By Sid Sharma (@SidBSharma)
(This is a continuation of our coverage of the Desi Comedy Festival . For part one, please see here).
Watching a stand-up comic get ready for his or her set is a lot like seeing a samurai prepare for battle. If you think that’s a bit melodramatic, you should have seen the comics at the festival wait their turn. Some looked like they were actually meditating, but everyone was carefully reading the crowd to see what kind of material was working that night.
It’s a face-off with your ego, this comedy business. Just you and your jokes laid bare in the harsh stage lights. These men and women get to find out very publicly if all that hard work and effort they poured into their sets pays off. I admire them immensely for doing it night after night.
I had a chance to catch the co-producer of the festival, Abhay Nadkarni, for an interview. I more than anything wanted to know what drives someone to take that plunge into this strange, exciting and downright terrifying biz art.
Sid Sharma: Basically we are halfway through the show, and so far the material has been really good. I just want to know, how did you get started in all this?
Abhay Nadkarni: Thank you! I used to do a lot of voices growing up. I grew up in India and I used to watch a lot of cricket, and I was always fascinated by these commentators doing these different accents, like from the UK, Australia and South Africa, the West Indies. I just picked up these accents. I used to make fun of all my classmates. I had this … I guess it’s just a knack of observing people’s accents, the way they speak. I used to make fun of everyone. I started doing impressions and then when I moved here for grad school, I started doing stand-ups in LA and I started doing impressions. Then I moved up to San Francisco and now I’m really thinking about my stand-up.
SS: I have to ask this of every standup. Who’s your favorite comic?
AN: You know what, it ebbs and flows. I really liked Richard Pryor when I saw him because he could really paint a picture and that is the hardest thing to do as a comedian. Because sometimes you need to connect with people but if you can make them connect with your story really well, that’s a really good skill to have. Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, really good influences. There’s Eddie Griffin, he’s really hilarious. I like Gottfried.
I started watching comedy in 2004 when I saw Russell Peters going big in that video. I was like, oh, there’s a brown guy doing jokes, it’s amazing! He was hilarious, he’s always been like the beacon of all the Indian comedians, all brown comedians I guess.
SS: So you go down to LA, you start doing grad school and you’re on a very typical track. What’s behind the switch to comedy?
AN: The switch is I just got bored with my life dude. I hate to say this but, everyone is just forced into this mold, right? Engineering, doctor, or whatever. Part of me was just a misfit. I just didn’t fit in that thing because I used to draw cartoons, I was the backbencher guy. I was always drawing cartoons, finding funny situations, and always trying to call bullshit on stuff. I never got along with my teachers, they just hated me. I was a difficult child growing up and then.
Now I’m doing this festival, so it’s good. Stand-up is really hard, and making money is even harder with stand-up, because you have to book gigs on the road and stuff like that. It’s tough but it’s very challenging.
Doing a festival like this is a way to bring the community together and just have them. Feel like it’s something special, because there’s no Indian event in the States like this right now. People need to lighten up, especially Indian people, we take things way too seriously.
That’s the thing. You don’t know unless you try it out.
SS: What do you think of the state of comedy in India?
AN: Oh, it’s brilliant, it’s awesome, and it’s really cool. I keep telling people this. India is going through a cultural zeitgeist, and I like that all-encompassing word. Because, it’s going through this phase where there are so many young people, and they are just tired and frustrated with doing the same old formulaic nonsense that is taught to people. Now it will be beaten down into them even more because there is this Indian guy that’s heading up Google now. It’s going to reinforce the whole thing again. I’m just trying to hit the other end of it and be like, hey, parents can actually tell their kids, hey, you should be a comedian. I want to be alive when that day happens that will be cool. I’ll probably be dead, but yeah, I’m just saying.
They are really funny man, they talk about some interesting issues. It’s scary to do stand-up in India sometimes because you are trying to say something, and then there are so many people that get offended and there’s a backlash. It’s really silly because you are just making fun of life. You’re not shooting anyone, you’re not killing anyone. There are worse things happening around the world to get offended by it. Here you are where people get offended by words or situations. It’s really silly I think.
SS: Do you consider yourself an Indian Comic, an Indian American comic or something else?
AN: You know I consider myself a comic. I have Indian sensibilities, but I just happen to be an Indian that talks about life. I don’t happen to talk a lot about Indian stuff, but I do talk about the fact that I am from India and I moved here, so I have a different experience.
I have a lot of interesting stories to talk about, because I don’t think there is a lot of comedians that had moved here to get an engineering degree and then started doing stand-up. May be Kumail Nanjiani is another famous comedian that did that. Beside from him, there is very few comedians that have that different perspective.
I love the fact that I’m Indian, I have no qualms about it. It’s really cool to be Indian, it’s so cool to be part of an incredible culture. I think a lot of people don’t know about that when they grow up here. It depends on how often you travel to India, how often you have friends from India visiting you, so you break down that barrier. Comedy definitely helps doing that.
SS: Do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting out comedy?
AN: Just keep going up on stage, and keep writing. I think that writing really improves over time. If you start writing, then you keep throwing away stuff, because you know it’s not good enough. You go through this process of cleaning out your closet.
Once you keep going up and doing it, you going to probably not do well in first couple of years. It’s a really competitive field, but you have to have that self-belief that you can make it. That’s the only thing that holds people together, belief that you can actually get it done.
It’s very disappointing at times. I don’t know what’s going to happen next once my set happens. I might be like all pissed off, or I might be really happy. It’s that balance that you need, you need to have a really good temperament to do stand-up, and that’s the other aspect of it.