What do you do?
I give funny. I’m a comic, writer, and character actress. (Someday I will answer that question, “I’m a well-compensated goofball.”)
When did you discover your interest in performing?
I grew up in Houston, and attended Albright Middle School in Alief, Texas. Our mascot was an Indian warrior. The bow-and-arrow kind, not the me kind. I always got cast in school plays as “chorus,” which I hated. I watched people being funny onstage and I thought, that should be me!
In the 7th grade, I was horrifically ugly and weird. A teacher asked me to feed her dog while she was away. (I loved dogs. We got a dog when I was 12, after I’d learned everything about dogs to show that I could be responsible. Of course, my idea of being responsible was memorizing 109 dog breeds out of a book and avoiding the chapter on tapeworm.) That teacher soon said to me, “Take my acting class,” and I did, and it was amazing. I got to free up my inner weirdo. Once we got to draw masks, and everyone loved the lion I drew. Something was always in me, roaring quietly, ready to be unleashed. (Ha, that was a cool metaphor.) Soon, out poured all the funny voices, silly characters, and hilarious wit that had built up inside me.
Later, at Elsik High School, in a speech class, I did my first stand-up routine. I made fun of myself for going stag to prom with a cast on after slicing my fingers open performing Macbeth earlier that school year. My first tragedy.
What did you do artistically in college?
I had a blast at the University of Texas at Austin. Hook ’em. I studied creative advertising with a minor in Japanese, you know, a language I can really use. I was active in the Indian Student Association (ISA). I felt that my words and presence were influential in the ISA, so I started doing more stand-up.
What did you do after college?
I moved to Chicago to work as a hack copywriter at a huge advertising firm. But my real love was getting to say whatever I wanted, as opposed to being told what to say. So, I day-jobbed and had an improv affair with Second City by night. Still have the hickeys to prove it.
So you were in Chicago, improvising and writing. What spurred you to make the move to LA?
Naomi Odenkirk was coming to Chicago to audition people for some pilot. It turned out to be a sketch comedy show called Next!, a project of [two-time Emmy winner] Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame. Naomi is Bob’s wife and is now my manager. Though the people involved were heavy hitters, I was naïve and had no idea who they were. Brian Posen, a wonderful director whom I’d worked with for the Asian-American comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night!, had recommended me to Naomi. He told me I should audition, and I completely trusted him. He always went to bat for me. So I went about it fearlessly, because I had no idea of the bigness of it all. It was in the IO Chicago (formerly ImprovOlympic Theatre) space. Many other improvisers I respected were also there.
What did you do at the audition?
I performed a piece I’d written called the Sari Rap. But Charna Halpern’s [owner and producer of IO] large dog got attracted to my sari as I was flailing around. I was just finishing the rap when he came barking and bounding at me. Staying in character, without missing a beat, I said, “Give it up for the dog, y’all!” It killed.
So you got a callback?
Yes! They called me and said, “We want to see your tape.” That would’ve been great news if I’d actually had a tape. But I quickly put together a rag-tag tape of my goofy characters. They called again and said, “Bob thinks you’re amazing.” So my first-ever interaction with Hollywood was a super positive one.
What was your experience like working on Next! with Bob Odenkirk?
Hard. I was totally green to camera work. And once I learned who Bob was (never had HBO in college!) and who Naomi was and that Fox was involved, my confidence went down the tubes. Now I was in the big pond. Now I had to prove that I was funny and the right choice. Fortunately, Bob was willing to work with me and he taught me a lot. I also worked with other wonderful people: Fred Armisen, Susan Yeagley, Nick Swardson. Jill Talley. Jerry Minor, Jay Johnston, Ben Zook. They’ve all worked a lot, and their confidence and playfulness were admirable.
Were you able to build confidence from being around them?
No, actually the opposite. I was in awe of them. I thought that I didn’t deserve to be there. I constantly worried about getting fired. The end result was some very funny stuff, but what I remember most is being afraid. This fear came from me, not from Bob or anybody else. The good thing is that I learned from the experience and decided that I never wanted to operate from that place of fear again.
What was life like during your first few years in LA?
Brutal. My self-esteem was zero because I had moved out there thinking everything was going to be magic, and then poof, the pilot didn’t get picked up. Now I was living out of the trunk of my car. Mooching. Being broke. I mean broke like, you want to go out to eat late night with friends and you’re holding back tears reading the menu, having to make sure the side of eggs is really $1.49 and not $2.49, ’cause otherwise you just won’t eat. The vine I was trying to swing to wasn’t quite in front of me yet, so sometimes I had to grab a hold of air.
Were you getting any work at all?
