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Saturday, March 19, 2011

In the spotlight: Comedian Dan Nainan - Indian Americans can be funny too!

In the spotlight: Comedian Dan Nainan - Indian Americans can be funny too!

By Sumeet Singh

Dan Nainan is a professional comedian who performs all over the world doing only clean comedy.  This year alone he has performed in Hong Kong and Dubai, and has upcoming shows in Trinidad, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and of course my usual shows in the States.  Included in the list of luminaries Dan has performed for are names like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Yoko Ono, and Sanjay Gupta.

Dan has also dabbled in acting.  Last year, he filmed for the feature film “The Last Airbender” alongside Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame, Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show, and director M. Night Shyamalan.

 PRAVASI: How did you end up doing comedy?

Many people are curious about how I got into stand-up comedy.  They assume that I was the class clown in school, but this is very far from the truth.  I was a complete outcast as a youth. I was not the joker but rather the butt of jokes.  People ask me if I was in a lot of fights; more accurately, I was in a number of beatings.

I was an A student, of course - I had to fit the Asian stereotype.  Even though I was incredibly shy, once in a while, I would blurt out something that would make the class laugh uproariously, and I would be kicked out of class for the day. The other inkling that I might one day become a comedian came in the form of the many prank phone calls I would make to various people using fake accents.  I've been doing this since I was a kid, and now I do voices on prank phone calls for radio stations all over the country.  My various voices have been heard by millions of people on radio stations across the country.  When Bill Clinton was in the hospital, I did calls for dozens of radio stations pretending to be him calling from the hospital.  Some of the radio staff thought that it was really Bill Clinton on the phone.

I was a business major in college, but I had the good fortune of spending three semesters working at IBM on my college’s co-op program, which helped me pay for school.  After graduating from college, I worked for Intel Corporation.  For two years, I managed Intel's part of the America’s Smithsonian tour of America.  For two years, I had no home and lived in 12 different corporate apartments in 12 different cities.

After the tour, I was invited to join Intel's Corporate Demo Group.  It was my job to travel around the world with Intel Chairman Andy Grove, demonstrating the company's latest technology on stage.  The technical part was easy, since, after all, I'm half Indian and half Japanese, but the terrifying part was speaking in front of thousands of people.  At some of the high-profile events, such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we would often be filmed for television.

Thus, I had to do something to get over the fear of speaking.  Since I had always kind of harbored a secret desire to do comedy, I decided to take a comedy class in San Francisco, up the road from Silicon Valley.

In the first class, I got laughs on almost every joke that I told.  I thought, “This is fantastic, I'm an absolute natural at this!”  In the second class, nobody laughed at a single joke, and, quite frankly, I was devastated.  I seriously considered quitting the class, but I felt I had quit so many things in my life that I really needed to stick with this comedy thing and see it through.  To this day, I truly shudder when I think about how close I came to quitting the class, and how my life would be different if I had.

Anyway, when I took the stage for my “final exam” for the comedy class, I was shocked to find that because of the lights in my face, I could not see anything other than the people seated in the front row.  I launched into my act, and was absolutely flabbergasted by the reaction – they were laughing and laughing at everything I was saying!  Afterwards, I was mobbed by many people telling me that I was the best comedian of the evening.

 PRAVASI: What happened after that?

Well, a couple of weeks after this magnificent first show, it just so happened that I had my videotape with me when I was in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show with the Intel team.  I mentioned that I had taken a comedy class, and some of the Intel folks told me to put on my tape.  They absolutely loved it, and they asked me if I wanted to perform at the final dinner for the Intel team, about 250 people.  The crowd loved it, and someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to perform at the annual sales conference in San Francisco.

And so it was that for my third show ever, I performed for 2500 Intel sales people from around the world.  We set up a little ruse, wherein I pretended that something had gone wrong with one of my technical demonstrations, and said I would tell some jokes while we were waiting for everything to be fixed.  I launched into my jokes and my impressions of Andy Grove and Bill Clinton, and I absolutely couldn't believe the reaction.  People were pounding on tables, applauding, cheering – it was truly the most incredible feeling.  I've never taken drugs, but I was thinking that this is what it must feel like.  This was the first inkling that I thought that perhaps I could do this for a living one day.

I quickly realized that in order to pursue professional comedy, I had to be in New York or Los Angeles, and I decided on New York, so I could be closer to my parents.  A job came up in a different area of the company that was two levels higher, based in New York, and I set my sights on getting that job. I got it, and moved cross-country.

