Nimesh Patel is “Saturday Night Live’s” first Indian-American writer.
Self-described as liking “family, sarcasm, water, the Lakers, and dancing while drunk,” he’s been performing stand-up comedy since age 23.
In 2015, Nimesh was discovered by Chris Rock while performing. His comic prowess and unabashed, provocative humor led him to write jokes for Hasan Minaj when he hosted both the White House Correspondent’s dinner and the Congressional Dinner, perform on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” and receive an Emmy nomination for his work on “SNL”.
Last summer, he released Head Nimesh in Charge, a comedy album capturing highlights from a series of shows he held in D.C. as well as more experiential tracks such as an extended monologue offering a preview into the mind of Nimesh.
In 2018, an invitation to perform at Columbia University’s Asian American Alliance’s annual cultureSHOCK show went awry after a poorly received joke led Nimesh to get kicked off stage. The incident sparked angry backlash on the Internet and had the potential to turn his career upside down. However, he took the experience in stride and transformed it into a new bit for his stand-up. He jokes in one of his routines,
I had to call my mom and tell her I got rejected by Columbia – again.
But beyond the accolades and notoriety on the University’s campus, is a man pursuing a dream, whose work contributes to carving out a permanent place for South Asians in the world of comedy.
Born in a predominantly Indian community in New Jersey, Nimesh graduated with a finance degree from NYU during the 2008 economic collapse – and somehow traded translating numbers to telling jokes for a living.
In a candid conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, Nimesh and I met above the internationally-renown venue Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village to explore his career in standup, mental health in the South Asian community and what kind of drugs the next generation of South Asian kids will be doing.
We first talked about fellow SNL writer Pete Davidson requiring audiences to sign a million-dollar NDA prior to attending his shows. In Paper Magazine, Pete cited “political correctness” as one of the reasons he would no longer be doing college shows, a scenario in which the Columbia University debacle is referenced.
Pete is the best. When you put up an NDA, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I value what I’m doing.’
Ever see yourself doing something like that?
Put out a million-dollar NDA? Nah. My jokes are not worth a million dollars.
When I recorded my album in D.C. I did what they do here, which is put everyone’s’ phone in an envelope. It makes everyone more present and presents the possibility of something being taken completely out of context. It’s a win-win and all it does is inconvenience people for maybe ten seconds.
It’s more about being present, and not Instagramming everything immediately.
You’ve been doing stand up for ten years now – what’s changed? Was something funny then that isn’t perceived as such or vice versa?
The way you can distribute funny has changed a lot. From Instagram to Netflix to HBO, comedy has become omnipresent. There’s so many more shows, so many more mediums than I remember. I don’t know anyone who’s just starting out, but it feels like there’s a lot more comedy and a lot more people doing it and doing it well.
You can immerse yourself in it a lot more. Rock was funny then, is funny now. Chappelle’s the same. They’ve only gotten funnier, and because there’s so much comedy it’s gotten a lot more competitive to say the most interesting thing.
How has social media impacted the changing comedy landscape?
I think social media has been a net positive for comedy. People have gotten jobs off YouTube and Twitter – Instagram is a whole other category of comedians. There’s always gonna be setbacks with any new advent of media distribution.
In terms of things being taken out of context – it feels like a few people controlling the bullhorn. Really, it’s like it’s a drop in the bucket. Sometimes it costs people their jobs, but for the most part, things always seem to play out fine.
Before, you just had comedians from standup or TV shows, and now there’s a ton of other platforms. YouTube, TikTok… Does that provide more competition? How does the influx of tech impact?
?The competitive landscape has changed in that it’s been harder to rise to the ultimate top, but you’re seeing a lot of people becoming kings and queens of their niches, and from there make the next step. It’s definitely been a lot more competitive, but it’s been a net positive.
Have people reached out to you via Instagram?
People are definitely like yeah, keep posting these clips. But you’re so ingrained in the old system. You’d do a 5-minute sketch onset, you do a 30-minute special on Comedy Central, you go on tour for a while, you get an hour on Netflix. There’s still a part of you that believes in that engine. That formulas changed.
In comedy, do you think it’s a bit different because in this space, you’re meant to be offensive, you’re meant to push boundaries?
I think you’re just meant to make people laugh. If you push boundaries, if people are laughing, then are those boundaries real? If it’s not funny, then that’s the line.
