How the East Meets Midwest Comedy Tour Uses Humor to Talk About Growing up as First Generation Minorities in America

What do you get when you put together a show featuring four South Asian-American comics? No, this is not a setup for a joke, nor is there a punchline. What you do get is the East Meets Midwest Tour featuring, but not limited to, South Asian-American comedians bringing the hilarity in a way that particularly resonates with us here at The Teal Mango.

Starting in Chicago and concluding in New York City at the prestigious comedy club, Carolines on Broadway, the East Meets Midwest Tour features Chicago’s Prateek Srivastava and Raghu Adibhatla, performing alongside New York City’s Rishi Mathur and Nikki Chawla. The show aims to provide, “a unique lens of what it is like growing up a first generation minority in America.”

We were curious, what does that really mean? It’s always refreshing to see comedy that discusses what it means to be South Asian-American in a humorous way, tackling all the cultural, political, and personal nuances, things that this show promises to do. But how would these comedians do this? Would they rely on old tropes and stereotypes? Would they rely on accents and head wobbles to present their humor? What were these comedians own backgrounds and relationships with their family, community, and art that would provide truly unique fodder for their comedy show?

We had the chance to pick the brains of Prateek, Raghu, Rishi, and Nikki and get a glimpse from where these artists draw their inspiration for their jokes and what we could expect from these comic powerhouses banding together.

The Teal Mango: Let’s get the obvious question out of the way - how did each of your families/community react to you being a comedian? Are any of your family members fodder for your comedy and if so, are they offended?

Nikki: I lied for years. When my mom saw a published article of all four of us in the paper, was the moment she became fully aware of my doing standup.

Nikki Chawla; photo credit: Shirin Tinati

My family has never seen me do stand up. I am not sure if that will happen. No one in my family is offended as long as I don’t talk about them. Too late for that!

Raghu: My family doesn’t care that I do comedy.  They have accepted the fact that this is my passion and that I love doing it.  Only my brother has seen my comedy and he wasn’t offended. My parents know I use them in my comedy but they don’t care.  

Raghu Adibhatla

Rishi: My parents hate the fact I do comedy, but they are slowly understanding that I am very good at this. I have always been funny, the concept of not having a steady secure pay check coming in week after week does freak them out, but as I keep continuing this journey they are slowly trying to figure out how to support me. They also understand that my brother has helped me through this journey. Being an entrepreneur he understands what I am going through. Due to his success, they are hoping I can be as successful of a comedian as he is an entrepreneur.

Rishi Mathur

Prateek: My parents were always comedy fans. Despite what people think about stereotypical Indian couples who just watch Bollywood; my parents would watch shows like Saturday Night Live and movies like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future. I was definitely exposed to a lot more comedy than most. But like any loving parent,  regardless of race, they had a little resistance to this field because it is not an easy career path.  I was also working a job, sometimes two, to support myself and I really believe that helped my parents understand how important comedy was to me. My family have seen my performances many times and they never get offended. Occasionally when I go perform in rural parts of the world they get a little concerned about my safety, but they are never concerned about my material.

Prateek Srivastava

The Teal Mango: How did you all band together to put together this tour? Have you all worked together before or are you four the only funny desis in the USA? Elaborate!

Raghu: Prateek and I have worked together many times in Chicago.  I’ve seen Nikki perform before but never produced anything together.  I met Rishi when he opened for another comic and decided I wanted him to be a part of this tour.  We have never all worked together before and we aren’t the only funny desis in the USA. We see more and more up and coming desi comics which is really great.  There are only a few desi comics who have risen to fame and they serve as great motivation and inspiration for me.

Nikki: I met Raghu in 2013 on a visit to Chicago and we became friends. We also performed at a bar called the Joynt, where I also met Prateek. I often have expressed interest to both Raghu and Prateek that we should work together. One day, I told Raghu we should do a tour and also ask Prateek. As I think they are not only my friends but I admire their hard work in standup. Raghu mentioned Rishi who I had not met although we are both in NY! I was excited to be acquainted with him. He came on board and we had a team! There is a special vibe between all of us and the thread that keeps us consistent; our passion for comedy and our focus. Having started comedy more than a decade ago, there were only 15 of us desis to name a few are Vidur Kapur, Rajiv Satyal, Saad Sarwana, doing comedy in NY. Now they have have grown in numbers not just in NY but globally. It has been nice to get acquainted with the new batch of desi comics who are up and coming.

Rishi: I met Prateek about a year into my comedy career, I was introduced to him through a mutual family friend. He was very supportive and helped me out a lot early on, and about a few months ago I opened for a comedian name Rajiv Satyal in Naperville where I was able to meet Raghu. He told me about a tour he wanted to do, once they decided to start the tour they both reached out to me directly to bring me on where I was able to meet Nikki. This is our first time working together in any capacity. We are all very excited!

