Rajiv Satyal, Comedian, on Stand-Up, Going Viral with - I AM INDIAN, & Year of the Hustle.
January 10, 2016
I was born near Cincinnati. I spent 30 years in Ohio and have been living in LA for almost 10 years. I started standup in 2002, which means I've been doing it about 14 years.
I went full-time in 2006, so this has been my sole source of income for coming up on a decade.
Wow. I'm just realizing that. Glad you asked the question.
First Job in the Entertainment Industry
I won the Funniest Person in Cincinnati Contest (Semi-Pro Division) in 2005.
One of the prizes was a paid hosting week at the club, Go Bananas. That's the first one I can remember. But I must've done some between 2002 and 2005.
I think I did standup for a friend's graduation party. I got paid $75.00. I later learned that Jay Z never performed for free.
I've unwittingly followed the same approach. Except the occasional open mic, of course.
What, or whom, inspires you creatively?
It's definitely what and not whom. (But as a nerd, I'm glad you nailed the grammatically-correct "whom." We can continue the interview.) When I went full-time in 2006, I defined Four Levels of "Making It."
These are personal; they may be different for you. For me, though, here they are:
I live comfortably as a standup comic.
I host my own talk show.
I host the Oscars.
I leave the world with something positive.
It's that fourth one that drives me. I'm determined to leave the world with something positive.
Fame. As is the case with many, what got me into it differs from why I do it now. Indeed, I still have the hanging folder in my file drawer labeled, "My Trip to Fame." I made that back in 2002 - or perhaps even earlier.
I was in my 20s and that desire was a hold-over from my teenage years.
Now, though, that sounds hopelessly shallow. As you can see by my "four levels," that doesn't factor in nearly as heavily.
I read a quote recently; I'm paraphrasing but it was something like, "Don't worry about being successful. Focus on adding value." I love that.
You shouldn't chase success any more than you should chase happiness. Concern yourself with creating something you wish existed.
If you do that, success (and happiness) should follow.
Acting and standup are different. I like acting but I love standup. Acting is showing; standup is telling. So, in that way, acting takes more of you. But the way I look at it is that acting is being in it and standup is commenting on it.
I define myself more as a social commentator than a storyteller.
Also, I'm more of an individual person than a team person. I get along well with others - that's not the issue. But more often than not, I found/find myself leading the groups of which I'm a part. It's my natural tendency.
In fact, I feel to some extent that my standup ability is a subset of my leadership ability. I'm just very good at changing a room's dynamic.
When I stand in front of an audience, I can make them laugh... cry... scare them... incite them... it's one of the things I found appealing about doing my one-person show, No Man's Land.
It works the other way, too. I've gotten up onstage and realized right away that I brought a negative energy into the space.
For whatever reason, I must've carried something in and I can tell the crowd has immediately recoiled - perhaps not even physically.
It's often subtler than that. But it's now my job to recognize it and work to change it.
Not by forcing it but by sensing it and allowing our energies to meet to create something positive.
Wow. All this energy talk. I really have been living in California for 10 years, huh?
Experience with P&G and Corporate Stand-Up
Artists do it for us; entertainers do it for them.
It's imperative to know when it's time for you to focus on your integrity and be an artist and when it's time for you to put on a show and be an entertainer.
Hopefully, there's a great deal of overlap for your performances.
But when it comes to a time when you're bombing or are asked to do what you view are the equivalent of knock-knock jokes, you have to remember that, at a corporate gig, you're in the customer service business.
You're not playing an alt room; you're getting a fat check. I wouldn't call it "selling out," but you're certainly selling.
A comedian's job is perhaps the simplest of them all - not the easiest but the simplest: make people laugh.
That's it. If you also want to convey a point-of-view or educate the audience, that's fine, but remember it's an also. For me personally, I work clean.
So, it's not much of a leap for me to do corporate gigs.
However, I do enjoy being edgy and I generally have to shelve that stuff when I do a blue chip gig. I've had a lot of fun with corporate shows.
The Fortune 500 has been good to me - my alma mater of P&G has hired me 10 times and GE 7 times.
It's always nice to return to the office and only do an hour's worth of work.
Experience on The Road
"The Road" is definitely a thing in and of itself. It's an experience.
To some extent, I've been lucky that it's been "The Air" for me. I generally fly to my gigs. And I think the days of driving from gig to gig at comedy clubs are largely over.
Not that people don't do that - they do. But it isn't the only way anymore just like TV isn't the only way for people to see your stuff.
When did you start to “get serious,” about your comedy career?
