Immigrant Bengalis

My Career as a Stand-up Comedian

Basab Dasgupta

From my very childhood I had a lighter, humorous side in me.  I loved to tell jokes, pull pranks, and make up absurd stories just for thesake of gettinga laugh.  I was an avid reader of books by Shibram Chakravarty and Narayan Ganguly.  I was always amused by stories of Gopal Bhar and Birbal.  The cartoons in the newspapers and magazines, such as the Illustrated Weekly of India, made deep impressions on me about how various events and characters in our lives could be viewed in a different, often sarcastic way.  When I entered college, my friends used to call my jokes (as well as similar jokes from others) “P.J.” – an acronym for “Poor Jokes”.  Whether the jokes were good or not, whether they generated laughter or not, the fact that all such jokes were lumped together as “P.J.”s implied that there was something inherently in poor taste in telling such jokes.  Indians, in general, are very serious people and people with a good sense of humor were always singled out as people not to be taken seriously!  Bengalis have a special derogatory adjective for them: “Chhyabla”!

After I came to the US in 1971, I got addicted to all the funny sit-coms and variety shows on TV: “I love Lucy”, “Carol Burnett Show”, “Barney Miller”, “Bob Newhart Show”, “All in the Family”, “Smothers Brothers”, and so on.  I was most inspired by Johnny Carson.  I would stay up late every night to at least listen to his monologues, if not watch the whole show.  Johnny Carson monologue was the definition of stand-up comedy to me.  Deep down inside, I wanted to be like him.

One day during a period when my wife, Reena, was in India on a rather long summer vacation to see her parents, I was doing my “management by walking around” at RCA in Indianapolis and started cracking some one-liners with one of the technicians, Pat Smith, who worked for me; he was slightly eccentric and had a strange sense of humor.  He looked at me with a grim face and said with a look of fake annoyance, “Basab, please do not distract me from my work.  If you want to tell jokes, go to the bar “Omali’s” at the corner of 76th street and Shadeland.  They have an open mike for any comedian every Monday night and you would get a free drink if they like your joke.”  “Oh, really?!  I will definitely go” was my reaction.

I indeed went there the following Monday night.  It was a small bar, filled with cigarette smoke and smell of alcohol.  There was a small podium at one corner with a live microphone.  A lady in her fifties, Mary Lou, was conducting the show.  I whispered to her about my desire to tell jokes and she gladly allowed me; I not only got my free drink, I also got some laughter from the people in the bar.  This was amazing to me because I had never done anything like this in my life.  I started going every Monday night because I was living alone and had nothing better to do in the evenings.  Fairly soon, it became addictive.  The audience loved me; I looked different, my accent was different, my material was different.  They had no expectation of what I might say when I took the microphone and it seemed that they laughed at everything I said. 

I started to go to the two local comedy clubs on their open mike nights – the “Crackers“ at the Keystone Crossing shopping center every Sunday night and “Indianapolis Comedy Connection” in downtown Indianapolis every Wednesday night.  Typically, each comedian would get five minutes in front of a live audience.  One could say whatever one felt like; there was absolutely no censorship of any kind.  The goal was to get laughter and the limit was five minutes.  A light flash at the end of four minutes would be a warning sign and another at the end of five would mean that it was time to get off the stage.  It was pretty much the same group of local comedians hanging out together and giving each other encouragement and praise; most of them did the same five minute routine every time.  I, on the other hand, was trying all kinds of new materials on different nights.  It seemed that one of my creative outlets was suddenly turned open.  The more laughter I got from the audience, the more inspirations I was getting for writing new stuff.  Mary Lou, was like the “Madam” of the comedians; she booked me a couple of gigs with two other comedians at local restaurants, for something like $20 per act. It was a totally new experience for me.

The high point of my comedy career came soon thereafter when the lady owner of the Comedy Connection approached me and hired me to do the opening act during an upcoming week.  She had apparently watched me on several occasions during those open mike nights.  A comedy show typically consists of performances by four comedians: the “opening act”, the “middle act”, the “headliner” and the “master of ceremonies”, who ran the whole show.  The opening act runs for about ten minutes, the middle one about twenty and the headliner can go on for anywhere between 40-50 minutes.  The MC interjects his/her own jokes between the acts.  I had to perform in six shows: one on Thursday night, two on Friday night and three on Saturday.  I was to be paid $135 for the week.  The headliner during that week would be none other than Dennis Miller, who was well-known in the comedy circuit at the time, but later became very famous.  He was part of the cast of the NBC hit show “Saturday Night Live” for a while, starred in several movies, was a commentator providing comic relief on Monday Night Football on ABC and wrote a number of popular books. He is now host of his own radio talk show and provides satirical commentary on politics on the Bill O’Reiley show on Fox News even today.  I was ecstatic.

