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Daniel Nainan looks flummoxed. The professional comedian/emcee is performing for the SABAN Awards dinner in Los Angeles, a ceremony meant to honor the area’s rising South Asian business network. But winning this crowd won’t be easy. The mostly Indian audience is typical; restless, non attentive, and at my table, more concerned with chatting with each other than paying attention to Nainan’s jokes. To make matters worse, his copy of the program is rife with inaccuracies and missing information. He frequently has to ask people offstage to fill in the gaps. If there was ever a night when this clean-material-only comedian wanted to bust out some four letter words, it might be this one.
“This isn’t going so well,” he confides to me during a break. The former Intel engineer looks like he’s analyzing the situation. The guests continue their chatter while munching audibly on iceberg lettuce. “These conditions are definitely sub-optimal,” he says. He manages to keep his cool and, during the next bit, does his best to take charge. Before the audience can drift further away, he lets out a slow, commanding “shhhhhhhhhhhhhh” and explains, “I would seem funnier if you could hear me.” The audience quiets down, but there’s definitely a feeling in the room of “did that comedian seriously just shush us?”
Nainan needs something foolproof right about now, lest he lose this crowd for good. It’s time to whip out the Jesse Jackson schtick.
Nainan bulges his eyeballs and stares out into the crowd while keeping his chin low. He throws in an occasional twitch. “Pool is a racist sport,” he begins. “Why is the object of the game for the white ball to knock the black ball off the table? And the white ball goes in, it keeps coming back. But when the black ball’s off the table, game over. The only non-racist sport is bowling. Because a black ball gets to knock down ten whiteys. And they all have red necks.”
“Hey that wasn’t bad,” one of my table mates admits through her laughter. The bit is enough to win them over, and for the rest of the night Nainan has the audience.
Nainan is legitimately hilarious, but it might take a while to really appreciate the nuance of his shtick. After looking at his promotional descriptions emphasizing his specialty in clean comedy, it’s easy to assume that Nainan couldn’t possibly be very funny. But Nainan has a clear edge over some of his foul-mouthed competition. He can draw material from not one, but two hilarious ethnic stereotypes. His mother is Japanese, and his father is Indian, and he makes sure to let everyone know that he can do both accents. “I get my sushi at 7-eleven,” he jokes. He actually opens with “So, you’re probably wondering, what race is that guy anyway?” The laughter trickles in at first, and then as you look him over more carefully, the joke just keeps getting funnier. And that’s how Nainan builds his credibility, not so much with the content of his material, but with the skill and subtlety of the delivery. He understands timing and inflection.
So what exactly does it mean to be a “clean” comedian? While most successful comedians extract humor from the more primal realities of life, (namely sex, drugs, and the like) Nainan avoids all of that. He dips a toe into scatology only occasionally, and even then, he keeps it family-friendly. But, clean as his routine may be, Nainan shows off his edge through ironic observations on race and politics, and in so doing manages to expound on some of the funnier realities of the American experience. One bit that stood out was when he explained his unique parentage, saying “It might not surprise you that I was born 7 months after my parents got married.” While he doesn’t specifically spell it out, Nainan suggests that his very existence could be considered a happy accident, a unique product of the “melting pot.”
During one performance, he goes “when I tell people I’m Indian, a lot of them assume that I’m a vegetarian. But my dad was from the one Christian part of India, so we eat a lot of vegetarian animals… I don’t have time for you guys to get these jokes.”
He wasn’t always a comedian. For years Nainan worked for Intel, presenting technical demonstrations in front of live audiences during business meetings. At that time he was still uncomfortable on stage, and realized that he needed to work on his presentation skills. He decided to take a stand-up comedy class, during which he worked on a routine and some impressions which he would eventually perform at some company gatherings. Each time he performed, he had the Intel staff rolling. The audiences grew and Nainan got more confident. The success of these early performances inspired him to focus more exclusively on a life in stand-up. He asked for a transfer to New York, and began promoting himself as a comedian while still working a day job for Intel.
Nainan makes it clear that nowadays, he is a professional entertainer. He doesn’t really joke around during our interview. He answers each question thoughtfully and talks matter-of-factly about his strategies for turning his skill set into dollars. Where most comedians aim for the club circuit, Nainan seeks a more lucrative market, focusing his schedule on conventions, weddings, gatherings, and fundraisers. “These kinds of events lend themselves toward clean comedy,” he explains. He recalls a time when Jerry Seinfeld told him, “You will find 20 times more work if you keep it clean.” “Part of the skill in this profession is learning how to maximize compensation,” he says, “that’s a skill that a lot of comedians are unfortunately not blessed with.”
He has a lot to say about the dearth of South Asians in the entertainment industry. He contends that, “It’s not that the industry is racist. There are ways to get into this business, but so often Indian parents will discourage their kids from going into the arts, so they don’t try. And then the community complains that there are no South Asians in the industry. Without any community support, it’s really difficult.”
His advice for young people trying to become performers? “You have to have some means to support yourself while honing your skills during your free time. You can’t just wish you were a piano player and sit down and play the piano, you have to sacrifice for your craft,” he says. For instance, “Instead of going out and getting drunk on the weekends or watching 20 hours of TV every week, spend that time writing or playing with a camera.”
Currently Nainan is looking forward to the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, in which he has a small role.
Dev Das is a freelance writer and script consultant for UTV Motion Pictures.