I’ve heard people make cancer funny, and Holocaust jokes can be funny. I don’t know how to do it, but there’s people who can. And people laugh at them.
Does it depend on your audience? When you perform at a college campus versus in DC or at the Comedy Cellar?
Some jokes work in some places, and some jokes don’t work in other places. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna change the set. I’m gonna tailor it, but for the most part, most of my jokes will work for anyone whose paying attention. If a joke doesn’t work, there’s a myriad of reasons why. You have to go through some things to appreciate some things.
When did you realize you could make people laugh?
I remember my Grandpa about to discipline me, he was like I’m going to put your head in between your ears, I was like its already there, and he laughed, and I ran away. Which was the first time I remember registering some sort of sarcasm in my brain.
I was always with my cousins and friends and funny, and I just remember making people laugh. But everyone I know is funnier than I am. Most people I know are funnier than I am.
Do you think there are parts of your upbringing that pushed you in the direction of comedy?
He was firm on that.
Nothing said, ‘be a comedian’. It was just something that I did on a lark cuz I was sad and confused and bored. And then it didn’t go bad the first time…so here we are, talking at the Comedy Cellar.
2008 was a critical time to be new in the working world.
Oh yeah, it was tough. I graduated with a finance degree, didn’t do as well as I should have in school, I was stuck doing a bunch of temp jobs for a year, was living with my parents in jersey and August ’09 caught the comedy bug and that was it.
I was like alright, this is what I’m gonna do. After that it’s like find jobs that put me in the city, use my finance degree to get a consistent job at a firm for a few years until I got the writing job at the Oscars and that was my last time doing a full-time finance job, and my first comedy writing job.
Do you think if you existed in a different reality, if you didn’t graduate in ’09 and it wasn’t a time would you be here?
I think about that. Had I been recruited to some bank in ‘08 the way most of my friends did, hopefully I’d be some rich prick that people like me joke about.
Most of my friends are rich pricks now…not so much pricks, but certainly rich.
You’ve written for SNL, you do standup, you’ve written material for the White House…what’s the biggest difference in your approach to these activities?
I don’t think I have a codified different approach to all of this. How do I say what I would say in a way they want it to be said is the question? That just takes time to figure out. With most people that that I’ve written for, I just say what I would say, and then they would take whatever piece of funny they found in what I’ve written and make it their own. That’s how the writing process for writing for someone else works.
It’s all just writing for very established people who have their own voices already. Hasan could hear something and be like oh ok that’s funny in this, but I gotta say it my own way.
It’s like I’ll have a take on something. When I did the Congressional Correspondents Dinner with Hasan, which was 2016, we were prepping this thing till 2 or 3 days before. And then the Orlando shooting happened, and he was going to be talking to Congress, so we were like – what do we do?
I said yo, we should just have a Kickstarter and send those pricks thoughts and prayers. He was like that’s funny – how do we make it something I would say? He took it, we ran with it, and it became the marquee joke for the dinner. It wasn’t really a joke – it was a joke for me, but it was a thought for him to deliver that.
In your Vulture interview you were cited as wanting to be on the wrong side of comedy.
I don’t necessarily want to be on the wrong side of comedy. I want to be on the funny side, and the funny side is often wrong.
I know ‘right’ – I know what’s right in the world, in terms of what side of something you’re supposed to be on. If I make a joke about healthcare and Americans not deserving it – I know we deserve it, but it’s not funny to say it. It’s the ‘right’ thing to say. What person is right and funny? Comedy is wrong. The whole point is you being wrong.
The goal is to be as funny as possible and often, that funny comes from being incorrect about something. The problem becomes, if people hear you say something that’s incorrect, that’s what you think in real life.
Does it matter at the end of the day? How much attention do you pay to that general perception? Whether an audience walks away happy with a set versus critical?
I think if I’m funny enough, they’ll only walk away happy with whatever I had to say. If it’s not funny enough, then they’ll be critical. If you’re undeniably funny about something, you can’t lose.
The modus operandi of all of it: know you’re right and say the wrong thing.
From that perspective, your approach is different from other comedians you get compared to, do you look to them as kind of a benchmark or do you do your own thing?
It’s hard immediately to not look to them as benchmarks, but that’s something that the industry puts on you consciously and subconsciously. They’ll say he’s just like Aziz or Hasan, it’s like no – you just don’t know how else to put me. It puts in your head like, oh I’m being constantly compared to these people, I gotta beat them.