I was ecstatic for three reasons: the audience could understand me in spite of my accent and poor English; they laughed at my jokes and they were willing to PAY me money to listen to me! It was unbelievable.  Apart from that, the experience of doing an act on stage in front of a live audience itself was incredible.  The spotlight on you would blind you and the audience would appear like a blur.  This was good because one did not have to directly look at any particular person and be distracted.  The feeling of getting a positive reaction was an aphrodisiac; in fact, it was better than orgasm.  It was a “high”.  I understood the joy felt by live performers – stage actors, singers, guitarists, magicians.  The orators and even the college professors also feel a similar high to a lesser extent.

I did well, judging by the audience reaction – the only thing that really mattered.  Even Dennis Miller made a note of my performance one night during his routine.  He said, “How about that Basab?  You’ve probably seen him in the movie: A passage to Indiana”.  It was a clever play on the title of a recent movie “A passage to India”.  I liked Dennis’s routine a lot.  It was very clean intellectual type humor and consisted of a number of political satires.  I later learned that he was a physicist by education, like me!  One night he gave me some unsolicited advice.  He told me to eliminate all sexual topics from my routine and suggested that I mold my “alter ego” in style of the Andy Kauffman character from the hit T.V. show “Taxi”.  He said that most American comedians use plenty of sexual material in their acts.  The audience expects something different when I take the mike.  Talking about the same subjects of masturbation or size of penis would disappoint them.  He was absolutely right, but I did not completely take his advice.  I loved to make fun of our sex lives – especially all the myths and expectations. 

My comedy career was on a roll.  My style of comedy could be described as “dead pan” humor.  I would say all kinds of hilarious and absurd things, but I would never laugh myself.  My expressions would always be very serious and never change.  On rare occasions I would crack up myself which would set the audience into an outburst of laughter.  My material would span all kinds of subjects.  A couple of months later, I got a call from a local cable station to audition for some comedy show.  Reena was back from India by then.  Reena did not have my sense of humor.  She was shocked to learn that I was thinking of going to the audition.  “If anyone from your work ever sees you in one of these comedy shows”, she warned me, “no one would ever take you seriously again.  Your future career would be doomed.”  She did not know that physicists and engineers never went to comedy shows.  However, right around that time, rumors of an impending big layoff were rampant at work.  I thought perhaps she was right.  I played it safe and did not go for that audition. 

Even to date, I regret that decision.  That period in the mid-eighties, was the infancy of stand-up comedy in this country.  I could have become rich and famous as a comedian and perhaps even as a character actor.  Now everyone and his brother want to be a comedian.  There are thirty thousand people on “My Space” website alone, registered as comedians. Comedy clubs have sprouted everywhere; bars and restaurants are hosting comedy nights; there is “Comedy Channel” and other similar local channels, the “Last Comic Standing” contest and so on.  Odds of becoming a professional comedian these days are probably the same as the odds of a ghetto kid making it to NBA basketball.

I have no regrets that I did not become a famous comedian; but all those comedy nights kept me alive, sane and with a positive feeling through many difficult periods of my life.  I channeled a lot of my anger and frustration through my comedy material and this was a great way to cope with them.  I had a routine about the monotony of my married life; another was about my life as a foreigner trying to fit into the American society.  I even had a somewhat controversial routine where I compared myself to God and my sperms as human beings.  I told a comedian friend of mine, “I hope that God has a sense of humor, otherwise I am going straight to hell”.  “Of course, he does”, snapped back my friend, “He created you!  Didn’t he?”

The experience also gave me a glimpse into the process that all performing artists had to go through: performing night after night in small smoke-filled bars in front of total strangers and yearning for just a word of praise and a few claps.   There was no money, no recognition, no guidance, no assurance of any kind; you just had to have the conviction about your talent and total dedication.  Road to stardom is a hard road to follow. 

