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Guffaws with the Gurus of Comedy

July 2006
Guffaws with the Gurus of Comedy

It was a packed house at The Punchline, despite the much publicized Bollywood concert going on across town. ‘The Gurus of Comedy': Paul Varghese, Raj Sharma, Tapan Trivedi and Daniel Nainan were the stars, making their Atlanta stop on their national tour. Khabar got to hang out with the comedians before and after the show.

It's all a laughing matter when one sits down with not one but four funnymen to talk about comedy. Tapan Trivedi, the first performer, grew up in India, and came to the U.S. at age 22. Pushed on stage by his friends during an open-mike event, he killed the crowd with laughter during his debut, but bombed the next seven times. Addicted to laughter and performing, he persevered and sharpened his act until he became a finalist in a competition. Trivedi was the emcee for the show – ‘The Gurus of Comedy'. Winning the audience over with brilliant and hilarious observations on life as an Indian immigrant, Trivedi got the audience ready for the hilarity ahead.

Daniel Nainan was next. He left his job as a junior executive at Intel Corporation in 2001 to pursue a new career—stand-up comedy. Nainan, whose father hails from India and his mother from Japan, delivers a solid combination of self-effacing, cross-cultural humor: "My mom is so Japanese that when I was born, I came out cordless," and "I'm what you would get if Harold and Kumar mated." Nainan has performed with the kings of comedy, Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Saget, and most recently toured the country with HBO comedian Robert Schimmet. His television credits include Comedy Central and NBC's Last Comic Standing and Nickelodeon's Gotcha.

Raj Sharma took the stage next. At a very young age, Sharma learned that a sense of humor would take him a long way. He blends his traditional South-Asian upbringing with his hip-Texan influences with insight and precision. "My Mom's dream of her son being a doctor crashed and burned. You may think that's sad, but this is the same lady who said I would be a great computer engineer because I reset the clock on the microwave without the manual." Sharma continues to perform with some of the nation's most popular comics at some of the most popular venues. To how it all began, Sharma says, "I was at a show in Dallas and saw Paul [Varghese] on stage. My brother books entertainment for a juvenile diabetes event, so I approached him about booking Paul. When we met, we started talking, and here we are four years later."

Headliner Paul Varghese provides a slow, relaxed delivery of really great material: "Do you think Ku Klux Klan members get that much more upset because their shadows are black?" and "You ever get so drunk, you sit on the couch and start looking for the seat-belt?" On becoming a comic, Varghese says, "I had always wanted to see an Indian comic on stage—not even just an Indian comic, but a comic who represented what I went through."

The comedians got up close and personal with Khabar after the show:

Is there enough content in this new world of desi standup comedy to give each of you a unique routine? Or do you think you'll find yourself stepping on each other's toes?

Sharma: I don't think so. On this tour, everybody's style is completely different.

Trivedi: There's enough out there for all of us.

Nainan: It's infinite. It's a big country.

Varghese: [No!]There's only room for 10 comics and that's it. Somebody's got to die for anyone else to get in.

Trivedi: And we start at the top, so Paul's first. (Laughs)

Varghese: Hey! Take it easy. No wait! Russell [Peters] is first. (Laughs)

Nainan: (Laughing) it's Russell, and the nine dwarves.

Present company excluded, who, in your estimate, stands out as the funniest desi stand-up comic?

Varghese: Russell Peters is the only one. Everyone else is on the same level. We're all trying to build up to that level, you know what I mean? Russell and Gerry Bednob, who was in The 40 Year Old Virgin, he started in the early '80's or was it the late '70's.

Trivedi: Those two are the gold standard.

Varghese: Everyone else here I know started in the last five years. All of us who started in the last five years haven't reached that level.

Trivedi: They have put in their time. And they deserve it.

Varghese: They do deserve it. They've been doing it for twenty years and there are those of us who have been doing it for five, and there's nothing in between. There are no Indian guys headlining clubs right now. In ten years, twelve years, hopefully?

Nainan: One of the things in comedy is all about how many years you've been doing it. Russell's been doing it for seventeen years. You have to pay your dues. I've slept on cardboard in the rain to get auditions. Whatever you do, if it's ballet, NFL, or comedy, success is 5% talent and 95% hard work.

Varghese: Time is the major factor. Those guys have paid their dues.

Trivedi: One thing Paul says all the time is that we are probably laying down the groundwork for the next Eddie Murphy, who will probably be part of the next generation.

Varghese: Among black comics, you've got Red Foxx and his peers who gave rise to Richard Pryors, who gave rise to the Eddie Murphys, who gave rise to the Martin Lawrences. Right now, you have Russell and Gerry, who are the very beginning for South Asian comedy, and then you have us, who are probably close to the point where we can cross over. It might take twenty years to break into the mainstream. We're going to be like fifty, sixty, seventy years old and still be performing, without ever having crossed over. Some twenty-year old kid will come out of the water, steal our material, and be rich. And then I'll have to kill him. (Laughs)

Trivedi: (Laughing) I'm going to protect him. It'll probably be my kid.

