There was a time when I was very serious about stand-up comedy. I started doing it in college, and my brother, who worked in IT, figured out a way where my website (which he also built) would be one of the top sites in Google when you typed in “Indian” “Comedian.” Forget the fact that I could barely do 10 minutes on stage. All you needed was a sibling who knew HTML, and you had a career in showbiz!
I was starting college in New York and had no idea how stand-up comedians made a living. I did what every other comic did in the city, which was scrape by with 7-8 minute spots in shithole comedy venues and died a slow death in front of drunk New York tourists. Artists call this “finding your voice” or later when they have more life perspective “becoming jaded.”
I’m from New Hampshire and grew up with white people so I never thought that being a comic with brown skin was abnormal. Keep in mind, this was way before Russell Peters broke through and the market wasn’t oversaturated like today. Nowadays, it seems like any Indian with a 7-11 is doing stand-up or some Indian dude just quit his consulting job at McKinsey and is getting back at his parents by telling knock-knock jokes that he stole off the internet. ANYWAYS….
I soon found that my inbox was being flooded with requests from South Asians who wanted me to perform at their weddings. At first, I ignored these emails because it seemed insane to me. What person in their right mind would hire a 20-year old kid to fly to some random state and perform on one of the most important days of their lives? Rich Indians who wanted to one-up their Indian friends by having something completely NEW and DIFFERENT, that’s who.
It’s no secret that South Asians are the cheapest people in the world but fortunately, like me, they had no bearing on how much a comedian should get paid. Naturally, I'd set my quote really high. A typical negotiation went as follows:
Father – How much charge you do?
Me – Um, I’m not sure what you said, but my asking price to perform is 5000 dollars.
Father – What?! I not pay 5000 dollars! I pay 1000.
Me – OK!
The next thing I knew, I was zig-zagging around the country on weekends, performing at Indian weddings. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I always tell people that performing at an Indian wedding is comparable to being a professional escort. Money up front, black out for the next hour and then try to forget the whole experience ever happened.
I also learned that dealing with clueless Indian people had drawbacks. I once showed up to a wedding and there was no microphone. I spent the next 60 minutes yelling from the stage “HEY, HOW ARE YOU DOING? WHAT PART OF INDIA ARE YOU FROM? CHENNAI? GREAT! HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ON AIR INDIA?!”
Never once in hundreds of shows did it get easier. It was like the movie “Groundhogs Day.” I would walk into a lavish wedding hall, watch a bunch of bad wedding speeches, almost throw up in a nearby garbage can, wondering how I got here, and then try to survive on stage for the next hour.
I’m not saying I was a good Indian wedding comedian. I wasn’t bad, but by no means great. Luckily, I soon realized that most Indian audiences could care less if I told jokes or set myself on fire. As long as I showed up and pretended like I knew what I was doing, nobody knew the difference. Sometimes people who were my own age and could identity a train wreck when it happened would find me after the show. They'd be like “Hey, don’t worry, I ENJOYED IT” which is kind of like a backhanded complement. “Gee thanks! I guess I’ll postpone killing myself when I get back to the hotel!”
Someone sent me a Steve Jobs Youtube Video where he gave a graduation speech at Stanford. He mentioned how you go through life and when you look back, you see the stars connect and everything happens for a reason. Well Steve Jobs obviously never performed for the Patel’s in Houston where nobody spoke English. That show sucked.
FYI - here's a show from 2005 where I'm eating it for 50 minutes straight. It's actually quite funny to me now.