Raj Sharma went on his first comedy tour in 2002 and didn’t know that he and two fellow North Texas stand-ups were at the start of a new wave in the entertainment industry. Sharma, Paul Varghese and Aaron Aryanpur launched the groundbreaking Indians at the Improv tour, a first for Indian-American stand-ups. KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks with Sharma — before tonight’s reunion of the Indians at the Improv in Addison.
In one of Raj Sharma’s comedy routines — recorded for Live at the Laugh Factory — he talks about growing up in the ‘80s, the Number Two son in one of the only Indian-immigrant families in Mesquite. He joined the school football team.
“The only problem with me,” he recalls, “was my freshman year in high school, I was 5’3” and 96 pounds. Yeah. The first time I got hit, I saw Jesus. Which may not be a problem for most of you. But I’m Hindu. Do you realize how hard you have to be hit to see somebody else’s god?”
So why in the world did he try out for football? Same reason many boys do — especially the sons of immigrants: “I was just trying to fit in. And it’s the dumbest logic. I was already getting picked on. And guess who was picking on me? Football players. So I’m like, ‘You know what? I’ll join their team. Then they can’t pick on me!’ Really? Because now they have three hours every day – and under adult supervision.”
“And she picked Texas,” he says, “because the weather and the scenery is similar to India. It’s hot and it’s flat. So I always say that I’m my own conflict of interest. I am a cowboy and an Indian.”
In Mesquite, Sharma recalls, people used to ask him what tribe he was from — Cherokee? “Try further east,” he says. “There just weren’t that many Indians in America, period, so people didn’t know what to make of me — although there’ve been Indians in San Francisco since the 1850s.”
As for all those efforts at fitting in, Sharma says, parents forget children are evil. He’d bring his home-packed lunch to school, open it in the cafeteria — and everyone would smell the curry. At the time, they weren’t exactly familiar with highly aromatic Indian food. The one good thing that came from all this hazing-the-outsider stuff? The key, Sharma says, was learning, if he could make the girls laugh, their boyfriends would back off.
“That was the key, for me at least – learning to get out of situations that were bad for me by using humor. You know, growing up in Mesquite actually taught me how to be a comic.”
What made him a stand-up, though, was seeing Paul Varghese from Garland one night in 2001 performing at the Improv. Seeing Varghese made Sharma ask the questions dozens of other children of Indian immigrants asked themselves when they saw the Indians at the Improv tour a few years later: We can do this? I don’t have to become a doctor? I don’t have to work in the family business?
By 2002, Sharma’s own father, Ram Sharma, was running a successful nursing company. “I offered him a job in my company at a very good salary,” Ram Sharma recalls, “and he said, ‘No, I don’t want money. I want to pursue stand-up comedy.”
So has he seen his son perform? Ram Sharma laughs but says he’s watched him only once. “And he made fun of parents. I saw Jay Leno in Dallas once, and he made fun of parents, too, so I know it’s what stand-ups do.” But he’s proud of hi son, he adds. He just told him so.
By 2009, Paul Varghese would win the ‘Funniest Comic in Texas’ competition. He’s appeared often on Comedy Central including his own special and opened for Dave Chappelle on tour. But that’s Varghese — what would a young Indian-American comedian like Sharma do to set himself apart?
“People actually told me I should wear a turban,” he says, ” you know, so audiences would know what to make of me, what I was.” The surprise is how quickly Sharma’s career took off anyway — without the turban. Varghese, Sharma and Aaron Aryanpur (Funniest Comic in Texas for 2012) started their Indians at the Improv tour in 2002 — only a year after Sharma first saw Varghese. But they started to sell out 300- and 400-seat clubs. And this, for a tour with no-name comics.
They had almost no competition, Sharma explains. But they had an audience.
“There were only five of us in the whole country, ” he says. “So we were getting so much work. On the one side, clubowners were going, ‘What is going on?’ But we’d sell out because Indians were like, ‘We have comics now!’”
Indeed, they do. In the dozen years since the Indians at the Improv tour began in Texas, Sharma has played Dublin and London and been on Comedy Central. Aziz Ansari has become a star on Parks and Rec and sold out Madison Square Garden. Hasan Minhaj is a regular on The Daily Show. Mindy Kaling became a star on The Office and spun off her own series, The Mindy Project.
“The kids,” Sharma calls these younger comics.
But clearly comedy for Indian-Americans has changed. For one thing, a comic like Ansari barely makes reference to his cultural-family background at all. He’s not the fish-out-of-Texas-water that Sharma was — he’s busy eagerly embracing American hip-hop culture while mocking it, enjoying the excesses of celebrity culture and confessional comedy. He’s definitely part of the team.
Yes, comedy is different for them, says Sharma, “in the sense that their growing up was different. I mean, like, going back to Mesquite, it’s not odd to see Indian people. But when I was a kid, and we’d see another Indian, it’d be like, ‘Yes!’ he says imploringly, “‘Come talk to me.’ But now, there’s, like, tons of ‘em, right?”
Tonight’s performance in Addison is not part of an Indians at the Improv tour. It’s a one-night-only reunion. All three comedians are on their own tours or are about to start one. Sharma is headed to India for a Bollywood project. This just happened to be a convenient date in their busy schedules.
“It’s neat to be present,” says a grinning Sharma, “and to watch the transition to where we’re not Indian comics, we’re just comics.”
Or, actually, not just any comics. By sheer luck — and talent and work — they’ve been part of a generational, cultural change.
The mainstreaming of the Indian-American stand-up.
Indians at the Improv plays Wednesday at the Addison Improv
Excerpts from Sharma’s interview:
Before the North Texas Indian community moved to Plano, Sharma’s parents were pioneers in North Texas – like at block parties in Mesquite.