The State of South Asian American Standup Comedy in 2011

What an exciting time for standup comedy. One of the larger phenomena in the past decade has been the explosion of ethnic comics, which is to say non-white or -black. African Americans are certainly not a minority in this field, arguably having the strongest lineup in history. Exhibits A-F: Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle.

At the forefront of this trend are South Asian Americans (opting for the more inclusive “South Asian Comedy” vs. “Indian Comedy” but also exclusively focusing on the US market). The birth of the movement no doubt began with Russell Peters, who started his career in Toronto in 1989. (Yes, this is in Canada, but he’s big in the USA now.) Peters had been doing standup for about 15 years before his Comedy Now! special went viral on YouTube. Imagine the balls an 18-year-old Indian kid had to have in the ’80s to dare tell his parents he was going to venture into entertainment as his life profession and you can understand part of the reason he has been so successful. He made $15 million last year.

Every now and then, one might encounter a negative blog post (usually written by a kid lacking the gall to actually take the stage) about the folks who have followed Russell’s lead into the fray, but for the most part, support from the South Asian diaspora has been overwhelmingly positive… must use the word “diaspora” in any South Asian media/entertainment article at least once.

And there’s actually an article questioning whether Asian men in general are funny (but at least she seems to draw the conclusion that they are). It seems that a lot of South Asians are not only funny, they’re also broadly appealing: brown fits snugly between black and white. Think back to the number of kids you may know who were Class Presidents or modern-day Ferris Buellers of their high school – they appear to seamlessly bridge the gap between the Caucasian majority and the colored minorities. The old stereotype of a passive, docile Indian kid has passed… if it was ever true.

“Ethnic humor” (superficial jokes where race alone is the punch line) has been out of favor with the Industry (that being the entertainment industry mostly comprised of Hollywood and New York) for at least two years now, but South Asians in this country are not running out of material. And it is important to note the date of any clip you may stumble upon – pre-2008, it was still kosher to talk about how Indians may be cheap. But now, they seem to be glad to be exploring other aspects of themselves. Sure, they’re South Asian, but they may also be conservative or gay or Midwestern or poor. Well, OK, probably not the last one, but still. Said another way, these peeps aren’t only doing ethnic humor – many of them are humorists who happen to be ethnic.

Sure, sometimes there’s the random Uncle from Edison, NJ, or Auntie from Fremont, CA, or YouTube commenter from abroad questioning a comic’s South Asian ethnic pride or allegiance. But in droves, people are catching on to the fact that it’s precisely because South Asians are now the richest group in the States that standup comedians have sprouted up. It is only when a culture has attained success that someone can appear and make light of it. As long as a community is failing, there can be no jokes about it because no one would laugh – it would simply be bleak. In comedy, you can only throw dirt uphill.

Finally, the other hater’s complaint is that “Russell has already done it all.” Really? So, out of 1.5 billion South Asians in the world, there can be scores of Bollywood stars and cricket players and doctors and IT guys and 7-11 workers and motel owners but only one comedian?

And that’s where the excitement of being a comedian of this particular ethnicity and nationality comes into play. Russell is still killin’ it but there’s room for more. There is so much range in the kind of standup being generated right now by this wave. But why should that be surprising? Our parents are immigrants of choice, not of necessity. It’s not that South Asians are that smart (although they certainly are), but it’s the cream of the crop who emigrated. (And NO, that’s not a knock on Indians still in India – there are a lot of smart ones still there, too.) South Asians are a good blend of logical and intuitive… thinkers and feelers… it stands to reason (and gut) that if you place them in a(nother) free-thinking society, the material would be technical, smart, personable, honest… all elements that comprise quality standup. They’re simply stronger than their other minority counterparts. And if you disagree, well, then, write a comment or opposing blog post. But your list won’t compare to this one.

This only captures the ones who were making noise around the end of 2010/beginning of 2011. Several pioneers of the genre have gone in different directions. Also, this focuses on the guys (and gals) who are primarily standups, not actors or writers.