Sure. Cater waitering. Being a children’s party clown or Dora the Explorer with a football-shaped head. Serving whiny, bandaid-on-their-forehead customers at Starbucks at 5 a.m. Graveyard shifts at Dr. Phil’s studios. It was a nightmare. But I also realized that I needed to keep my eyes open to the comedy in all those situations, and back-pocket it to use on stage, like during shows at IO-West, or in improv classes at the Groundlings. That kept me going.
Did you consider giving up?
I actually went back to Chicago for several weeks in 2002. I called it my “escape to reinstate sanity.” I just wanted to go home to my city and feel loved and okay again. I jumped into three different shows with Stir-Friday Night! and kept playing. But, hello, I was kind of homeless and crashing around at that point. So how was that any better than LA?
I heard a lot of “It’s hard out there, isn’t it,” in Chicago, a lot of “Just come home, we love you here” … and even some “LA will chew you up and spit you back out.” Fortunately that talk had the opposite effect on me of what was intended. I went back to LA with a “Nobody pushes Rasika off the horse!” mentality.
What would you say today to an aspiring actor who’s struggling in LA?
Stay. Get some momentum going. Find those reasons to stick with it. Find the things that make it worthwhile and the things that are working. It can’t all be bad. And be real with yourself. There’s a time to keep going, and a time to come home. Both will be restless and not easy. But when it’s all said and done, what makes your heart pound harder?
How did you get the Nick Cannon’s Wild ’N Out gig?
Lots of improv and rapping auditions. So much fun. I think that’s one of the few times I’ve ever felt completely in control during auditions. No wonder I got the gig. I was the “playful” I couldn’t be during Next! No paralysis whatsoever. All the times I’ve ever gotten something, I really was just being me and showing my goods with no attachment to the results. I think that just shows.
How does your family feel about what you’re doing?
My family has always encouraged the goofball within me. They’ve never said, “Don’t be funny” or “That’s inappropriate,” only “How much money are you making being funny now?” or “Well, since that’s not working, you’d better not drop your advertising job.” But at first I’d only hear discouragement instead of the caring underneath. Once they started seeing that I was getting real TV gigs, they saw the benefits of having that to brag to their friends with, so everything changed. If I can be their conversation piece at Indian parties, I think they’re happy.
You’ve studied improvisation at The Second City (in Chicago) and the Groundlings and IO West (both in Los Angeles). How has your improvisation training benefited you?
Improv is in everything I do. In my third year of studying it and stinking at it, a teacher named Liz Allen said, “Don’t worry—nobody gets really good at improv until their sixth year.” That was so encouraging! It took away the pressure. And it made sense, because you really are retraining your brain to think differently from its learned behaviors. Most of our lives have been spent saying no. I have a sticky note on my window that reads, “What if I just said yes?” Saying yes works in life as well as in improv, so I recommend improv training to anyone—even people who have no interest in being comics. It’s not about being funny, it’s about being truthful and going with whatever happens in the present moment.
The training I got at The Second City in Chicago was my foundation. I found I loved the work, I enjoyed what came out of me, I enjoyed that others enjoyed it, and I kept going. So that’s another thing I’d say to people: Take improv classes. For at least six years!
Who are your influences?
Christopher Guest is a genius. Watching anybody who’s involved in a Judd Apatow project has really taught me about the subtler, finer points of good acting/writing that happens to be comedic. I was influenced by Chevy Chase early on. The Three Amigos shaped my teen years. Saturday Night Live (the David Spade years) and In Living Color were the TV shows of my time. I’ve always loved Adam Sandler. Anything with Ben Stiller, or Vince Vaughn. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
Do you watch TV? What are your favorite shows?
I don’t! I don’t have cable! But I’ve had the benefit of friends’ DVDs and TiVo. Harvey Birdman and Sealab 2001 on Cartoon Network. The Office (British version), Mr. Show, Freaks and Geeks, Jiminy Glick, The Comeback.
What’s next for you?
We are currently shooting the third season of Nick Cannon’s Wild ’N Out. I am writing A Sack of Pennies, my one-woman show about myself. It’s not an ego trip. I just thought that, for a change, somebody’s one-person show should be about herself. I am writing a children’s book. I am periodically working with Robin Johnstone on a two-person improv show called Reading, Robin and Rasika. I’m developing a mockumentary about the life of my character Nilam Bhatnagar. I’ve been doing some work on the stand-up circuit, including the recent Stand-up Sultans: Middle East Comic Relief 3. I am currently working on some programming with MTV Desi. Other than that, I am constantly in a classroom for something. I never want to stop learning.
To learn more about Rasika Mathur, visit www.rasikamathur.com
Ranjit Souri is artistic director of Stir-Friday Night! and general manager of The Second City Training Center (Chicago). He and Rasika Mathur have collaborated on numerous theatrical projects.