator Kevin White announced their departure from Kim’s Convenience this spring, the show’s producer, Thunderbird Entertainment, decided to end the beloved show, even though it had been renewed by CBC for a sixth season.
On June 2, the same day the fifth and final season of Kim’s Convenience hit Netflix, Liu wrote in a Facebook post that the show lacked racial diversity among writers and producers, and that senior cast members were denied opportunities for creative input. In her own social media post, Kim’s Convenience actress Jean Yoon accused the show of “overtly racist storylines.”
Phung was already working on Run the Burbs when the Kim’s Convenience furor erupted. He says his experiences were different than those expressed publicly by his castmates. “I’m not denying what they said, but I loved my time on Kim’s Convenience,” says Phung, who was elevated from a supporting role to a main character over the show’s run. “I agree there were things that could have been done better. I had my frustrations – I wish I was included more in the writing process. But we can’t lament over and over again what happened on the show.”
Phung characterizes Kim’s Convenience as a “learning opportunity,” and vows to do things a little differently on Run the Burbs. For example, he brought on a Vietnamese cultural consultant and a South Asian consultant to vet scripts.
As for the relationship between actors and writers, things are bound to be different on Run the Burbs, given Phung is both a writer and a featured actor. As well, co-star Morzaria was in the writers’ room herself up until the start of production, when she concentrated on her role during the shooting of the show. Phung had met her on the Canadian news satire series The Beaverton.
“This has been a lot more collaborative than usual,” says Morzaria, who plays the spunky wife, Camille. “I advocate for my character, and I’m listened to.”
Phung, who has also appeared on CBC Radio comedies The Debaters and Because News, says the network has welcomed him into the CBC family. While Run the Burbs is thus far signed for a 12-episode debut season run, he sees a long future for the new show. “I believe in it, and I really think it’s going to be here for a long time.”
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