Just a few years back Indian standup comedy was almost non-existent. Who or what triggered this sudden surge of popularity in desi comedy?

Varghese: A lot of South Asian and Middle-Eastern comics started going into it after September 11, 2001. It sounds bad, but I never saw them before September 11.

Why do you suppose the September 11 attacks had that kind of effect?

Varghese: We were automatically the oppressed minority at that point. So they took it upon themselves to cope with that. I started stand-up that June, and then the attacks occurred, and they couldn't work me for a couple of weeks because they were afraid something would happen to me onstage. A year later, you see a variety of comics on television, humorously marketing themselves as "non-terrorists." Maybe it was okay at the time, but to me it was like milking a tragedy. Humor can be a good defense mechanism, but?

Trivedi: My birthday really is September 11, and some jokes just write themselves. When someone who looks like me is celebrating on September 11?

Outside the stand-up comedy circle, we're seeing more South-Asian geared humor in movies and television. Is that stemming from the same tension?

Varghese: All these comics came out after September 11, and it increased our visibility. After a while though, it will taper off. It will have to become more universally funny. Russell will have a Comedy Central special coming up at the end of this year. The effects of that will be interesting to watch. Because then we'll be able to see how big that really is.

Each of you has material that's not geared specifically towards a South-Asian audience. It's a mix of all kinds of different things.

Trivedi: All of us need to have two sets of material. We have one for the normal crowds, and one for [the desi one].

Nainan: I don't agree. I try to make mine so that everyone can understand it. I can do that exact same set in Atlantic City, and most of them are white senior-citizens, and they all laugh. If you create a different set, then you'll find yourself saying, I can't do this material in front of certain audiences? Raj and Paul have a lot of stuff.

Varghese: But I disagree with that. I'm not writing one set for just anybody. Indian comics have it harder than all these comics out here. You have to have your mainstream set because people don't respect you if you do forty-five minutes of Indian material. Now you have to have the Indian set for this crowd (referring to tonight's audience), because this crowd, for the most part wants to hear the stuff they came to hear. Then you have the various separations of Indians: the ABCDs [American Born Confused Desi's], the immigrants, the parents. You have to find a way to make jokes for all people and push it into one act.

Trivedi: Within those three generations is where we somewhere fall. And that's why there's so much for us to talk about.

Sharma: Like they say in marketing, ‘you have to know your audience'. And there are things we have to adjust to quickly, on stage.

Varghese: I would love to do a forty-five minute set of just mainstream material, but this crowd wouldn't respond to it.

Trivedi: This is the first time I'm chasing a completely Indian audience, and I have to come up with a lot of new stuff.

Varghese: The stuff that is funny to white crowds about Indians is stuff that may be offensive to Indians. And then you do that joke, and you realize, "Oh crap, it is offensive." It's yet another thing we have to look at.

What makes this fun for you guys?

Varghese: It's the laughs. It's not the money (laughs). We're not millionaires. You do it because at the core you love to make people laugh.

Nainan: I've never done any kind of drug, never got high, drank or smoke, or anything. So when you're on the stage and people are laughing like that, I think that's what it must feel like to do drugs. It's the most amazing feeling in the world.

Trivedi: (Laughing) I've done everything under the sun, and stand-up is better.

Who would you name as the most talented comic in Bollywood?

Trivedi: Johnny Lever.

Nainan: I see Bollywood as the butt of humor. I don't get into Bollywood at all.

Trivedi: But stand-up is gaining popularity. Like the Last Comic Standing, there's something called The Great Laughter Challenge in India. It's mainstream now.

Nainan: I laugh whenever I see Bollywood on a screen somewhere.

Trivedi: Having been in India for twenty-two years before coming here, I can understand why, when your life is that hard, people will pay three dollars for three hours of an escape. You want that escape.

As regards to having a sense of humor, where would you rate the Indian American community? Do we laugh at ourselves easily?

Nainan: I think the Indians are the best audience. They are so good at laughing at themselves. I'm half East-Asian, and I perform to some East-Asian audiences, and they're nothing like the Indian audiences. Indian audiences laugh at themselves. They're wonderful—best that I've ever performed for.

Varghese: To me, the best audiences are the aunties and uncles, the older ones. They're not going to laugh for forty-five minutes straight. They're not going to be slapping the table. But the core things they adore. [Those things] takes them over the top. Most of the people we get coming up to us after the show are the uncles and aunties. It's not the kids. If we can make someone else's dad laugh, that's the biggest rush.


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