After a long hiatus from comedy, I again tried to get back into it after my divorce.  By then I was in Southern California, home of Hollywood.  I thought perhaps this was my destiny.  Perhaps I came to California just to be close to Hollywood.  I started to go to the amateur open microphone nights at the “Comedy Store” in La Jolla.  The competition was much stiffer.  On any given night there were probably forty comedians trying to get some time on stage; on some nights I had to wait until eleven at night just to get three minutes on stage.  Not five, but three.  I had to prove myself in just three minutes!  I did well.  I did well because I understood the essence of stand-up comedy.  No one taught me this; it all went back to those late nights of watching Johnny Carson!

Unfortunately many people cannot differentiate between stand-up comedy and telling jokes.  In fact, the two most annoying things one can tell a stand-up comedian are: i) Tell me a joke and ii) Here is a joke you can use in your comedy routine.  The fact is that stand-up comedy is not the same as telling jokes.  There is one and only one purpose in comedy – to get as much laugh as possible in as short a time as possible.  The audience does not have the patience to wait for the punch line while you are setting up your story.  Any technique you use to get laughs is perfectly acceptable: body language and facial expressions, shock statements, absurd comments, impersonations of famous people,  parody songs, vulgar gestures and even standing still like a mime doing nothing; the goal is to get a reaction by every little movement you make and every word you say.  I performed at a variety of venues: “Comedy Store” in Beverly Hills, “Improv” in Irvine, “Room 5” in Los Angeles, as well as at a bunch of restaurants and bars.  However, I was never hired to play professionally again.  I kept hoping that perhaps some talent agent in the audience would take notice of me.  That never happened.

Fame or not, this foray into the world of stand-up comedy benefited me in another way.  I got an opportunity to meet a totally different breed of people, both men and women.  Typically, they did not have much education, very little money (as evidenced by the kind of cars they drove and where and how they lived), no professional jobs and some were addicted to marijuana and stimulating drugs like that.  I had to hide my true identity in order to be accepted as “one of them” and even so, I do not think that I ever was.  However, they all had one thing in common – a zany sense of humor, similar to mine, and a lively personality, which came out after some probing if not obvious from the outset.  I realized that I could use my sense of humor in my efforts to socialize with “Americans” – not just women but also men, of all ages and all social backgrounds.  I believe that most first generation immigrants, especially Indians, lack this ability.

Indians are so serious!  I remember, a long time ago when I was in high school, that there was a political cartoon in one of the daily newspapers, depicting the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in a non-flattering way; that cartoon was discussed in the Indian parliament!  During my married life I had to watch what I said in all those Bengali parties; on many occasions my humor went unappreciated or even not well understood.

I extended this tool of sense of humor even to my professional life.  I used a generous dose of humor in my physics teaching which made me a popular teacher.  I used humor to communicate with my employees, to solve interpersonal conflicts, to motivate them, even to reprimand them, in my industrial jobs at RCA and Sony.  At Sony, I became very popular as a speaker and/or M.C. on various festive occasions like Christmas party, farewell dinners and annual dinners after budget meetings.  It was a joy to see the Japanese executives, famous for their stoic faces, rolling on the dinner table at my humor.

Just like my painting, my urge in writing comedy materials and performing before a live audience comes and goes.  I realize that this is another creative talent God has given me.  I do not understand the reason, but perhaps this was given to cope with the meaningless realities of life.  I often joked in all seriousness that, “I studied physics because I thought that physics would answer all of my questions, but it did not.  Then I became a philosopher seeking the meaning of life, but realized that there is no meaning to life.  Then I became a comedian; if there is no meaning to life and I cannot get answers to all of my questions, I might as well make some fun of this life.”

(Posted June 1, 2014)

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Comments received from VD on June 1, 2014: "Enjoyed the two articles by Basab Dasgupta and Satya Jeet immensely. Gave me a chance to relish the more authentic flavors of America for a change." 

Comments received from MR on June 2, 2014: "I just finished the lovely piece by Dr. Basab Dasgupta. I can understand the frustration he felt all through his life in the total lack of appreciation by his fellow Indians in general, and the stern-faced Bengalis in particular, for the great talent he had as a stand-up comedian and ,just importantly, a robust and innate sense of humor, both of which are seen as silly and frivolous by our humorless society. I obviously do not have the inborn talent of Dr. Dasgupta, but I think poorly of a person without a sense of humor. In fact death is a condition when one loses his/her sense of humor completely. Congratulations to Dr. Dasgupta for a wonderful article."