Cincinnati-native-turned-LA-transplant Rajiv Satyal has toured with the likes of Dave Chappelle, Tim Allen, Kevin Nealon and Russell Peters. His latest standup tour, The Man in The Middle, speaks to our politically divisive times — a topic the comic once strayed from. Now, he's diving right in.
On Oct. 30 he'll bring the show to perhaps the toughest crowd of ’em all: Capitol Hill. As the son of Indian immigrants — and having grown up in the Midwest — Satyal sees himself as a man at the crossroads of culture, politics and life. A 1994 graduate of Fairfield High School, he quit his corporate job at Proctor & Gamble in 2006 to pursue stand-up before moving to the West Coast to perform full-time.
CityBeat caught up with Satyal via email ahead of his stop at Capitol Hill — where he'll perform for the U.S. House of Representatives — to chat about comedy, his influences and The Man in The Middle.
CityBeat: You've said that your tour, The Man in The Middle, is the most important you've embarked on yet. Why?
The tagline of my show is, "Born in the red state of Ohio and living in the blue state of California, Comedian Rajiv Satyal thinks his little show may be just what we need to save the empire." It's obviously a bit self-deprecating given the goal is so lofty. Yet I do believe things are that dire. I could go on stage and rant and rage… but anybody can do that. It's important for me to try to do the thing I'm good at: to tell the truth and not be hated for it. I approach the show as an opportunity to open the audience's minds... not necessarily to change their minds out of the gate. I'm playing pinball and not Whac-A-Mole.
CB: Pat Hazell, who worked on Seinfeld, directs the show and helped you write the script. And your talk show What Do You Bring to the Table? feels inspired by Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. How has their (Larry David's and Seinfeld's) brand of comedy influenced your work?
Enormously. A friend who saw the debut show of my new tour said, "This is your thing. I've never seen you be more you. Also — you totally feel and look like Indian Larry David up there." I’ve always used my social capital to fight for things in which I believe. I think I'm able to pull that off because I don't mind looking like a jerk. Like, last night in San Francisco, some dude in our private karaoke room kept cutting off my songs… I was just about to belt out the best part of "One" by U2 and he switched it to "Gangster's Paradise" by Coolio. (Don't get me wrong — I love me some Coolio. I ran stage crew for him when he came to my college.) So, I stormed out and went back to my hotel. I mean, there are societal rules. You can't just cut off a Bono solo. And somebody has to take a stand over this. Perhaps this isn't the best example but it's the most recent.
CB: Obviously, our political landscape is divisive. What does a stand-up show like yours — one that speaks for people somewhere in the "middle" — mean in such polarizing times?
I didn't want to write this show. But I was compelled to. That's it. Artists are inspired to create and I just kept coming back to this topic again and again. It's a risk... I’m still friends with a lot of people from Fairfield High School; I just organized our 25-year reunion for the Class of 1994. Given all of my social media posts, my old classmates keep asking me if I went crazy. I didn't go crazy. The country went crazy. I've been standing right here.
I'm picturing our grandkids asking me what I did during that crazy time back in the teens. And I don't want my answer to be, "Well, I stayed silent to sell some more tickets to standup shows," or "I didn't want to disappoint my friends." When was that ever a reason not to do something? This probably informs a key insight (can you tell I used to work at P&G?) for the development of this show: This performance isn't about Trump. It's about me. And more importantly, it's about us.
CB: How did growing up in Cincinnati as a first-generation son of immigrants from India influence your stand-up?
I talk about being the man in the middle. As the old commercials went, Ohio is “the heart of it all.” I’m from the middle of the country and the middle of the color spectrum. Being the son of immigrants also lends me the perspective of "alien eyes," which are so essential to standup.
As I mentioned in my TEDx Talk at (the University of Cincinnati), standup comics are the best social commentators. And the one-person show format allows me not only to comment but also to call people to action. When I performed at Dynasty Typewriter in LA this month, the tech person (also a standup himself) remarked that he liked the format, which I appreciated, because sometimes comedians view the one-person show as a bit of a bastard… something that falls between standup and acting. But his response was interesting: “When an actor does a one-person show, it’s true we as comedians sometimes resent it, because it's almost like they don’t quite have the balls just to go for it and do standup. But when a comedian does one, it’s different, because you clearly have the chops of a comic. You're just enhancing it with acting.”
Standup is hard because your job is to make people laugh the entire time. It’s by far the hardest of the performance arts. Nothing comes close. But at least it’s focused. With this show, you have to win people over on three levels for them to love it: a. You have to be funny. You’re a comedian, after all. b. Since you’re grappling with a large topic, you also have to be poignant and insightful. c. And finally, since it’s politics, the audience has to agree with you hook-line-and-sinker. And it’s rare that they're with me 100%. The Far Left thinks I don’t go far enough in bashing Trump. And the Far Right thinks it’s a bit much. Here’s the measuring stick, though: when I performed it at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, KY, where well over half the crowd consisted of Trump voters, I got a standing ovation. That’s how I know I got the tone right — that the people in the middle like it… and there are a lot of us.
CB: What do you hope the impact of this show being performed at the U.S. House of Representatives will have?
None. Ha. I got booked to do this over two months ago… and my, have things changed in even less than a month. Democrats are smelling blood and Republicans are panicking. Hardly anyone is trying to come together and sing, “Kumbaya.” So, I think right now is actually the toughest time to wander into the lion’s den.
By definition, we all live in a bubble: after all, we only know our own experience (and many don't even take the time to know that). But I’m as bubble-less as a person can be. I was born in John Boehner’s (R-OH) district and now live in Adam Schiff’s (D-CA). I perform in small towns and big cities all over the world for very diverse audiences. What bubble am I in? Earth? Sorry if I haven’t been to Mars yet.
That all said, I do think I’m uniquely positioned to try to bring us together. Maybe instead of singing Kumbaya, we'll have some Representatives come onstage and tell jokes. Nothing brings people together like laughter. And if that doesn't get 'em, maybe my I AM AMERICAN video will.
CB: You moved to L.A. What's the biggest difference in performing for audiences in the Midwest — a place associated as more conservative — and on the West Coast?
It took me forever to get the quote, “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter where on Earth I perform, I’m still Rajiv. And so my material doesn’t change whether I’m performing at the Stardome in Birmingham, Alabama, or the Jewish Cultural Center in San Francisco, California. What changes is the delivery. They say we bond according to our similarities and grow according to our differences. So, the conservative bits in Cincinnati take on a tone of, “You guys know what I’m talking about,” and the liberal bits are more of a “here’s another way to look at this”… and it’s vice versa out in L.A. The comedian and the audience have a complex relationship. At times in my act, the crowd is thinking, “Oh, he’s one of us,” and at other times, “Ohhhh… he’s one of them.” The trick is making both of those funny.