It's funny you put it that way - "get serious" - because that's exactly what I called it when I did so, which was in 2002.
I had first gotten up in 1998 but I did standup perhaps ten times between then and 2005, so I split the difference and just called it "2002."
It really isn't fair to comics who were grinding it out for years to place your own start date earlier than it was.
At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it at all, let alone for a job. I clearly had some natural ability. It blended well the two things I liked to do and was good at - making people laugh and speaking to a crowd.
But in 2005, I broke up with a four-year girlfriend. (I'd been dating her for four years; she wasn't in preschool.) That's usually the catalyst for comedians - a breakup.
As they say, "great art comes from great pain." Or as another They said, "What's bad for the heart is good for the art."
Given all this free time, I decided to jump into standup with both feet. In 2006, I turned 30. Though my home state of Ohio had been great to me, I felt like Indiana Jones at the end of the Last Crusade, when he attains eternal life but has to live in that cave.
I had had all these amazing experiences in the Buckeye State but it was time to try something else. P&G and I went our separate ways and I moved to LA.
It was at that point that I really got serious about it.
I completed both tracks at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) - through Improv 401 and Sketch Writing 201. (I started at The Groundlings and loved the one class I did there but found that I'm less of a character person and more of a game/scene person.)
I found them to be immensely helpful, both in terms of the curriculum and the community.
I've met a couple of my best friends through improv. I do a lot of crowd work in my standup, so this dovetailed nicely.
Whenever comics ask me for advice when they get to LA, I tell them to take improv classes.
It's an amazing starting point - and possibly even ending point if you find your calling there.
The ability to rise to the occasion.
It's very difficult to name a universal characteristic, because for every one of them, I could find an exception.
My initial reaction was to say, "The successful ones write their jokes down." But not Dave Chappelle. Not Russell Peters. The former seems to have it all in his head; the latter mostly does crowd work.
I wouldn't even say that it's work ethic; I know a number of successful comics who sleep a lot.
I will say this: The first person for whom I did standup was (randomly enough) then-World No. 1 tennis player Pete Sampras. (That's a different story for a different day.)
I'll never forget what he used to say in interviews - that tennis players are judged by the number of Grand Slam trophies they have. (If you know nothing about tennis, just realize there are four major tournaments.)
This is remarkable because he truly boiled it down to one metric - and he's absolutely right. He said that if he could peak four times a year then he would be considered one of the greats.
I find a lot of parallels between tennis and standup, not least of which that they are individual pursuits.
And defining success this narrowly is helpful. I've seen a lot of standup greats bomb, but where they don't bomb is where it counts. They fail on small stages, not on big ones.
So, the key is to know when to take risks and when to play it safe, when to take the bullet and when to shine, "when to hold 'em... when to fold 'em."
How do you avoid some of the pitfalls that come with the territory of being a comedian?
For me personally, it's two things: figure out patterns and set boundaries. Pattern-wise, you look at the most common pitfalls - drugs, alcohol, women, and just general distraction (the beach, the parties, Vegas, etc.).
It's very easy to convince yourself that you're just networking when really what you're doing is wasting time.
You should definitely network - this is LA and you're a fool if you're not out there taking advantage of the scene, driving 20 minutes to get to the Improv when comics from all over the world would kill for that kind of proximity.
You're in the Olympics out here so you should go play.
But I find that if I make a Do and Don't list that it reduces the potential for failure because of something stupid.
In football, when a team is ahead, it goes into a prevent defense - it tries not to give up the touchdown. A field goal, fine. A safety, fine. But don't give up the touchdown.
And so it is with your life - make a few mistakes, cool. But don't get a DUI. Don't impregnate somebody (unless you're trying to). Don't get caught in a drug bust. Do write everyday. Do work out everyday.
If you set goals for yourself, you'll find you don't really have time to get lost in all that other stuff.
But realize it's a constant danger - stay motivated. And stay thirsty, my friends.
Improvements in Technology
It's both easier and harder, but on balance, it's easier. The Internet allows us to find our audience.
One of my favorite things to do is quote books I haven't read.
There's a book called 1,000 True Fans and (I believe) it talks about how, if you can just get 1,000 people to spend $100/year on you, you're gonna make $100,000/year and you've got a career on your hands.
Shifting your paradigm to look at it that way makes it a whole lot easier.
It's similar to the book, On Writing (which I did actually read), in which Stephen King states that he reads 70-80 books a year.
Initially, I was shocked. But if you break it down, that's really only about 40 pages a day, which you can do in an hour.
