Desi stand-up comedian Rajiv Satyal conquers new lands
The comedian presents a solo show, about being solo in Los Angeles for the first time. He discusses dating, the challenges of his profession and why Indian Americans are the most privileged with P Rajendran.
Tragedy plus time equals comedy. With that aphorism traceable back to television personality Steve Allen, Rajiv Satyal describes how a less-than-stellar dating career became fodder for his new show, No Man’s Land, that opened on November 1 in the Acme Comedy Theater in Los Angeles.
He is addressing this, not just as a man, but as an Indian man from Ohio, in Los Angeles, and, in fact, as a single, short, second-generation, Indian, Punjabi, Hindu man from Ohio without a suitable date.
Satyal was always funny, but he started his career doing the Indian-American thing: He was punctiliously punctual -- the kind who is caught playing the viola when informed he has been picked for class president.
He also was the class clown who used his tongue to keep potential bullies at bay.
After dashing hopes that he would become another Indian doctor, Satyal went on to finish his engineering at the University of Cincinnati, during which time he interned on Capitol Hill with US Representative Steve Chabot.
He was also a ball boy in tennis, thus getting to meet Pete Sampras, and interned as an engineer at the Wright-Patterson air base.
After graduating in 2000, he worked at Proctor and Gamble for six years, but while purchasing, and managing first media and then brands, he began doing shows on the side.
“Then I turned 30 and I freaked out,” Satyal said. “I had had the life. I feel that Indians will say that you have made it. I was dating an Indian girl -- a very pretty Indian girl. I owned a house, I owned a car. Nice car. Nice house. I had made it. I had made it in the definition of -- like what? -- 98 per cent of the people, especially in the community (who) will say ‘Yeah, this kid did all right.’”
Of course, it was everything Satyal could have wished for. So naturally he quit.
Satyal kept performing at a lot of shows until one in 2007, on Capitol Hill, that he did with fellow stand-up comedian Azhar Usman (Make Chai not War), seemed such a good idea that the government sent them over to India as cultural ambassadors.
While his onstage performances were getting slicker, he bumbled through a series of relationships, learning from each of them.
In 2010 he decided to find the humour in it all, and distill it into what became the upcoming show.
“It is the story of my life as told through the lenses of eight or nine girls.” And he does not mind people finding his problems funny.
Image: Rajiv Satyal
Photographs: Rajiv Satyal
'I would say that Mera Naam Joker resonates with me'
There are two types of people: those who can laugh at themselves, and those who cannot,” he said, adding that he has put it in writing in Facebook that he was only friends with the first type.
Satyal admits that having been brought in a family where Hindi films were seen as often as English ones, he is familiar with a Raj Kapoor movie with a similar theme.
According to him, “I would say that Mera Naam Joker resonates with me. Comedians, we leverage our own trials and tribulations for material, not only for personal gain but also -- and more importantly in the hopes that -- others’ laughter will translate to us as empathy.” He still deems himself a happy and fortunate person.
‘My dating life has been the only aspect of my life which has been surprisingly difficult, but I’ve taken responsibility for it and have bettered myself as a result,” Satyal said.
“Even though the story I’m telling is unique to me -- my personal experience -- it is hopefully something for everybody, anybody who thought… I was the only one (facing this situation),” Satyal said.
“One of the central questions of the story is, what does it mean to be a man in modern society. With the appropriate and right rise of women all over the world, whether it’s in India, in America or other places, the role of a man in society is not as defined as it once was.”
Though he discussed male angst, he said things were not that different for women, citing their reaction to a man holding open a door for them.
“Some of them want you to, some of them don’t want you to,” he said, before going back to the New Male Crisis.
“There’s a whole thing around that. We’re kind of in the wilderness, trying to search for our identity as men: What do women want, what do we want, what does society want, what does the home want, what does work want.
“I think when men watch the show they will go like, wow. Especially with Indian men (here), you know, there’s this outsider status,” Satyal said.
Things were not much better for him when he visited India.
“We interacted with hundreds and hundreds of Indians, and they were fascinated by us because we were like them -- and we were not like them,” he said. And yet he had seen that when he got a standing ovation at Rutgers, where a huge section of the audience had come over from India not too long ago.
“I felt pride. My work’s so different (from what they are used to) but they found something in the show where they (felt empathy).
Doing stand-up in the early days was about getting comfortable standing before people.
“(So) in the beginning you use a lot of crutches -- accents, voices, etc,” he said, and quoted Jerry Seinfeld, who said that you are as old as your number of years of stand-up.
Humour matures with years on stage, he said pointing out that a two-year-old may laugh at rude noises.
“That’s hopefully isn’t going to make a 10-year-old laugh. They’re just going to roll their eyes and walk out of the room. And a 50-year-old will ask why are you talking to me like that -- because at the end of life you kind of become like (a child again).” He laughed.
30 per cent Satyal’s audiences are Indian.
“I feel my race and my culture shape my identity but it’s not 100 per cent of what I am. I’m from Ohio, I’m also short, I’m a first-born son... You know, there are other things that define me beyond just being Indian... And then I’m male!” All this, besides being a comedian.
Photographs: Raj Kapoor in a movie still from Mera Naam Joker
'Our parents gave us everything we wanted'
And there was a part in the show -- though he is not sure if it has been excised -- where he asks the rhetorical questions: “Which do you identify with more? Are you more a man or are you more Indian? Is it your gender or is it your race? When I meet a white man and I meet an Indian woman, with whom do I feel more camaraderie?”
