3 Comedians Walk into a Bhar-at…

Talk about Homeland Security.  The State Dept. has sent three comedians to India on a goodwill tour (details).  Those three comedians are Azhar Usman, Hari Kondabolu, and me (Rajiv Satyal, although you probably guessed that, considering this is my blog).  It’s kind of cool that we’re repping the three largest cities in America – Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, respectively (in order of comedians listed, not size or importance of cities – previously covered).

The official – and it’s official, considering it’s a State Dept. official who said it – reason is as follows:

“The reason we decided to support this tour is because, among the things that they are known for is their talk about religious tolerance, about the importance of breaking down prejudices and about the positive experiences they had growing up as Indian-Americans in the United States.  In addition to doing shows, they’ll also be holding audience discussions on these issues of religious tolerance, and doing workshops and having some interviews with the press.  I believe the full tour costs about a hundred thousand dollars.  The US Embassy in New Delhi is supporting them with a grant of about eighty-eight thousand dollars.”

Here’s the video:


“What I need is a hundred thousand dollars.” – Corky, Waiting for Guffman

  • I am writing this halfway through the 7-city tour.  Well, not exactly halfway, as that would be smack in the middle of the 4th show.  But close enough.  I wanted to be sure to capture some thoughts as these trips tend to pass by as whirlwinds if we don’t make a concerted effort to stop and smell the roses.
  • I’m going to do this as a series of bullet points, as I find them easier to read than paragraphs, and despite the fact that bullets are often used in war.
  • What’s my stance on war?  I’d describe myself as antiwar at my core, at my most philosophical.  I think the fact that we still solve problems (or do we?) thru war in the year 2012 is perhaps man’s greatest failure.  As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  It leads nowhere.  Or to something worse.  Recall Einstein:  “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  Whoa.  Having said that, I understand that the US often has to go to war.  And I do believe in American exceptionalism (although WordPress doesn’t since it just red-lined that word) in the sense that, since we won World War II and the Cold War, to the victor go the spoils.  I just wish the US government would be more transparent about what it does – we support freedom and democracy but every now and then we prop up dictatorships and terrible leaders around the world to raid its resources for our own benefit.  And guess what.  So did every other superpower that has ever lived.  It’s a sad reality.  I’d still say, in the grand scheme of things, the US is a benevolent ruler.  Things would not be any better if we put the British or the Soviets back in-charge – and would likely be worse.  As I said in the Q&A session after our show in Hyderabad, “Whoever is #1 tends to dump #2 on the rest of the world.”
  • I make a distinction between the US and the USA.  To me, the latter represents Americans at our most ideal – supporting freedom and democracy and individualism and the journey of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The former is the entity that allows that to be true within the borders of the USA… and the means in which it does this may not necessarily align with the values of what America intended – and still claims – to be.  I do think things are getting better in that at least there is more awareness of how governments work (or don’t) – and hopefully with more power flowing to the people (Internet, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party, WikiLeaks), we can indeed improve as people.  It’s just that governments represent people and the one thing that seems to be consistent around the world is that people are essentially pieces of sh*t.
  • This tour is necessary.  The animosity against the US is palpable here in India.  And that’s sad, because India is an old ally of ours.  And it’s the world’s largest democracy.  And it’s reasonable.  Standup comedians speak the truth.  And for us to get up onstage and just tell it like it is must be refreshing for people.  Standup comedy is the last bastion of honesty in society.  And I am honored to be somebody who just lays it out there for what it’s worth.  True, the US does wage war around the world, but not all Americans are a-holes.  In fact, we are some of the most welcoming and generous people anywhere.  Are Americans racist?  Yes, but not as much as pretty much everyone else.  Except Canadians.  Those folks are super-nice.  Maybe a superpower can’t be super-nice?  I don’t know.  But we digress… The main point here is that Americans are good people and don’t always support everything our government does.  And even within that, the US government is not a monolith.  It employs different tactics to achieve its means.  Sometimes it’s bullets.  Sometimes it’s laughs.  Sometimes those bullets are necessary.  [Cue Jack Nicholson’s speech in A Few Good Men.]  And it’s just good to be part of the initiative that involves laughs.