Think about that. If you watch two hours of TV a day (which most of us do), just convert one of those hours to reading and still watch an hour of TV a day. And at the end of the year, you would've read something like 75 books.
Dude. That's empowering. I think my answer landed pretty far away from your question but I'm satisfied with that.
Typical working day
I'm going to give you a short answer. First of all, I loathe when people say, "There's no typical day." That's crap.
It's not only not helpful, it's generally not true. It means a person doesn't understand his job.
Every single job fits into patterns - even the President's.
People's inability to articulate these is sad and misleading. I can answer it very simply.
Weekdays: mornings are writing and self-improvement (meditation, yoga, etc.).
Afternoons are marketing - calls, meetings, etc.
And evenings are shows and/or spending time w/ my wife.
Saturdays are errands and socializing.
Sundays are R&R.
You know how I largely figured this out? A digital programmable thermostat.
You have to program when you want the house warm and cool, so you figure out what you're doing when. So, if you can't answer this question, get a digital programmable thermostat.
I wrote this email that I copy and paste to standups now.
This is it:
First of all, congratulations on getting started! The biggest thing I can tell you... and this will make sense later... is to listen to yourself first.
Having said (or written) that, here are the 5 things I'd tell you:
1. Get stage time. Get anything you can get - the local comedy club, any open mic in and around town - no matter how crappy it is, etc. It's important that you get comfortable simply getting up in front of a crowd. In fact, even doing presentations at work is good for this.
2. Write, write, write. Carry a pen & paper, an iPhone, or a voice recorder. But don't forget to write things down and then take time to develop each bit - and make sure the jokes have a premise and punch line and hopefully even a tag/segue into the next joke. Mark down where you expect people will react.
3. Make each person laugh. When you're on-stage, don't look at the crowd as a mass of people. Every now and then, look an individual person in the eye and think, "I'm going to make THAT guy laugh."
4. The best thing you can do to promote yourself is to record a solid 5-min clip and get it to spread online - use YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. But be sure it’s good.
Too many people are putting their stuff up too early.
The legendary Russell Peters blew up online but was doing it 14 years before his most viral clip went viral in 2005.
5. HAVE FUN! Above all else, have a blast up there. Savor the moment. If the crowd sees you having a good time, it'll spread. And why shouldn't you? Doing it is a good time - remember that when you're up.
I'll leave you with this:
As entertainment becomes ever more dumbed-down, standup is the one honest art form that we can create easily.
Aspire to write intelligent things and actually say something. Society is starved for it.
The caveat to this is that it’s hard to do inside of 5 years. They say it takes 5 years to know what you want to talk about; 10 to find your voice; 15 to be good; 20 to be great.
Just keep going.
Realize that you’re a balance of entertainer and artist. The entertainer pays the bills… but keep working out new, smart stuff because it’s the most fulfilling – and the most needed… now more than ever.
In every case, pick the more interesting, complex choice. Do the braver thing. Break a leg!
In what ways do you challenge yourself as an artist?
"Before I settled down, I dated a woman of every race. Because I grew up on McDonald's Happy Meals - collect the whole set."
That's a joke I do, but I take the same approach with comedy.
I define "comedian" in the traditional sense - the ability and in fact the need to make every type of person laugh in as many ways as possible.
I graduated with a degree in Materials Engineering. I remember sitting on this committee that was looking at eliminating various courses from the core that all engineers had to take, regardless of whether we were Electrical, Chemical, Mechanical, et al.
A student asked, "As a Computer Engineer, I don't really ever use differential equations, so I don't think we should have to take Diff EQ."
The tide started to roll in that direction until the Dean spoke up and said, "I'll be damned if I'm going to let an engineer graduate from my college without knowing how to solve a differential equation."
Now, it doesn't matter if you don't remember - or never knew - what that even is. The point is that there are some concepts that are considered essential for a field.
Since I'm a "comedian," I'd better know something about standup, improv, sitcom acting, characters, sketch writing, and hell, maybe even some magic or hypnosis or ventriloquism.
That's called building your craft.
Sure, focus on one area - be a specialist. But be a generalist, too.
Beyond that, it helps to think about delivery - not just onstage but where is this joke going to work - on a T-shirt? As a movie premise? As a tweet? In an ad?
The more you learn what to say and how to say it, the stronger you're going to be.
Comedians don't look for what's funny - we look for what's different.
We see something that stands out in some way, something that breaks a pattern.