He is careful to not make the session into a serious exercise.
“In stand-up, you are always chasing the laugh,” Satyal said. “Stand-up comedy is the only live entertainment where people go to experience only one emotion. When you go to see a singer, a band, there’s a range of emotions... You are always chasing the laughs... It has to be funny the entire time. Which is great -- and that’s my job -- and if you also want to make a point and you also want to share a point of view, that… but it’s an ‘also.’
“Why are Indians doing so well in stand-up comedy? There’s Russell Peters, Hari Kondabolu, Azis Ansari, Azhar Usman, Paul Verghese. They’re very, very good. I take a lot of pride in that because I take a look at some of the other forms of entertainment -- like acting and writing. There are some good people (but) wouldn’t say the Indian Americans are wow! They’re really great.”
Satyal pointed out that while Americans are self-deprecating, “Indians are not self-deprecating at all. At all!”
He agrees that Indian-American stand-up comedians have the advantage over actors in that they can assert their individuality, which cultural differences will magnify. In his words, that would be “the outsider looking in.”
Satyal said that stand-ups hold up a microphone because they are blatantly commenting on society.
“It’s very observational, even if it’s story-telling.” he said. “Actors inhabit a character -- that’s why they don’t use a (visible) microphone. If anything, they’ll use a lapel microphone. “In this show, I’ll be using a lapel microphone. I have to show you (like actors do), not just tell you (like stand-up comedians do),” he said.
No Man’s Land is intended to reside “somewhere between acting and stand-up, somewhere between theater and stand-up. It’s a nebulous sort of animal -- in which there are no rules.”
While 80 per cent of comedians are introverts -- observing from the sidelines -- Satyal was not and said he had no trouble meeting people.
As far as connecting with his own community, he spoke of his experiences at the University of Cincinnati, where he had a crush on an Indian girl, Shivani.
“It was the first time I’d ever liked an Indian girl, the first time I’ve been surrounded by Indians. I didn’t really know them. Up until then I didn’t really want to know them. And then it became a kind of coming of age. And they became some of my best friends -- are still some of my best friends,” Satyal said, before launching into a PR campaign that would bring tears to the Indian-American eye: “I feel that as second-generation Indian Americans, we came with the best possible advantages. I don’t think anybody in the world, as a group of people, live better than Indian Americans. Indian Americans have more privilege than anyone.
We live in best country in the world, we have the greatest culture and the best -- ‘Greatest.’ ‘Best.’ I know I’m bragging. But it’s like dude, America is a pretty amazing place. Being Indian and having the culture and the home-support system... having all that love and everything. Man, you’ve got all the breaks, dude. All the breaks... Our parents gave us everything we wanted. They didn’t spoil us. They instilled in us the values, to be respectful... They made us work -- schoolwork not jobs. When Indian Americans become doctors and engineers and lawyers, that’s great, good for you. But guess what. That is your parents’ accomplishment. You’ve got every single thing handed to you... Every advantage that anybody in the world would want and go, ‘I want to have health. I want to have wealth. I want to have love. I want to have support. Dude, you’ve got all of it.”
Photographs: Rajiv Satyal with his family in Tahoe
'I've always known I was funny'
Satyal felt that the fact that Indians can be made fun of is a good thing.
“You can only throw dirt uphill. You cannot throw dirt downhill because it’s mean,” he said, arguing that the exercise turns a mirror on all generations and mindsets. Still, it took him a long time to find the right tone.
He performs at weddings, where he has an audience that ranges in age from five to ninety-five, and can have very different ideas about whether a joke is funny. He has to find the few jokes that are appealing to everybody.
“You’re not going to offend people. That is a wedding! It’s the biggest day of somebody’s life. You’ve got to be of the straight and narrow,” Satyal said.
But there are other reasons, too, for Satyal deeming weddings his toughest jobs.
‘What’s really hard for me is being a single Indian man. I’m hosting and performing at all these weddings. I’m watching all these beautiful Indian get married. Over and over and over again. Their parents come and ask, ‘Beta, when are you going to get married?’ Like over and over, every single weekend. Like, dude, no one goes through that as much as I do. It’s hard. Like, she’s so pretty and she’s marrying that guy. Oh yeah, but not me.”
If he has a choice, he would not mind dating Priyanka Chopra. Then again, Satyal is rather impressed by Rani Mukerji’s intellectual heft. Clearly, he is spoiled for fantasy choices.
So how does he test his jokes?
“When I hear something, I write it down in my cell phone in the notes section,” he said. “At home I add it to my materials (text) document that I have and write out a little bit more. Whatever I’m excited about I’ll generally take that up on stage.... I might drop it into conversations with friends but generally I actually tend to work out a lot of my stuff in the middle of actual shows.
My old roommate Hasan Minhaj, also a comedian tells me, ‘Wow, you’re the only person I know who does that.’ And then he cracks up.
He replied that in 15 minutes even if he tests stuff for two minutes, there are still 13 left to redeem himself. People would not talk about the minute and a half he wasn’t funny, but just walk out saying that he was funny or that he wasn’t, Satyal said.
“I’ve always known I was funny," he said. “What I’m working on is being a good stand-up. Those are two different things because being funny is a talent, something you are born with; being a good stand-up is something you can develop,” he said. “I don’t care if people think I’m funny; I just want people to have fun.”
Photographs: Rajiv Satyal with his family in Tahoe