But it’s not that at all, everyone’s doing their own thing. And at some point, people recognize the distinction between. I’m quite different from Hasan or Aziz, and Russell’s the OG, but I’m quite different than Russell too. It’s just a function of when you start, at least when I started, the industry wasn’t as mature as it is now. It certainly wasn’t in its infancy, seeing not-white comics.
Not everyone’s first generation anymore, a lot of people are second, third generation.
This next generation of brown kids are gonna be wild. Remember earlier this year there was a kid that lit himself on fire in front of the White House? Did you know it was an Indian guy? It was an Indian kid who lit himself on fire, was high on K2. It’s tragic, he was an artist in Baltimore. I saw that and was like, what’s the positive of that if there is one? There isn’t really, but that’s how far we’ve come… brown kid that was an artist that’s dying from spice? That’s the whitest drug there is, and he’s lighting himself on fire in front of the White House?
To me, it rang as holy shit, we got a brown kid whose an artist, whose so mentally ill that he’s lighting himself up on fire. Just the idea that some Indian kid is mentally ill, it just shows that we’re human.
The next season of brown people, we’re gonna be human beings. Because up until now, everyone’s been heroes. A super successful person. There’s no vision, no humanity in a lot of it. Granted, success is important, and you need representation. But soon we’ll see an Indian ‘Breaking Bad’, a fuckin’ flame-out chemistry student… It will be a revelation.
He alluded to HBO’s “The Night Of” starring British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed as an example of South Asians breaking free of such stereotypes.
That’s why ‘The Night Of’ was so dope. If you were watching it and weren’t brown, you wouldn’t think ‘this is so crazy, they’re showing a brown guy whose dad is a taxi driver, whose doing drugs and having sex with white women.’ But if you’re brown, that’s fuckin’ crazy. It’s like yeah, we do that shit.
In comedy, if you’re on the outside looking in, you assume everything is funny, everything has a humorous twist. But obviously behind the scenes, it can be difficult, it can be a grueling process.
Every comedian is an entrepreneur. Except, you’re by yourself. There’s no one to tell you what’s right and wrong until you get a manager or agent, and even then, you’re doing shit yourself.
There’s this weird pressure. Imagine being an entrepreneur but there’s no revenue for ten years…it weighs on you. It’s not that crazy but then you add in every other thing going on in your life and you gotta see a doctor sometimes. But that’s not a conversation that’s been had yet.
I feel like next generation, we’ll start talking about mental health. Some people will be like yeah obviously you guys got problems, but brown people be like yeah, we got problems no one talks about.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for kids who are growing up now, brown kids who are forced to fit this stereotypical successful student, kids who are trying to pursue creative endeavors?
You grew up with the internet. I did not.
I remember a world where there wasn’t Internet. Our generation is just starting to deal with mental health issues of what it is to grow up with a hall of fame to look up to. You don’t get to see the normal stuff on TV, like working at a liquor store. It was either you were pigeon-holed as a taxi cab driver or you were everyone’s doctor.”
I have no problem with Apu,
Nimesh said adamantly, alluding to controversial documentary “The Problem With Apu“.
I think Hank Azaria can go fuck himself. It always felt like the problem with Apu was that he worked at a liquor store or convenience store, and he had that accent.
If you have problems with the accent, fine, but if you have problems with the fact that he worked at a convenient store, why? That’s a reality for a lot of people. If he was ‘Dr. Apu’ everyone would’ve been fine with it.
My problem with Apu was that my dad runs a liquor store. How many times have you watched a show about a white guy that runs a garage? There are tons of shows with white guys doing normal shit. If white guy does it its fine, but if an Indian guy does it it’s fucked up? Why? We do that.
Is it reinforcing stereotypes or is it actually reflecting a reality?
Well you can reinforce a stereotype – the issue is that it’s not a bad stereotype. It feels like when you say you’re reinforcing a stereotype, you’re reinforcing that it’s bad to be a convenience store owner. Why is that bad? It’s not. It’s not the best job, but my dad works at a liquor store and his son became the first Indian-American to write for SNL. There’s some dignity in what he’s doing.
The next generation will have a lot of more normalized things, I think they’ll have it a bit easier. I think this generation of 25-to-35-year-old’s is in the most interesting period. We have this model to look up to, but at the same time we’re living in a world where there’s so many other things we could be doing.
