By Vidya Pradhan
Half-Indian, half-Japanese, stand-up comedian Dan Nainan has an act that is considered second only to Russell Peters. An ex-employee of Intel, Dan took a comedy class to help him lose his stage fright during technical demos and found his calling.(scroll down for a video of his act) WNI caught up with Dan when he was in town recently to perform at the Home of Hope’s 10th annual fundraiser. In person, the comedian is affable, unassuming and approachable.
You do more Indian jokes than Japanese jokes.
I do, I do. That’s because I grew up more Indian, attended all Indian functions like Onam. My father is from Kerala. With the Japanese there is a bit of a language barrier but most Indians speak English. How do your parents take your jokes about them?
Oh, all that stuff I say about them is true. You know the bit about the donut, that really happened. They love the shows. They are tickled pink.
Which culture do you think can take a joke better- Indian, Japanese or American?
I do mostly Indian shows and the Indian audiences are really awesome about the jokes. Have you heard about the laughing clubs? They are like comedy-clubs without the comedians. Of course there is American humor. But a lot of American humor is filthy and I am not comfortable with that.
Do you find more humor more in the Indian immigrant experience?
There’s humor in everything. I walk down the street and ideas come to me all the time. I write them down in my Treo. What joke I pull out depends on the situation. Any immigrant in a foreign culture is a source of humor, like my father saying, “We learnt Calculus in kindergarten.”
You’ve chosen to keep your act clean. Is it to attract family audiences or is it your upbringing?
I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing dirty material. Basically I wouldn’t want to do any jokes I couldn’t do in front of my parents. They are in the audience very often. Another reason is that you get a lot more work doing clean comedy. Jerry Seinfeld’s approach is to do only clean material and he’s never gotten into drugs or alcohol or partying.
Is there a comedian’s lifestyle?
There’s this whole thing about waking up at 4 in the afternoon after a hard night of partying. What they don’t understand is that most of the business is during the day. Waking up late, getting drunk or stoned, smoking pot after the show, that’s a comedic lifestyle. The Seinfeld model is approaching it seriously, as a business.
Is he one of your role models?
Yes, and also Russell Peters. Russell is one of the nicest people and none of it has gone to his head. I wouldn’t have my career if it weren’t for him. I toured with him for 2 years.
How did you get that break?
I went to one of his shows in New York. His tape had just come out and there were lines around the block. The organizers had some extra time and were wondering how to fill it and I said, “Put me up, put me up, I’m an Indian.” I got a chance. Russell said I did well, though I don’t think it went that well because I went in after him and the crowd was already laughed out! We reconnected a while later and I ended up touring with him.
Did you open for him or follow his act?
No, no, I opened for him. I would get up and do 20 minutes and then he would come on. There’s no comedian in the world who wants to go up cold. You want to have people laughing, ready for you. But you don’t want to have your warm-up act be funnier than you! That happens to me all the time! You used to work at Intel. Do you miss the steady pay, the stock options?
Oh, I make more now.
I heard about the controversy about your performance at the Palo Alto high school. What was that all about?
That was so funny because every joke I’m saying they’re laughing and laughing and laughing and I’ve never seen a crowd like this. Everyone’s high-fiving me and saying I’m awesome and the next thing I know, I find on the internet that the administrators are upset, they think the jokes are racist. What’s so funny is that I do the same jokes in front of Indian people and they die laughing and I do them in front of white people they think I’m racist. The Palo Alto experience was weird because I’ve done acts in front of Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Tony Blair and she’s like(in propah British accent)”Dan, you’re so funny, I must have a photo with you.” Now if I’m in front of a white audience, I do less of the Indian jokes and more of the impressions of Bush and Bill Clinton and all that.
But then the Palo Alto Weekly interviewed me and came out with a balanced article so that’s ok. There were postings of support from the students but I guess they won’t be having a comedian again any time soon!
Does it happen that sometimes your jokes fall flat?
Oh, all the time. I usually try out a new joke in front of a small audience to see if it works. It’ll be a club on a Tuesday night in front of a few drunks. I also try out new jokes in front of a class I take at the American Comedy Institute in New York from time to time.
How often do you need to refresh your routine?
You need to have new stuff all the time. It is a constant thing. Though it is rare that someone will see you over and over again in a season of shows. Except Shashi Tharoor, who saw 3 or 4 of my shows and told me “Dan, you’ve got to get some new jokes!” But every day you need to work on the act. Comedians have an itinerant lifestyle. How do you manage?
In my previous job I was traveling all over the world with Andy Grove and his team giving technical demos so I am used to it. There were years when I didn’t have a home. I can fall asleep anywhere. What’s next for you?
Well, every comedian ultimately wants to get on TV. I do a lot of radio voices. I pretend to be Arabs, East Asians, South Asians.
Were you always a good mimic?
That’s something I could always do. Being spontaneous is not my strong suit but I can imitate anyone, speak any language, play any instrument. I can barely see, my contacts are the most powerful you can buy. You’re bad at one thing, you’re good at another. If you’re not a particularly attractive guy, it helps to be funny!
Will you share a joke with our readers?
I get this all the time from uncles who want to hire me. (In Indian accent) “We want to hire you but we don’t want any profanity, we are very religious people, what you charge for show?” I say 5000 plus stay and travel. “Are you out of your goddamn mind? We were thinking more like 500…rupees.”