Prateek: I knew Rishi Mathur through a family friend (Reporter/Journalist Vikaas Shanker) when we were kids but Vikass reintroduced us as adults since he knew we both were in comedy. I have seen Rishi grown over the past few years as a comedian and his progress is remarkable. Nikki Chawla was introduced to me by Raghu at a South Asian variety show called Subcontinental Drift she was based in New York but we had kept in touch since then. I knew Raghu Adhibatla coming up through the Chicago comedy scene. He is one of my oldest friends in comedy and we have worked through many shows including some not so great ones early on in our careers.

The Teal Mango: On a recent description we saw on the Carolines site promoting your show, the description says “Audiences will fall in love with the raw, personal, political, and cultural humor presented by this show.” When it comes to actually crafting your comedy, what, if any challenges do you face in simultaneously being funny and “real” in terms of reflecting on “personal, political, and cultural humor” without perpetuating stereotypes or using played out tropes of desi Americans?

Raghu: I think what we mean is we use humor drawn from our life.  We are Indian so we talk about what it’s like to be Indian but not make Indian jokes.  My comedy is about my life and things that have happened to me. I make jokes about being Indian but I don’t use all the stereotypes that people normally attach to Indians.  My comedy is very observational and everyone can relate. I make jokes about marriage, having babies and having Indian parents. Only Indians will understand having Indian parents but I tell it in a way that I am educating everyone what it is like to have Indian parents.  I don’t get political at all.

Prateek: My stand up comedy is stories woven together from my life; so I do not really think about what is South-Asian and what is non-South Asian. I do a joke where I reference Donald Trump as a professional wrestler which is absurdist but it also relates to a story about my love of professional wrestling. So i am able to fuse together styles.  Some people often believe that South Asian comedy is just about accents but I think that is a narrow minded view. There are plenty of upcoming South Asian comedians who are doing all different styles of comedy; it could be slapstick, cerebral, absurdist, etc. I truly believe that this an exciting time for comedy not just specifically in the Desi niche.  This is something we want to highlight in the tour: all four of us are uniquely ourselves and come from a variety of backgrounds and this assembly of four comedians is really unlike anything you have seen before.

Nikki: One thing I learned in my training at The Actors Studio Drama School where I obtained my MFA in acting, is to be your truth. My teachers such as Elizabeth Kemp and Susan Batson have always encouraged me to get out of my own way and be honest with myself and my audience whatever the topic may be. When I was studying acting at The Actors Studio Drama School,  my dean, James Lipton, invited Tina Fey as a guest at the Inside the Actors Studio taping. I was given the opportunity to ask her a question about how I can play a part without being a stereotypical Indian. She said, “Nice to meet you Nikki, look I’m a Greek woman regardless of you being Indian, I would make the role mine, so just be you, bring you to the character and don’t worry about the stereotype.  

Rishi: When it comes to crafting my jokes, I remember one of my favorite comedians in the world Liz Miele told me you should look at the emotion in the story or joke you want to tell. Once you can truly understand that emotion, you can then extrapolate the essence as to why it’s funny and then create around that. So with this in mind, I always think about what topics I really desperately want to talk about and then once I understand why I want to tell people I construct my stories around that. The one real thing about comedy is to be as honest and vulnerable as possible more open you are the better reactions you can get from the audience.  

The Teal Mango: The show also promises a “unique lens” of growing up a first generation minority in America. Could you give us a teaser of what this really means and what we the audience can expect? Also, are you each performing a set about this and sharing your personal experiences? Do your experiences overlap and if so, what was the biggest issue or experience you all have in common besides the obvious one of being a minority?

Raghu:  I have a joke where I say that my parents do this really annoying thing.  They compare me to all the Indian kids in the spelling bee. This was the very first joke I have ever written.  It hits on the fact that first of all Indian parents do compare their kids to other kids. I took it a step further and mentioned the spelling bee, which Indian kids get into growing up.  We definitely don’t have experiences that overlap but one thing that might be common is how our Indian parents are. There are things that are a common theme among all Indian parents no matter where they are from in India.

Prateek:  I truly believe that the more personal your stand up is THE more relatable it will be to people of all backgrounds. At the end of the day I believe comedy is about shining a light on the little things in life that annoy us, entertain us, scare us, etc. Regardless of your ethnic background, everyone feels awkward, everyone wants to fall in love, everyone wants to earn more money. It is the little things in life that make us all human.  So not only do I want to perform material about my upbringing, I want to be able to also highlight our similarities as well.

Nikki: One thing I share onstage is my divorce. It is something very personal for me to share because I come from a background where it is a taboo to be that open about one’s personal life.  I am the first in my family to be divorced and coming from a Sikh orthodox family it is definitely something not publicized often.

Rishi:  Since we are all Indian there will be some overlap, but all of us are very different with slightly different experiences so as long as we discuss our experiences with our own perspective the jokes will then be different.

The East Meets Midwest Tour Team

The Teal Mango: Who is each of your favorite desi comedians?

Nikki: There are many I have worked with. To name a few who inspired me in the beginning of my career are Aladdin Ullah and Vijai Nathan.

