If you are of Indian or Pakistani descent, you know the drill. When you grow up you have to be either a doctor, engineer and lately, a computer programmer. If you're anything else, guess what? You're not worth much. Apparently that's what even brides think when they go a-hunting for grooms. Any Indian matrimonial column will attest to this and comedy writer Ranjit Souri, who is of South Asian heritage, is acquainted with this factoid only too well.
Ranjit is a Chicagoan. A comedy writer and actor, he has performed his work at colleges and universities throughout the United States, as well as at comedy festivals in Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York City, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, and Seattle. He has co-written numerous comedy shows for the stage with Stir-Friday Night!, Cupid Players, Paper Monkeys, and Siblings of Doctors (an Indian-American comedy trio which also includes Rasika Mathur and Danny Pudi). He has improvised many one-act plays with the dramatic improvisational group doubleplay.
I think what must give desi parents in the audience sleepless nights is the fact that Ranjit has an MBA from Columbia University (!!!) and a B.S. in Accounting from Case Western Reserve University. I can almost imagine parents quaking in fear when their teen comes up to them after a Souri performance and says, "I want to be like him once I have my MBA!"
"All those loans and you want to be a comedian!?!" I bet they gag, recovering quickly only to begin shouting, squirming and bulging eyes.
For 2008 and 2009 Ranjit has committed himself to performing stand-up comedy once a week and has been documenting the experience on his blog, 52 Open Mics at www.siblingsofdoctors.com.
He is a GMAT, ACT, and SAT instructor with Aardvark Test Prep in Chicago. He is also a faculty member at StoryStudio Chicago (Creative Nonfiction), an adjunct faculty member at The Second City Training Center (Improvisation and Comedy Writing), and has taught improvisation and comedy writing workshops across the country.
Ranjit also works as a magazine-essayist, primarily for India Currents, and his essays have been featured on Chicago Public Radio. His essay "Fireworks and Beethoven" was named a Notable Essay in the book The Best American Essays 2007. That's actually how he and I got to know each other a little--I loved the essay but my mom loved it even more! Now here's everyone else's chance to get to know what kind of trauma drives an MBA to comedy!
Q: How did you decide to get into stand-up comedy?
Souri: I dabbled in stand-up comedy a long time ago, in my 20s. In the past year, after about a decade of doing sketch and improv, I just started craving a new challenge, and I decided to try doing stand-up. Sketch and improv are all about the group. With stand-up, you're out there on your own.
Q: How long have you been doing it?
Souri: I started in August of 2008.
Q: Why the 52 week undertaking?
Souri: For the past few years I've been intending to start doing stand-up comedy again, and finally I decided that I needed to impose some structure and accountability on myself. So with my 52 Open Mics blog, I am personally committed to doing stand-up once a week for a year, and we'll see how it goes.
Q: What is it about comedy you love the most?
Souri: For the past 10 years, my comedy work has all been ensemble-based. There is certainly something wonderful about ensemble-based work. The connections you make with other people are priceless. But the scary part about doing stand-up is also the exhilarating part--it's only you up there. You succeed or fail on your own. It's a completely different feeling and a new challenge.
Q: What's your subject matter? Most immigrant comedians tend to use their parents' generation as their source for laughs. Comments?
Souri: In my stand-up I don't do any material about being Indian or having Indian parents or anything like that. I don't ever use an Indian accent. Some of the sketch that I've written and performed over the years has those aspects in it, but as a stand-up I'd like to be just a good stand-up comic who happens to be Indian.
Q: Does your comedy have a greater message?
Souri: Much of my sketch comedy does have a greater message. For example, I once wrote a sketch for the Asian-American sketch troupe Stir-Friday Night! in which I'm standing at a bus-stop with a few non-brown strangers. They are all suspicious of me and hold their bags more closely when I approach. (This kind of thing actually does happen to me.) Then I turn to the audience and deliver a monologue about the fact that because I'm dark, that does not mean that I'm out to steal anybody's things, in fact I'm a pretty decent and caring person, and so on. While I deliver this monologue to the audience, the other characters are frozen into position. This is a theatrical convention--when a character "breaks the scene" and addresses the audience, the other characters usually freeze to signify that they are not hearing the monologue. At the end of my monologue, I notice that the other characters are frozen, and I grab their belongings and sneak out. It's a funny button but the message of the monologue is still clear.
But so far in my stand-up I'm not going for any message. I'm just trying out new things to see what's funny.
Q: Indian stand-up comedians are getting to be more common by the month. How would you explain that?
Souri: I think this is a result of a larger phenomenon, which is that more Indian-Americans are now doing all types of non-traditional things. I see more Indians these days going into non-profit work, the arts, the social sciences, and so on. While there is nothing wrong with going into traditional fields such as medicine, engineering, law, and business, I think it's a great development that Indian-Americans are expanding their possibilities in terms of vocation and avocation.
When I first got into sketch and improv 10 years ago, there were almost no Indian-Americans doing this work. Now I teach classes in sketch and improv at The Second City Training Center and it's not a rare thing now for me to have one or two Indian-American students in an improv or comedy writing class.
Q: Are there any stand-up comedians that you look up to?
Souri: My favorite Indian-American comic is Aziz Ansari. I love his attitude. He is the type of comic who will try just about anything on-stage.
I'm also a fan of Rajiv Satyal who is one of the hardest-working comics I know of. He understands the value of delayed gratification. This is a guy who, after opening for Dave Chappelle, took over two years off from performing to focus on writing material. What other comic would have this type of vision and patience? And it has certainly paid off for Rajiv.
I also look up to my two partners in the Indian-American sketch group Siblings of Doctors--Rasika Mathur and Danny Pudi. Working with them challenges me to raise my own level of performance.
Q: Where do you appear for open mic?
Souri: I've been doing open mics all over Chicago. Right now I'm on week seven out of 52, and already I've had some great sets and some bombs. Next week I'll be doing my first 10-minute set.
What: The Comedy Exchange (a comedy showcase)
When: Thursday, September 25th, 4:30pm
Where: Brando's Chicago, 343 S. Dearborn (at Van Buren), Chicago 60604
How much: FREE
Who: Steve Himmelman (host), Elly Greenspahn, Ranjit Souri, Hollie Himmelman, Haji Outlaw, and headliner Tim Joyce