  • We’ve encountered very little of the sentiment that spending $100 K on comedy is a waste of taxpayer money – and that, too, only on the far right.  It’s ironic that those against Make Chai Not War likely belong to the Tea Party.  Obviously, it’s self-serving, but I believe it’s a great use of money.  First of all, it’s a drop in the bucket.  So any uproar is just a tempest in a pot of tea.  And connecting two nations via laughter is priceless.  If you don’t like it, maybe it’s not your cup of tea.
  • The amount of press we’ve received is surreal.  It’s been an honor to be featured on NPR and in The Wall Street Journal and in many, many local and national media in India.
  • How are we different from Russell Peters?  This has to be our favorite question.  I think Hari had the best answer when he replied to a reporter, “Well, I have a different brain.”  Love it.  We love Russell.  In fact, I once introduced him in Minneapolis as “the man who has introduced the idea of standup comedy to more people than anyone in history.”  Wow.  But yes, it’s possible to have more than one Indian comedian.  First of all, there’s a billion of us.  Second of all, when was one of anything enough?  Is there one Indian doctor?  One Indian lawyer?  One major Indian movie director?  Well, yes, in that case – and that’s enough.  No other minority seems to get this question… I doubt they asked Chris Rock, “But you know Bill Cosby already exists, right?”
  • Azhar Usman is an amazing human being.  We agree on everything except for the final destination of our souls.  But that’s not why he’s incredible.  He just has this energy that radiates everywhere he goes.  Everyone loves the guy.  And for good reason.  He has a huge heart, he’s always smiling and laughing, and he spreads joy to everybody.  He gives freely to beggars, knows volumes and volumes about world history and religion, speaks five languages, and can rap every Public Enemy song.  If it sounds like I’m in awe, it’s because I am.  I can’t believe he’s toured over thirty countries while supporting a wife and four boys.  Unreal.  Comedy has allowed me to meet special people like him and I’m eternally grateful for this.
  • Last night, we performed in Patna.  It’s in Bihar, which is sadly India’s poorest state.  The audience of 1000+ collectively did not speak much English at all.  And the fact that we went over well proves to me once again that 90% of communication is nonverbal – even a verbal medium like standup.  The crowd can sense our energy, see our smiles, and tell that we’re not mean-spirited but good-natured.
  • What’s my take on religion?  First off… To Each His Own.  And here’s why… I think the answer is that it’s the elephant and the blind men.  There’s a huge elephant (Is there another kind?) and four blind men are feeling it and describing it.  “It’s like a big wall.”  “No, it’s thick and tall.”  “No, it swings and is kind of wet on the end.”  “No, it swings but it’s furry at the end.”  They’re obviously feeling different parts of the elephant – they’re all 100% correct.  In Hyperspace, Michio Kaku purports that there are 24 dimensions.  So, in 4D world here, it looks like some people are wrong.  But in 24 dimensions, far more things are possible.  And I think it’s possible – and probable – that we’re all right.   Accept Jesus Christ and you really do go to heaven.  Believe in God and how He manifests himself in many forms and improve yourself to an acceptable point and you attain Nirvana.  Etc.  Etc.  (Azhar could give more examples.)  The most intellectually honest POV is agnosticism.  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  Nobody knows.  And we’re not gonna know.  But I get why people fight over it.  Why not?  It’s a big topic.  Humans fight by definition.  (Although my friend, Meena Dimian, disagrees that it’s our nature.)  And would it be better if we fought over something more trivial, like our favorite flavor of ice cream?  Hey, it’s like America.  Your status is measured by how much money you have.  Fine.  Better than the color of your skin or, well, your religion.
  • Does going to India give you material?  No, because it’s too difficult to explain to people how crossing the street is an accomplishment.  But then, somebody pointed out that I need to put on my Indian lenses and see it that way.  Great advice.  So that’s what I’m doing.
  • India is SO different from the US that it’s very difficult to explain.  One thing that stands out about Incredible India is how ALIVE it is.  Your really do see everything walking down the street… people, cows, monkeys, goats… The driving is insane.  You have 5 people on a scooter being cut off by a giant bus.  And that’s routine.  It’s amazing how close to death people live every single day of their lives.
  • Well, we just ordered room service.  Gotta love the juxtaposition.  (More on that in the next post.)  My masala dosa is getting cold.  I need to meet back up with Azhar and Hari now.  And my Dad is here, waiting to have chai with me.

Rajiv Satyal is half of the founding members of Make Chai Not War.  He is currently touring India, sponsored by the US State Dept.  He resides in Los Angeles.  In theory. 

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