Aladdin Ullah who has been pioneering the past decade as one of the very first South Asians to perform stand-up comedy on national television on networks such as: HBO, Comedy Central, MTV, BET, and PBS. His words to me, “Get up and don’t give a shit, you got nothing to lose”. There are more desi female comics, then when I started, I worked with Vijay Nathan in the beginning of my career.  I was very impressed by her one woman show, Good Girls Don’t, But Indian Girls Do”. We talked about comedy after a show we did together at NY comedy club, she said, “Let your hair down, and enjoy the hell out of yourself on stage!”

Raghu: Russell Peters and Aziz Ansari. When I first saw Russell Peters I really liked how he can make fun of any ethnicity and he does it by just talking to people in the audiences.  He has set jokes but what he is great at is his talent with crowd work. Aziz talks a lot about dating and he reaches all the young Indian professionals who go through dating and the trials of being single.  I really enjoyed his Netflix series Master of None.

Prateek: There are lot of up and coming South Asian comedians this is an exciting time to see stand up.  Two of my favorites are Subhah Agarwal and Azhar Usman; Subha’s tireless work ethic is stamped all over the New York comedy scene.  She is a fearless performer and a killer writer who works on the Jim Jefferies show. She is due to break out in a big way very soon so be on the lookout for her.  Azhar Usman is kind of like the “Kevin Bacon” of Indian Comedians because he knows and is connected to everyone in the community. He has a big heart has earned respect from the likes of Hannibal Buress, Russell Peters and all all the way down to a comedian who has been performing for a few months (Azhar treats everyone equally) It is no wonder that Dave Chappelle has called him Untouchable as he has performed all over the Globe.  If people don’t know the name AZHAR, they will very soon!

Rishi: Hari Kondabolu and Raj Belani are two fantastic comedians. Hari as everyone knows is a sharp performer who gives a cutting commentary on society and he should be bigger than he is.  Raj Belani meanwhile is a killer comic rising the NYC ranks and he is a fantastic writer and someone who pushes me to rewrite my material constantly.

The Teal Mango: What is at the heart of your comedy, or particularly this tour. Is it that you want to make relatable comedy for South Asian-Americans or is that you want to use humor as a way to, as it says in the description of your show, cut the bullshit and provide insights to a wider audience outside of minorities?

Raghu: The heart of my comedy is about comedy for everyone, not just Indian Americans. People probably expect me to make fun of Indians and do Indian jokes but I reach all audiences.  I’m an “Indian” Ray Romano. He is an inspiration to me because he has a family and he talks about his kids and what it is like being a parent.  I just happen to be Indian that’s all.

Prateek: Chris Rock once said “I am not a black comedia, but a comedian who happens to be black. Being a minority is a part of my life but I do not want to make that THE ONLY part of my act. I try to throw in a variety of joke styles and topics, kind of like a comedy “gumbo”.  

Nikki: The heart of my comedy is being myself it’s as simple as that.

Rishi: I do not look at comedy as white comedy or desi comedy; I just look at it as comedy. Although I do racial jokes, I don’t pigeon-hole my creativity process on where I am going to direct my jokes. I tell the things I want to tell about.

The Teal Mango: Your flyer also shows a lineup outside of you four. How many comedians perform per show? Does it change from show to show?

Rishi: Each city on the tour will feature special guest comics performing alongside us. We are joined a couple of local comics in each city and we are trying to get another female comic where we go.  We want a diverse lineup based on culture and gender. We wanted it to be inclusive and give an equal opportunity regardless of gender and race.

The Teal Mango: Are there other projects you each are working on that you can tell us about?

Nikki: I am producing two documentaries and I am in a comedic webseries written by Gundeep Kaur and directed by Katherine Filasata.  I continue to work as a high school performing arts teacher and acting coach while I pursue my acting and comedy career. Above all, I still manage to find time to create ways lie to my mother about where I’m going! Regardless of the fact, I’m a grown ass woman! I am still her baby!  They say it takes 10 years to find your voice. For me stand-up comedy is not about getting tv credits and making money only. It is about making a difference, doing “seva” service to people. Laughter is truly the best medicine.

Rishi: I am working on a play with another comedian/buddy of mine Stephen Sihelnik.  

Prateek: In addition to being a stand up comedian I am a writer and cast member on a sketch show called P.O.V at Chicago’s famed Improv Olympic(The same theater that Chris Farley, Tina Fey and many comedians got their start) I wrote a comedy pilot script called Abnormally Spellbound last year as part of Improv Olympic’s  writing class under the tutelage of director Michael McCarthy (Who worked on SNL and Drew Carey). I am hoping to produce the script as a stage play and then try to shop it around as a pilot. I am also co-writing another pilot with a very talented comedian named Nicole Calasich called “Some of Best Friends” that is set in San Francisco.

Raghu:  I am married with kids, which makes it really tough to do comedy.  When I started this, I knew I had to find my own path in this business.  There is a path for everyone and I know I am on the right one for me.

Catch the tour by clicking here to buy tickets; remember to use promo code FUNNY for a discount!

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