Imagine a grid: a white background with a bunch of black dots. Maybe something like 10 across and 10 down. And then somewhere, there's this really big pink dot. It just looks... funny. It's not particularly hilarious but one might look at it and say, "Hmmm... that looks funny."
Similarly, we do that when we're not feeling well. "I feel funny." You don't mean that you're about to laugh; you mean that you feel different from normal.
So the question that follows is, "Are you always on or can you turn it off?" My natural tendency is to observe and "be funny," meaning that I'm looking for funny stuff, whether to listen for it or say it. But it's second nature.
I shop the same way. I don't go out and stick my nose into every piece of clothing I see. I wait till something grabs my attention, catches my eye.
So, once I observe something, I write it down immediately.
It's not uncommon to see me pull over my car or pull out my phone in the middle of conversation (unless you're sharing something serious) and jot it down in my Notes app. (All my friends understand; if you don't understand that this is my job and I'm like a doctor on-call, then our friendship isn't gonna work.)
I then transfer that to a Word doc, where I freeform write for a while. Or I pace in my apartment and riff. Or I get together with another comic. Or I slip it into conversation with a civilian and see if it works. Or I throw it in during a real show.
I don't do open mics anymore. I suppose I should but my hit-rate is surprisingly high: I can get a laugh well over 50% of the time, the first time.
I figure that, during a 20-minute set, if I bomb with new material for 3 minutes, then so what? Once the bit sings, I keep it as part of my act - it goes into my final Word doc and set list.
Btw, George Carlin outlined this better than most: he kept three notebooks. (In the digital age, he said that you could use the computer, too. Personally, I've never used a notebook because I need to be able to Ctrl+F and find stuff.)
The first notebook was raw material - just any idea that came to mind.
The second was work-in-progress stuff... he'd tried it at a show and is still figuring it out.
And the third was TV-ready material, tried-and-true.
Some jokes would never make it past the 1st one or the 2nd one but the progression of a successful joke was to make it to all three. Brilliant.
As with most things in life, there's a short-term and a long-term element. Stress is this way.
Now, if you're not making much money - and there are two times in which I almost went broke (not from partying but simply from revenue not covering outlays) - then of course you're going to be stressed most of the time.
Luckily, I've largely been able to avoid that.
And I write "Luckily," because I can't work that way. But some people can - they love the thrill of not having much and being able to deliver in the clutch.
Assuming you are making enough, then what you have is long-term stress.
Comedy doesn't give you a retirement account.
Or benefits (unless you're SAG but that's acting, not comedy. They say the reason comics don't have a union is it's too much like herding cats.) You worry about whether you're going to be able to keep doing this or where you'll end up.
Maybe you don't need to worry but you do need to concern yourself with the answers to these things - but only twice a year or so.
Where did I get "twice a year"? Will Ferrell came to The Groundlings; we got to ask him questions.
I asked him some trite thing about the difference between standup and improv, really just to say I talked to Will Ferrell.
But somebody actually asked him something worthwhile: "How often do you measure your progress?"
His answer was awesome:
"Anybody can have a bad day. Or a bad week. Or even a bad month. But you shouldn't be having a bad six-months. You should be able to do something with your craft today that you couldn't do half a year ago. If you can't, it may be time to think about another profession."
People are people. We make too much of our differences.
George Carlin talked about the Little World and the Big World:
"The 'little world,' those things we all experience every day: driving, food, pets, relationships, and idle thoughts.... the 'big world': war, politics, race, death, and social issues."
The Big World is where our differences are. The Little World is where our similarities are.
I've found it refreshing that, when I do my Little World material - anywhere in the World - it goes over.
We all forget our passwords. We all wonder what a 3D movie looks like without the red-and-blue glasses. We all tie our shoes. Well, maybe except for Prince Akeem.
It's a game-changer. Without Social Media, I wouldn't have a career.
The point of the Internet for us is to build and entertain a following. It used to only be TV and comedy clubs. You got on TV and then you traveled the country as a headliner.
If you couldn't walk through that door - or to quote The Doors - "break on through" on television, then you didn't have a career.
There wasn't much else you could do.
I haven't broken through that door in a meaningful way. Virtually all my success has been virtual.
My videos have well over 60 million views online. And I'm Indian. So that has allowed me to find a specific audience and entertain it.
In 2015, I made it. I achieved Level Four - I made I AM INDIAN, which has been seen by an estimated 50 million people.
It's been shared by Bollywood stars and played to welcome the Indian Prime Minister when he spoke in Shanghai and Dubai.
