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In Conversation With Dan Nainan, Stand Up Comedian

Nirmala Garimella

What if 9/11 happened on 7/11? Indians everywhere would be in big trouble!”
— Dan Nainan

My uncle says, “If my daughter marries someone who isn’t from Kerala I will commit suicide.” They live in a small town in Texas. Who’s he waiting for — Amarillo Slim Chakrapatty?
— Dan Nainan

 Log on to www.danielnainan.com or http://youtube.com and listen to Dan Nainan, bring his brand of humor in a honest and straightforward style with a no nonsense attitude as he comments on current events, cultural idiosyncrasies and everyday happenings. After an impressive start with a traditional career in Intel , he moved on to comedy because he says “ I’ve sort of been doing comedy my whole life” When not doing comedy, he spends his time playing chess, quarterbacking in a weekly Central Park football game or composing music (he plays keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and cello). He has traveled the world and especially enjoys learning new languages.

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 When did comedy become a part of your life? Did you have other careers in mind?

From the time that I was very young, I enjoyed imitating people's voices. Then I got addicted to making crank phone calls to people in different voices. So I guess I've sort of been doing comedy my whole life. My father would always tell me that I should be an actor or a comedian. Unfortunately, I did the typical South Asian thing and majored in computers and business in college. My whole career was in information technology. Only in 1998 did I get the bug to do comedy. I was working for Intel Corp. as a senior engineer presenting technical demonstrations on stage with Andy Grove, Craig Barrett and all of the senior executives, at events around the world. This job required a significant amount of speaking on stage, of course, about which I was extremely nervous. Since I already had the idea in my mind of doing comedy, I thought, why not take a comedy class, and if I can do comedy, then speaking on stage for Intel should be easy. Having made a fair amount of money in stock options, in 2001, I decided to retire from Intel and pursue standup comedy full-time. In January of 2002, I decided to become extremely serious and go for it.

 Do you think you have an edge over other comedians because of your cultural background- Both Japanese and Indian?

 At first, I thought my cultural background was going to be a disadvantage. But as my career has unfolded, it has become a tremendous advantage. For one thing, it's much easier for club owners, bookers and industry people to remember who I am. It's a lot easier to remember an Indian Japanese guy than your typical white or black comedian. In addition, I have gotten a tremendous amount of work in the Indian community, and to somewhat of a lesser degree, in the East Asian community, that many mainstream comedians cannot have access to. Being bullied and abused as a youngster was worth it so that I could have the career that I am now having.

 How is the South Asian Comedy in the US? Does it have a mainstream audience? 

South Asian comedy in the US, which was essentially nonexistent before 2004, has accelerated tremendously in the past year and a half because of the advent of Mr. Russell Peters, who toiled away in relative obscurity in Canada for 16 years. It was very difficult to be taken seriously as a South Asian comedian before he came on the scene. I don't know that it has a mainstream audience just yet, but I think it is just a matter of time.

What is the toughest part of being a standup comedian? 

 In the beginning, the toughest part is to be able to stand up there and take the crowd not laughing at you. Fortunately, I've been fortunate enough not to be booed or heckled in my career... for some reason people really listen to me and I'm not sure exactly why. But for other comedians, sometimes the abuse is too bruising to the ego and they stop doing comedy, which I think is sad. I think one of the great things about experience in this business is being able to pick yourself up after having had a bad show and just keep doing it. There were three or four times in my career, including my second performance, where I didn't get the reaction that I had hoped for, and I seriously considered quitting. Many people see what I am doing and want to get started in comedy, and I seriously advise them that they should consider taking a class, and not start out doing open mics. Open mics can be extremely traumatic, and many a beginning comedian will do one or two open mics, have a bad experience and then conclude that they do not have the talent for comedy. I think that is very sad, because they don't have the experience to realize that it takes hundreds of performances in the beginning before you really become comfortable onstage. That is why I strongly encourage them to take a class, because you have other people give you feedback from your jokes, your first performance is at a real comedy club in front of a very forgiving and receptive audience composed of your friends and relatives, and I think that initial positive experience is really important when you're first doing something that inspires so much fear in people.

What is the easiest?

The easiest part of this job is when things go well. When I am about to perform at an event, and I see a large crowd, and I'm performing at the right point during the evening, there is nothing that can approach the feeling of standing up there and having the crowd laugh at every single joke you do, and then afterwards having them come up and buy your CD/DVD and tell you how great you are and how they want to hire you for their next event, and so on. It's quite intoxicating. I don't drink, smoke, do drugs, never have, but sometimes I feel as if this is what it must be like to be on drugs. It's a great feeling to know that you came up with a joke while in the shower or taking a crap and there you are in front of 2000 people doing that same joke that you practiced in your living room by yourself.

