Comedian Rajiv Satyal is doing what he’s always dreamt of; hosting his own talk show. His new digital series “What Do You Bring To The Table?” launched last week with an interview with Hasan Minhaj.
The show will feature a variety of South Asian-American celebrities who also happen to be first, second, or third generation immigrants. The Ohio-born comic shakes up the traditional talk show format by playing a game with each guest as they chat about immigration, politics and current events.
We spoke with Satyal to ask about what it was like to create a talk show, creating a conversation around immigration in 2018 and where he wants the show to go from here.
The Teal Mango: Congrats on the launch of “What Do You Bring To The Table?” How did you come up with the concept for this show?
Rajiv Satyal: The idea for the show came about because I’ve always wanted to be a talk show host and I decided I wanted to give people something to look at besides two people sitting in a chair. That’s kind of an old concept that may still be done here and there but for the most part, you have to give people something visually appealing to look at and having Hasan Minhaj as the first guest certainly didn’t hurt. But I wanted to add a different dimension, because what that does is keep the conversation light. We’re discussing heavy topics but I think the game aspect keeps things light and fun.
TTM: How did you pick which games to do with which people? Did you tailor it to personality?
Satyal: I definitely gave the guests a range of choices. The games should involve a table — because the show is called “What Do You Bring To The Table?”— and it should be something that is skilled based and not luck based. So I don’t want something like Candyland or something like Shoots and Ladders where you are figuring out who will win by rolling the dice. I wanted it to be a skill-based game but also not something like Chess, where it’s like ‘Wow, I can’t have a real conversation with you while figuring out three or four moves from now.’
So I’ve done games like Connect Four, Jenga and Ping Pong. Ping Pong is kind of the best one because it really does lend itself to this kind of thing.
TTM: Right. And it also feels that Ping Pong for me is such a part of the Asian-American and Indian-American experience with the culture of having a table in the basement and playing with cousins.
Satyal: Totally, I think it definitely has a lot of Asian and Indian undertones. I think that’s completely true.
TTM: Did you know Hasan before taping your debut episode?
Satyal: Hasan and I were roommates from 2010 to 2012 in LA, so for a couple of years.
TTM: Oh, wow.
Satyal: Yes, so I knew that we enjoyed talking to each other over the course of a couple of years, so that was great. A lot of these people, I’ve met either one way or the other. I’ve known Hasan and Deepak Chopra I’ve worked with on stage. I think everything single person on the show is someone I’d met already.
TTM: Have you finished filming season one already?
Satyal: I filmed twelve of the episodes already and I ran a Kickstarter to fund it, which was fortunately very successful. So I think we’ll be filming season two in the coming months.
TTM: You are focusing on current events and immigration a lot with this show. While you’ve said you’ve always wanted to do a talk show, how much did the current national conversation come into play when you were planning “What Do You Bring To The Table?”
Satyal: It’s a big part of it. It’s definitely a backdrop. Donald Trump is such a major character that he almost forces you to have an opinion on him, even if you aren’t that interested in politics, which I am and Hasan is and a lot of the guests are. I think this is Trump’s world, for better or for worse, and in my opinion for far worse. I have an extremely strong opinion on Trump, but I try to make the emphasis timeless enough to make it last. I think that addressing what is happening in the current climate is somewhat timeless, unfortunately, but at the same time I wanted to make the episodes evergreen.
TTM: A lot of your guests are either the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. How did they bring their own stories into their interviews?
Satyal: I do want to know the guest’s stories. Probably my favorite questions to ask is about your inflection points. I ask guests, ‘Have you made it?’ and then the guests say yes or no and then if she or he says no, or yes really, I want to say ‘Give me your origin story.’
With Hasan, I asked ‘When did you first think of being funny?’ ‘When did you first start doing standup?’, ‘When did you first try to do it?’ and ‘When was the first time you were successful doing it and when did you think you could do it for a living.’ And when did you feel you were successful doing it?’ and ‘When do you think you made it, if you did?’
I think that if you ask the inflection point questions, whether a person is a teacher a doctor, an engineer, it really doesn’t matter. You still get the idea of ‘What’s your origin story?’ and ‘How did you become you?’
TTM: And do you incorporate your own experience as the child of immigrants when you are interviewing people?
Satyal: I definitely also try to tell my story. Because I remember running the idea for the show by a few people and they said that was really important. They said that your fans are going to be interested in your story as well. I think that’s why Hasan does really well in the first episode. He has always been really good at the back and forth parts of a conversation.
TTM: I guess the natural step for me right now is to ask you those same questions. When did you start thinking you were funny and when did you start doing standup?
Satyal: I think the first time I knew I was funny was in third grade. I would say pretty early, around the age of nine, when I made the funny guy in class laugh. But I didn’t realize I was doing standup until I was thirteen or fourteen years old, when I was hosting all of these Holi events and Diwali events in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the events the community would throw. I was doing all of these original material and crowd work and doing what was going on.
TTM: Did you watch late night talk shows growing up?
Satyal: I did. I was a big fan of that sort of thing. I remember when I was very, very young I stayed up late once and I was watching Johnny Carson with my parents. I didn’t laugh at any of the jokes. And I asked my parents, ‘How is this funny?’ And they said, ‘Oh, well you have to watch the news. You have to know what’s going on. Because he’s not telling these ‘three guys walk into a bar’ jokes. It was different from the joke books I was reading from cover to cover.
They said that you had to be aware of politics and sports and what was going on. That was my zeitgeist to start getting involved with the world. That was actually what drove me, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before. But I was young. I was probably seven or eight years old.
TTM: Let’s fast forward a little. When did you start doing comedy as an adult?
Satyal: The very first time I went on stage was at 22, but I really didn’t jump in earnest until I was about 27. I didn’t move to LA until I was 30 years old, which was definitely a regret of mine. I do wish I had started earlier.
TTM: What advice do you have for performers who are thinking of making that jump to Los Angeles or New York?
Satyal: My advice would certainly not be, ‘just move without a plan’. It depends on who the person is. If you are a risk taking person, you probably need to moderate that. And if you are someone who is risk averse, which a lot of the Indian community is, then maybe yeah you definitely do something.
But I think the general path is to start going to open mics in your town and start to build your act. You’ll know when it’s time to move because other comics will start asking you ‘what are you still doing here’ and when you start getting those questions, that’s when you should contemplate moving.
TTM: You mentioned that you’ve finished taping season one. Are there any moments that still stand out to you that you can’t wait for the audience to see?
Satyal: I was definitely excited to get Hasan’s episode out. I knew that would be a good start and that he and Deepak Chopra would be great to to start with. I think that there were other episodes that were pleasant surprises. Savan Kotecha is a songwriter and he has written some of the biggest songs of the last few years. He wrote “Problem” by Ariana Grande and “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd — so he’s written some really huge songs. He was also a great interview. And sometimes that doesn’t go hand in hand. And I think the audience would be really interested in seeing how interesting it is.
Aasif Mandvi said something really interesting about the election of Donald Trump, which was very controversial and was like whoa. That was a moment that stood out and I can’t wait for the audience to see it.
TTM: What can fans expect from this show moving forward as you get ready for season two and beyond?
Satyal: I think it really depends on how it shapes up. Russell Peters has confirmed he wants to do it. There’s Sparsh Shah, he is a singer and is about fourteen. We also want to diversify it a bit. We’ve very aware that we want to have men and women. We need more representation from the LGBT community and I also want to have someone who isn’t able bodied. So we’re keeping these things in mind. We want to showcase everybody and we don’t want just Indian-Americans. We want to showcase Asians, Latinos, African- Americans. We want everyone to feel like that they have a stake in this.