At the same time, everyday we seem to hear of a new standup jumping the mix. There’s undoubtedly an upstart out there about to blow the lid off. And s/he could already be in it to win it… could it be Samson Koletkar, Danny Bhoy, Vir Das, Aparna Nancherla, Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, Raj Sharma, Jay Mandyam, Kabeezy, Anu Kalra, Amod Vaze, Nikki Chawla, Rahul Siddharth, Tarun Shetty, Akaash Singh, Abhay Nadkarni, Paul Singh, Paul Chowdhry, Shaun Majumder, or Aman Ali? After all, who outside of the comedy connoisseur had heard of Aziz Ansari in 2009?

What exactly are the metrics for “making noise”? Well, let’s just say that you’re a professional comedian in all three ways (you do it full-time; you get paid; you’ve been on TV); you’re building a following online thru YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook; and you just seem to be part of the zeitgeist.

Listed below are: name of the comic, a one-word and then paragraph description, video, and then numbers (views of most-watched YouTube video; Facebook Fans/Friends; Twitter followers).

So, South Asians, as you scan this list of 17, be proud of the work your friendly comedic representatives are doing – it’s impressive.

Here goes…

Russell PetersThe Godfather

Russell Peters arguably has the distinction of bringing the art form of standup comedy to more people than anyone in human history. Think about it. Sure, Richard Pryor and George Carlin exposed tens of millions of Americans to this style of humor, but Russell has shown this concept of a man and a mic to people around the world who had never even heard of such a thing. Over 21 years deep in the game, Peters is not only an internet dude – he has multiple late-night appearances as well as Comedy Central specials. In fact, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of him if you’ve read this far in a blog post on South Asian American standup comedy. As John Lennon said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Vis-a-vis South Asian standup, the same could be said of Peters.

YouTube: 12,332,731
Facebook: 572,737
Twitter: 50,162

Aziz Ansari The Star

Aziz Ansari has made all the right moves. To someone not following comedy, it may seem like he appeared out of nowhere. But he had a logical, if not meteoric, climb to stardom, writing and appearing in a number of sketches for the MTV critical hit, Human Giant, and then following that up with a series of TV/film roles. No doubt, his friendship with Kanye West turbo-charged his ascent, but one can’t look past how prolific he is, churning out one internet video after another. His history with the network and affinity for current music must’ve been factors as he was selected to host the MTV Movie Awards in 2010. Ansari took a completely different path, consistently refusing to do ethnic jokes or perform at ethnic events. The relationships he forged in the UCB community propelled him to the limelight.

YouTube: 634,718
Facebook: 163,158
Twitter: 568,758

Kumail NanjianiThe Alternative

Featured on Comedy Central’s hot list and Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch, Kumail Nanjiani has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Live at Gotham. Nanjiani came out of Chicago and his unorthodox style blazed up the “alt” scene. (“Alt comedy” became the alternative to the mainstream comedy clubs and is often characterized by longer bits/rants and point-of-view monologues vs. the traditional setup/punch joke. Comics include Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Janeane Garofalo, Maria Bamford, & Zach Galifianakis.)

YouTube: 93,838
Facebook: 3,262
Twitter: 5,897

Jokes.com
Kumail Nanjiani – New Drug Cocktail
comedians.comedycentral.com
Jokes Joke of the Day Funny Jokes

Sugar SammyThe Multilingual

Like Russell Peters, Sugar Sammy hails from Canada. He has recently been spending more time in Los Angeles, where he has been selling out shows at comedy clubs like the Hollywood Improv. Listed as one of the Top 25 “Sexy & Successful” people in Anokhi magazine, he’s known for performing in English, French, Hindi, and Punjabi… comedy, that is.