I lasted in that sales job for about a year.  It was nothing like my previous job – no travel, no geeking out with technology, no time on stage, and worst of all, as it was home-based, it involved very little socialization.  After a lot of soul-searching, and pointed advice to the contrary, I submitted my resignation to my boss at Intel, who was absolutely incredulous. 

PRAVASI: What did your friends and family have to say?

Everybody thought I was crazy.  Giving up six figures, the health benefits, the stock options, for a profession in which very few people can make a living. Yes, I can see how that would qualify me for a spot in the stupidity Hall of Fame.  Fortunately, I had a nice little nest egg from savings in stock options, so I wasn't going into this dirt poor as many artists do. It was never like “either this succeeds or I’m going to have to drive a bread truck.” Still, there were people who warned me to make the leap because it was “too competitive” or just “too difficult.” But I certainly didn’t want to be one of those people who hates what he does but does the same thing every day.

PRAVASI: What happened after you quit your job at Intel?

I was fortunate enough to find a fantastic comedy class in New York – so fantastic that I ascribe any success I have had in the comedy business to this teacher. I performed in clubs all over New York and around the country, often paying my own way to perform in clubs on the West Coast. I was asked by Robert Schimmel, one of the top comedians in the country, if I wanted to tour with him around the country after only two years of doing comedy seriously, and of course I jumped at the chance.  After that tour was over, I met Russell Peters, and that was when everything changed.

 PRAVASI: How so?

After seeing one of my acts, Russell said that he particularly enjoyed it and invited me to join him. So, for the better part of two years, I did these huge theater shows around the world with Russell. As a result, I was able to make a name for myself in the Indian community.  Because Russell now charges a minimum of $50,000 a show, I'm able to get a lot of work from people who can't afford anything near those fees.  I am eternally indebted to Russell for everything he did for me.

PRAVASI: What do you think of the notion that Indians are an emerging force in show business?

I think there is great potential. Agents are looking for Indian talent, mainly because of the surging diversity movement. Look at advertisements; they make it a point to include white people, black people, Indian people, and Chinese people. In the past, one of the negatives has been that Indians are often pressured to choose “safe” jobs in IT or medicine or engineering. This has produced a situation where there is great demand but low supply. Fortunately, Indians – especially the younger generations – are starting to realize the great potential in showbiz. Russell Peters is a great model; he can expect to make around $1,000,000 for some shows. Aziz Ansari probably brings in around $500,000, and Maz Jabrani can get $15,000.

PRAVASI: What are some of the benefits of the job one would not ordinarily expect for a comedian?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is performing at charity events for nonprofit groups.  Asha Kiran, for instance, is a fantastic nonprofit that provides assistance to people of South Asian origin in North Alabama who are facing emotional and physical trauma.  This is a great cause, because South Asians who experience emotional abuse or domestic violence are quite often afraid to seek help from traditional sources due to language and cultural barriers.  Their upcoming annual fundraiser in Huntsville at which I’m performing is entitled A Ray of Hope, and it's truly an honor to be associated with this fantastic event.

PRAVASI: How much of a benefit has the general Indian-American community been to you?

Oh, it’s amazing. Aside from the networks and interconnections, I’ve always seemed to strike a chord with the Indian community. This reaches far back to when I was a kid and we used attend all these Indian weddings and functions. I’ve always defaulted to being Indian, and although at times I was worried I might be accepted because of my mixed ethnicity, I was always warmly welcomed.

PRAVASI: What advice would you give to Indians on the cusp of making similarly important decisions to the one you once did?

A lot of people think it is an “either-or” situation. There are two extremes: what others want and what you want. I think the solution lies somewhere in between. You need to have some visible and consistent means of support, but you also need to put in the hours, days, and years of work to get at your passions while still doing your job. There is a tremendous block of time available on evenings and weekends, but so many people waste them with TV and partying and such. In fact, the average Americans watches 31 hours of TV a week. Instead, people should take that time and work on their craft – painting, dancing, comedy, whatever. On Friday nights, instead of thinking since everyone else must be partying, you should too; people should realize that those crucial hours could be put to better use. There are large amounts of time where have to be alone, but staying focused makes that time quite valuable. I think one study said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in whatever your aim is, but, as I’ve found, that can be very worthwhile endeavor. I have framed a poster of a performer about to go on stage in front of a huge audience, and I think it sums this up perfectly. The poster reads: While others partied, you practiced. And now it’s your turn to play.

-  Sumeet Singh

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