It led to my opening for him in September in San Jose to an audience of 17,000 people in a sold-out arena.
And above all, it led to this: I got a call from one of my publicists (no, it's not douchey to go out of your way to specify that you have more than one) about somebody who wanted to speak with me.
I had a 45-minute FaceTime conversation with a 12-year-old disabled child and his father. The kid literally has never been able to walk a day in his life. And he's making a tribute video called, "I Am Disabled."
I went through it line-by-line with him - I helped him punch it up but what he'd already penned was already very good.
His father told me what an inspiration I've been to his son. I had tears in my eyes.
That right there, my friends, is making it.
No amount of Hollywood fame is going to bring you that. (Good. Because I have none.)
So, now what? Well, Levels Two and Three. I still don't have my own talk show and hosting the Oscars seems like an impossible goal from where I am but all I can do is try to move in that direction.
This year, I am going to set up my own talk show. How? No idea. But I'm going to figure it out and do it.
Top Memories in Entertainment
Man, I already feel like such a nerd with all my numbering systems and measurements and a douche with all the name-dropping. But let's go all-in:
5. I opened Dave Chappelle's very first show after his African hiatus.
4. Eva Longoria walked up to me at the Laugh Factory, told me I was hilarious, and asked for a picture.
3. OK, so maybe the rest of these aren't so self-promotional... The aforementioned conversation I had with the disabled child who's writing, "I Am Disabled" in the vein of "I AM INDIAN."
2. Performing my one-person show in Cincinnati. It was one of the few performances that was a 10 or close to it. My brother, himself the most talented person I know, is the person whose approval I seek more than anyone's.
And he texted me, "You. Absolutely. Blew. Me. Away." A theatre aficionado, he said I could do the show off-Broadway if I wanted.
1. Performing at my own wedding - even though, in true comic form, I thought I could've gotten more laughs, it was the moment when my personal and professional life collided in a good way.
The one-person show made me into a man, which allowed me to be ready to meet my wife, and then I get to close the loop on the single-loser stuff and perform standup at my own wedding (and have Russell Peters* open for me?). Boss. *Got one more name-drop in.
What is something about your career that you’d like people to know that they might not?
That comedians are serious in interviews. Oh, and also see Comedian by Jerry Seinfeld.
I think all comedians want audiences to develop an understanding that we're not just coming up with this stuff off the top of our head but rather that it's taken hours - and sometimes years - of work to construct what we're doing.
What are the daily steps you take to meet your long-term & short-term career goals?
Speaking of Jerry Seinfeld, I do something called The Year of The Hustle.
I've actually been to a number of houses of comics who are now following the same system based on my posts about it.
I've been beyond flattered.
"And the oldest boy, bless his soul, is preparing for his career." "College?" "Carnival." "Gotta be proud." - National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
People always ask me if being an engineer or a marketer helped me.
With acting and standup, I say that you should bring everything that you are. It's all helpful if you let it be helpful.
With engineering, you learn to solve problems and think critically.
Most of comedy is very logical - it all has to make sense since you're largely arguing for an alternative point-of-view.
Having said that, this approach can lock you into your head.
You need to do things that will connect you with your body and your soul. Indeed, offstage, I use my head a lot. But the best performances come from our guts, from our souls. So, I let myself go there.
There are things you can do to do that - exercise, dance, yoga... anything with your body. For the soul, meditation helps a lot.
As far as classes go, I did take two comedy workshops - one in Cincinnati given by NY-based comic Brad Trackman. And one by former Letterman booker Eddie Brill.
While they don't purport to make you funny, what those things will do for you is teach you some things in days that would otherwise take years to learn.
As mentioned, I took both tracks to completion at UCB and took a class at The Groundlings. I took acting classes on and off for five years.
I'm a believer in constant learning, not just reading articles and meeting people but the idea of being in-class.
It's good for you, just like going to the gym and going to church/temple.
There's a difference between supporters and believers. Supporters, your loved ones, usually have to support you. But belief is something that happens in their eyes when they start to feel you're actually doing it.
It's been fun converting supporters to believers.
I have to thank my two parents in my hometown of Cincinnati and my two brothers in New York City. My wife has been both a supporter and a believer since before we got married. My friends have been amazing.
Outside of my personal life, though neither of us loves the term, my "mentor" has been Gerry Preece, who was my boss' boss' boss at P&G.
He's somebody who has things figured out in a way that most don't. His advice has always been on-point.
Here in the Industry, I have to call out Kevin Nealon and Russell Peters for all the opportunities they've given me.