YouTube: 514,351
Facebook: 33,900
Twitter: 8,025

Arj BarkerThe Australian

Born Arjan Singh to a Sikh father and European mother, the “Australian” refers more to the enormous success Barker has achieved Down Under. Still, he oftentimes graces alt stages in the States and is a well-respected veteran in the field.

YouTube: 1,031,156
Facebook: 41,161
Twitter: 106,795

Hari Kondabolu The Activist

The stage appears to be merely a platform for Hari Kondabolu to share his world views on injustice and inequality and how everything on earth is racist. OK, OK, not everything – he’s more nuanced than that. (It just reads funnier to put it that way.) Plus, after all, he took a hiatus from standup and attended the London School of Economics to earn a Master’s Degree in Human Rights. Oh, by the way, he’s hilarious. He released a short film, MANOJ, mocking hack ethnic comics. And he’s been on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Live at Gotham, too. It’s probably a matter of time before he’s a correspondent on The Daily Show.

YouTube: 48,754
Facebook: 4,147
Twitter: 1,271

Rajiv SatyalThe Host

The consummate host and one of the few guys in the game regularly appearing at all the major LA comedy clubs, Rajiv Satyal is, in short – and he’s short – the Indian Woody Allen. Because of his background in engineering, politics, and business, his act displays quite a lot of range. You get the sense, probably due to his witty banter with crowds, his ability to stay clean, and his versatility in performing on TV and at comedy clubs, South Asian events (he does more than anyone), corporations, colleges, et al., that this is the guy who’ll pull it all together and interview this whole list of comics when he has his own talk show.

YouTube: 174,106
Facebook: 4,179
Twitter: 1,366

Paul Varghese The Writer

There is simply no one in South Asian American standup who writes better jokes than Paul Varghese. His laid-back style and intense focus on comedy (remaining purely a standup and not a producer or actor) has landed him on Comedy Central and Last Comic Standing.

YouTube: 39,680
Facebook: 3,438
Twitter: 581

Azhar UsmanThe Muslim

While Azhar Usman has the ability to entertain mainstream American crowds, it is his finely-honed and hilarious ethnic jokes that have given him the standing as the largest Indian Muslim comedian in the world – and it could be argued one could drop the “Indian.” Based in his home town of Chicago, Usman is one of the most well-traveled comedians on the planet.

YouTube: 784,681
Facebook: 4,367
Twitter: 1,892

Hasan Minhaj The Truth

Comedian Azhar Usman uses the moniker above to refer to Hasan Minhaj. Indeed, he’s the full package… a young, smart, good-looking student of the game whose intense work ethic has, in a few short years, landed him multiple TV appearances and gigs at over 50 colleges a year.

YouTube: 31,478
Facebook: 4,006
Twitter: 1,205

MONROKThe Woman

While there have been female comics before her, their focuses are different. Vijai Nathan will always be a pioneer and she has used her formidable talent to transition into developing more theatrical performances like her one-woman show. And Rasika Mathur, while being a standup dilettante, has achieved a lot more success a a sketch actor. LA-based comedian MONROK seems poised for a leap into the stratosphere. She has four things going for her: she’s a pretty, funny, ethnic woman. It doesn’t hurt that she’s well-packaged. She’s the Girl Who Hates Everything and can sum up her point-of-view in one word: Wak. Yes, that’s without a C. Just like MONROK.

YouTube: 9,563
Facebook: 4,520
Twitter: 75

Vidur KapurThe Gay

Vidur Kapur is a character. He’s the only guy doing what he’s doing – and that’s a sure sign that one is doing something right. He’s an openly-gay Indian immigrant. A staple of the NY comedy scene with regular appearances at Gotham and Caroline’s, he’s proven why he’s doing standup around the world (India, South Africa, etc.) and on TV (NBC, LOGO, etc.). Give this guy a regular spot on Chelsea Lately already.

YouTube: 271,156
Facebook: 957
Twitter: 149

Raj DesaiThe Geek

LA-based Raj Desai consistently impresses audiences with his multiple allusions to various esoteric topics such as trade policy and vocabulary words. He’s kind of an Indian Dennis Miller.