And then you have the challenge of what that does to your brain. Like, all of our parents need to see a psychiatrist. They came from nothing, now they came to a place where no one speaks their language and they’re alone, and then they raise kids and they’re effectively alone. And that’s gonna weigh on you as a kid too. At least we have an opportunity to do that so that for the next wave, its normal.
Short answer: yes, I can’t wait for this next generation, they’re all gonna be doing drugs. They’re gonna know it’s fine to do drugs, have all the sex, drink all the alcohol, in moderation.
Maybe it’s like, year over year things are changing. Maybe it goes beyond that. Everyone I know does drugs. Maybe it’s a Tri-State area thing.
The Tri-State area brown group is very interesting. It’s very different from middle-of-America brown people. Because, they grew up with being the only brown person. I grew up surrounded by brown people. My school had a billion Patel’s. I knew so many of them. So many of them became doctors and shit. But we grew up so differently than people who grew up being the only Indian person in the school.
For me, growing up Indian was like, I wanna do other shit., I do brown shit all the time. In hindsight, you learn to appreciate the things you should have.
You launched your album. That was a pretty good take.
Everyone does albums, but that was my favorite thing to do because I put so much work and time into it. It deserves a Grammy.
An album was something I been meaning to do a long time. Once I got to do it, I had so much fun doing it. My grandparents are on it, I have a jingle on the album. The last three tracks were me fucking around. Thought it would be a fun way to get material out there.
I just enjoy doing that work. The end of those, the last 3 tracks were my music experimentation. I have another album coming out that’ll be just music, like weird Al.
That started in July, when I did that album and 2 parody songs. And I was like, I should just do that. And then I wrote 13 songs and then we recorded them. Now it’s like, how do I treat this the best in terms of distributing it. The product itself was just, I wanted to do it. It was fun, it was the most fun I’ve had in the studio. I never thought I could do it.
Back to the Columbia incident – I think in some ways it was a catalyst in that people were able to recognize you after that, compared to before.
I was annoyed for the first two weeks, I did not turn off my Google Alerts. I thought it would die in 2 or 3 days, and then Tucker Carlson emailed me to talk about it. Then I was trending on Yahoo, so I was like fuck I gotta do something, so I put that NYT op-ed out and then did Rogan.
It’s unfortunate that this happened, I felt bad for the reaction those kids got. They were getting death threats and shit. I was like, I’m not a white supremacist, so I don’t feel responsible, but I feel bad that happened to them.
I try not to think about that whole thing. It was also overblown, people read way too much into it. It’s all gonna be fine guys, everything’s gonna be alright. We have bigger fish to fry.
It certainly impacted my career; a lot of people know me from that. Once a month people will be like ‘Fuck those Columbia kids.’ And it was an interesting crash course on PC culture, fake PC outrage. It’s crazy how people can get. You disliked so much of what I purportedly say that you think I should not be able to pay rent?
Why don’t you just invite me to a coffee shop and we could talk about it? But I survived. I’m doing great.
What are things people wouldn’t know about you from your comedy?
I think of myself as a pretty goofy guy. Onstage I try to highlight that. The things I say, I’m pretty candid about saying. I’m private when it comes to my family and stuff, but that’s by design. If I’m hiding something my psychiatrist will tell me, I’m sure.
What keeps you going when you run into those moments when you’re not sure or you’re struggling?
I don’t really have anything else to do. What am I gonna do? You know how hard it would be to go back to finance? Who’s gonna take a 33-year-old intern? I don’t know if it keeps me going but it’s definitely in the back of my head. You just gotta be the best. I gotta be the best. And hopefully I will be. We’ll see.
I think the last 6 months and the year coming is going to be the most entrepreneurial I’ll be in whatever I do. It’ll definitely be more risk taking involved.
There’s this perception in comedy that it’s a different business than any other business – that’s wrong. It’s still a business, you can still pitch yourself as an opportunity, don’t think people do that enough. I think that is what I will be doing going forward.
If you don’t believe in yourself then why are you doing this? You should believe in yourself. You’re ultimately a product, you’re selling yourself or someone else is selling you. A lot of people don’t consciously position themselves that way, and I think that’ll be my MO.
Keep up with Nimesh Patel & his work on Instagram. And listen to his comedy album, Head Nimesh in Charge.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.