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May 2005
Chai Time

Standing Out With Desi Comedy

By SONAL UPRETI

Increasingly, many South Asian Americans are finding that humor can be used as a catalyst to create better understanding and greater acceptance of ethnic minorities in mainstream society. Especially after 9/11, some have found that humor can often be deployed in awkward situations to relieve tension and deflect any hostility that may be directed towards them.

Some of the rising young desi comics, who not only know how to laugh at themselves but are also trying to make a living doing just that, include Dan Nainan, Kamal Bhojwani, Vijai Nathan, Paul Varghese, Tarun Shetty and Azhar Usman. They all have their funny stories to tell. Nainan, the son of a South Asian nuclear physicist and an East Asian child psychologist, was born in Bloomington, Indiana, where his parents had met. Despite a wonderful home life, he was brutally tormented by his schoolmates because of his unusual racial mix, his lack of athletic prowess and his fondness for computers.

"Comedians like the Canadian Asian Russell Peters and Aladin Ullah who has Bangladeshi roots have blazed the trail for comics like me," says Nainan.

In late 2003, he opened for well-known HBO comedian Robert Schimmel, who then asked Dan to tour with him in 2004. This lucky break enabled him to hone his act in front of packed houses at America's top comedy clubs. Currently, he performs at comedy clubs, colleges, civic events, weddings, beauty pageants, corporate functions and charity events nationwide. However, it was not easy for Nainan to make the change from his full-time job at Intel Corporation to the 'unstable' life of a stand-up comedian.

"I would get invited to perform at hotels with no offer of payment," he admits. He has performed with Jerry Seinfeld and was recently seen on NBC's ?Last Comic Standing.' He also does voiceover work, including hilarious voice impressions of celebrities like ex-president Bill Clinton and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on radio stations across the country.

"I used to think that my talent for voice impressions was quite common and that only my dad thought I was great," he laughs. "But I know now that it is extremely rare." This versatile performer sees television in his future and is hoping to break into the medium using his comic talents. A classic Dan Nainan joke: "What if 9/11 happened on 7/11? Indians everywhere would be screwed!"

"Comedy is more than black and white," notes the irrepressible Vijai Nathan, whose one-woman show is aptly called ?Good girls don't, but Indian girls do'. She self-admittedly mortified her parents by giving up a career in journalism, canceling her wedding, and becoming a stand-up comedian. Her unique perspective offers a new spin on dating, childhood, pop culture, politics and racism.

Vijai's irreverent humor springs from her experiences of growing up as a ?foreigner' in America, despite the fact she was born and raised in a suburb of Washington D.C. Much of her stand-up comedy is about growing up as an Indian in America, culture clashes with her parents, and the racism she's dealt with as a child and now as a comedian. An example: "My parents were always worried that I was becoming too American. My Dad would say, ?So you want to wear pants, eat cows, have minty fresh breath? That's it, you're going back to India.'"

Stand-up comic Paul Varghese was last seen at the semifinals of ?Last Comic Standing' at the Midnight Forum, a social group for net executives and founders. Varghese has a slow, relaxed style of delivery and some interesting material. In one of his routines, he imitates his Malayalee parents' accent and makes gentle fun of his ?super-Christian' father's obsession with crosses.

When Tarun Shetty was twelve, according to his website, his dad once said, "Follow your dreams and they will come true." He was actually talking to Tarun's older brother, but Tarun was pretending to be asleep in the top bunk when he heard his father's advice and took it to heart.

Armed with a degree in film studies from NYU, and with the support of his parents, Tarun has made appearances at Harvard University's Demon Comedy Festival, clubs and colleges across the east coast. Most recently, he did a TV pilot for Nickelodeon. When not performing, he spends his time watching the films of Adam Sandler, his favorite Hollywood comedian. According to him, the two golden rules of standup comedy are: (1) Persistence is key. (2) After 12 a.m., everybody is drunk.

"He is on stage, killing," says The New York Times about Azhar Usman, a standup comedian, lecturer, poet, attorney, entrepreneur and community activist. He was born and raised in Chicago to Indian Muslim parents who immigrated to the US in the early 1970s. "I used to feel trapped between three cultures," he jokes. "Mahabharat (that's Mother India), Pax Americana, and that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam. I was never quite sure what direction my life would take ? I could become a Bhangra DJ, mixing at desi college parties, a mere ABCD (that's American Born Confused Desi) or a potato (brown on the outside, white on the inside), or some 'fanatical religious' type."

Bold, unconventional and always willing to take a take a risk, these young comics are breaking boundaries with their unique brand of ?American Desi' humor. "Most Indians and East Asians say they want to become a doctor or a lawyer so that they can make a lot of money. But the second generation does not want to go for the safe alternative just for money," affirms Nainan.


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