 You mentioned that your comedy is clean. So can a 12-13 year old watch your show without his parents cringing alongside him?

Absolutely. My comedy is 100% clean. I don't do any sexual or profane material, and I also don't pick on anybody in the audience. The guideline I have always used is this -- is this material I can do in front of my very conservative "Indian/Japanese" parents and not be embarrassed? I mean, when I go home and we are all watching television together, when two people are kissing on the screen, it gets very quiet in the room. Jerry Seinfeld said, and I agree, that you can use profanity, but it's a cheap way to get a laugh. It's sort of like winning a race, but knowing that you cheated by cutting across the infield. And these days, I think it's a little bit unusual to be a clean comedian -- after many shows, people come up and tell me how they relieved they were that I wasn't doing dirty jokes. I say it very often -- there are comedians who are 10 times funnier than I am who cannot get as much work as I do, simply because I'm clean. They will never be invited to perform at weddings, charity functions, corporate function etc., and I think they're really cheating themselves out of some serious potential income.

 Is clean comedy hard for laughs?

 I don't think so. Every now and then I think about a dirty joke, and I certainly appreciate dirty humor, in fact I toured with one of the dirtiest people in the business, Robert Schimmel, but I choose not to do that kind of material. I think it's easy to come up with clean stuff and it's easy to come up with very dirty stuff; it's just a choice of what you want to use.

 Where do you get ideas for your stand up? Do you write your own scripts?

All of my jokes I write myself, which is true of mostly all comedians except for the famous ones who have staffs of writers. The ideas, the raw material usually comes from either thoughts that pop into my head or from something that someone says, especially in conversations with friends. When something like that happens, I immediately write it down in my Palm Pilot so that I won't forget it. Some comedians sit down in front of their computer and try to bang their head against the wall and come up with jokes. Other comedians including myself get all of their material through inspiration and spontaneity.

 Who are some of your favorite stand up comedians?

 I would say Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Russell Peters.

 Is this a very competitive field? Are comedians well paid?

Not only is it a competitive field, it's also one of the most competitive. There are a few nice comedians, but most of them are backstabbing, jealous bastards. It's amazing how many people will say negative things if you have success, and try to knock you down just because you've gotten somewhere they haven't. There is also a tremendous amount of alcohol and drug consumption as is true for any entertainment field. As far as compensation, it doesn't follow a linear path as it would for say a doctor or lawyer or engineer. A typical comedian's career consists of very, very low pay or even no pay in the beginning, which could stay the same for years. Once things start to jell, though, the rise in income can be exponential. I progressed rather quickly on this curve. For my first two years,  I made absolutely nothing, and earned five dollars at my first show. And then I started charging $100 per show, $200 show, $500 per show and within a year I am now averaging $3000 a show and have earned as much as $30,000 in one night. Russell Peters is easily making over $1 million per month. It's possible to make a very good living of at least six figures without anybody knowing who you are.

 Share with us some of your best moments in comedy? And your best voice-overs?

 I'd have to say my favorite moment was performing at the Moore Theater in Seattle, and I will send you the clip if I haven't already. My favorite voiceovers include the one I did for a company called American Cowboy Tools in which I sound like a redneck. I've also done a fair amount of Bill Clinton. 

 What are some of your future plans? Are you performing in Boston sometime soon?

I have been performing a fair amount in Boston and just performed at a TIE event and hope to be performing at many more. On April 22, I am performing at an event for Pakistani Earthquake Relief sponsored by the Islamic relief fund. As far as future plans, I have many things going, for example, I'm developing a one-man show which will incorporate comedy, my impressions and the five musical instruments that I play. I also have some secret projects I cannot talk about. I also plan to be doing more voiceover work, because that is the highest paying job in the world, literally.

 What is the best way to contact you?

 On my cell phone, 212-414-2129, which you or anyone else can call 24 hours a day -- if I am sleeping, I turn it off. Or via e-mail. I make myself very available to everyone, including fans, and really enjoy conversing with everybody.

To watch  a video clip of  Dan Nainan's show  http://www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2709639

Hear Dan’s dead-on Bill Clinton impression from the Lamont and Tonelli show on KSAN San Francisco.  Dan wrote and performed this bit on 30 radio stations around the nation.


In this episode of the "War of the Roses" with Baltazar and Goumba Johnny on WKTU New York, Dan plays Ramesh, an Indian deli owner who is caught cheating on his wife.  Ramesh became a weekly recurring character on WKTU for several months.

Baltazar from WKTU busts a New York sidewalk peanut vendor named Ibrahim, played by Dan, for health code violations, in this hilarious phone call which is still one of the radio station’s most requested radio bits.




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