YouTube: 4,994
Facebook: 986
Twitter: 1,058

Dan Nainan The Japindian

Half-Japanese and half-Indian, Nainan refers to himself as someone who gets his “sushi at 7-11.” Featured in several articles, including the NY Times, for being an environmentally-friendly comedian, his impressions of Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Jesse Jackson are spot-on.

YouTube: 927,475
Facebook: 2,374
Twitter: 43

Mark SaldanaThe Shadow

Once named “the best Indian – if not Asian – comic in the country” by the LA Times and a performer on the Indian Invasion Comedy Tour, Mark Saldana hails from Buffalo and has been described as a “dirtier, darker Russell Peters.”

YouTube: 82,065
Facebook: 1,018
Twitter: 33

Asif Ali The Kid

Young, likable, and energetic, Asif Ali has been making a lot of appearances on stages around Los Angeles.

YouTube: 67
Facebook: 1,423
Twitter: 269

Papa CJThe Indian

Papa CJ came to the States a few years ago and went all the way to the finals on Last Comic Standing. For that reason alone, even though he spends most of his time in India laying the pipelines for what will surely become a comedy gold rush in the country beyond the popular mimicry shows such as The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, he must make this list.

YouTube: 41,352
Facebook: 3,691
Twitter: 572

This concludes our look at the state of South Asian American standup comedy. “Our” of course refers to the people who are capable of writing a blog post like this – those who perform standup, who are connected to most of the comics on this list, and who would take the time to construct such a piece. Those people are collectively known as Rajiv Satyal.

12 thoughts on “The State of South Asian American Standup Comedy in 2011

  1. kartik – thanks for the comment! i met paul chowdhry thru russell at the hollywood laugh factory – nice guy who’s doing well in the UK/abroad, but as far as i know, he’s still waiting to make his big splash stateside. if you’re a fan or friend of his, please keep me posted on him… happy to include him for the 2012 edition!

  2. RKS, you have done this blossoming, fragmented “industry” a great service by putting forth this effort. I thank you for doing this, and, of course, for the generous nod. Though it is my belief that all entertainers are–as a rule–basically (and often profoundly) narcissistic (myself included, regrettably), I am going to go ahead and trust that your desire to compile such a list was not entirely driven by your own self-interest. There is rational evidence for this position in the post itself, so I won’t say anything further on that. Congrats on wading through the mass of information, and doing the difficult thinking and delicate balancing act of being deferential to all these comedians’ invariably fragile egos.

    Finally, as you may have expected, I had one piece of feedback after reading your thoughts, which pertains to this claim of yours:

    >> “Ethnic humor” (superficial jokes where race alone is the punch line) has been out of favor with the Industry (that being the entertainment industry mostly comprised of Hollywood and New York) <<

    I was just wondering if you know whether or not the programming and development executives over at NBC got the memo regarding the above?

    Love and light,

    -au

  3. A very nice idea to put this together for all to know about such successful comedians.
    A powerful blog.

  4. AU – thanks a ton for the kind words… yep, primary motivation was to showcase all the awesome work we’re collectively doing so the south asian diaspora as well as the Industry can take notice… even NBC, which has been out of favor with the american viewing public for 5 years since it has dwelled in nielsen’s basement for that long… so it’s fine.

  5. Raj! This is great! The in-depth research is probably one of the best put blogs from a South Asain IN the business. BRILLIANT!

  6. Mom – Thanks = )

    Raggie D – yes, Harvin Sethi was amazing… I had the honor of speaking at his Memorial last year. Very sad to see him go. He was indeed a pioneer.

    Mo – Yes, it is. HA. Thanks, as always, for your support.

  7. BJ – I’ve become good friends with him in the last year… thank you.

    Dhruv – Good call. Will keep in mind for 2012. Thanks for the kind words.

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