The going clean drive extends to his personal life as well – he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and uses only public transport. He doesn’t drive a car, and lives in a 750-square-foot apartment; his monthly electric bill is only $30.
“Of course, frugality was rampant in our family. When I need to seal an envelope, I still use a grain of rice instead of glue”
Early in his career, Dan Nainan met acclaimed comedian Jerry Seinfeld and asked him for advice. Seinfeld told him that if he worked “clean”, then he could work everywhere. He turned out to be quite prophetic: Dan recently performed for President Obama at a huge gala; the President called his performance ‘hilarious’ – there’s no way that they would have tolerated profanity at that event.
Dan is a hundred percent clean stand-up comedian, which implies no swearing and “nothing off color”. The going clean drive extends to his personal life as well – he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and uses only public transport. He doesn’t drive a car, and lives in a 750-square-foot apartment; his monthly electric bill is only $30. The comedian was in Canada lately for the ninth annual South Asian festival, hosted by India-Canada Association of Waterloo Region, and regaled us with some interesting facets of his life and career.
As a senior engineer with Intel Corporation, Dan Nainan designed and presented highly technical demonstrations on stage with Intel Chairman Andy Grove at high-profile events all over the world. He took a comedy class to help get over the fear of public speaking at these events. And it took off from there. “Of course, my family was quite proud of me, because having a son working at Intel would be the dream for any Indian/Japanese family. Since I had done well in comedy and build up a nest egg from stock options, they were not as violently opposed to my doing comedy as one would expect. Now, of course, they’re quite proud of me. My parents came to my show at the Kennedy Center, where I performed for over 2000 people, and they were beaming,” he says.
Transitioning from a proper 9-to-5 job to a risky life in show business is never easy. “There’s no real blueprint for doing so. If one wants to be a CPA, a lawyer, doctor, etc., then the path is quite clear. Show business is another matter entirely. There is no clearly defined path,” he tells us. In Dan’s case, it was the combination of being promoted from a fantastic job at Intel, where he was playing with technology every day and traveling the world, to what was essentially a boring desk job. Fortunately, when he got promoted, he asked to be based in New York City – “that was critical, as you pretty much have to be in New York or Los Angeles if you’re serious about comedy. I lasted a year, and at the same time, comedy was really starting to take off for me, so it seemed like a good risk, and I turned out to be right.”
Dan’s father came from India to New York City, and his mother came to Long Beach, California from Japan. Since childhood, there was heavy emphasis on hard work and education in his childhood. “Of course, frugality was rampant in our family. When I need to seal an envelope, I still use a grain of rice instead of glue,” he tells us. Dan didn’t have a television in his formative years, and “I’m so thankful to my parents”, he says. He started playing the piano at two, and now plays six instruments. “My secret dream is to become a physician. My father made me learn French one summer, and I hated him for it, but now I love learning languages, which comes very much in handy when I travel the world.”
For Dan, comedy has adequate representation of South Asians already. “How could it improve? Russell Peters is the most successful touring comedian in the world, making about $30 million a year. Aziz Ansari is also a titan in the comedy business in America.” More and more South Asians are trying their hand at comedy, and becoming successful at it. “I’d say the participation of South Asians in the international comedy scene is about as amazing as it could be.”
Here’s what he would say to South Asians who want to do something creative: “Don’t buy into this mentality that I hear a lot. I hear a lot of carping along the lines of ‘why aren’t there more South Asians in comedy? Why is the industry so racist?’ I disagree completely. The truth is, that too many South Asians are focused on the sure jobs, you know what I’m talking about, doctor, lawyer, finance, IT, engineering. Certainly they pay great, but I would strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in the creative field to go for it. Russell did, and he was vilified for years by his family until he finally made it.”
Also, it’s important for South Asians to support their creative talent and nurture them for the future. “You can’t complain that there aren’t enough South Asians in show business, then turn around and pay artists nothing.” Dan shot for 16 days on the film The Last Airbender with M Night Shyamalan in Philadelphia in 2009. They were so desperate for Indian actors to be in the Fire Nation Army that they were offering Screen Actors Guild eligibility to anybody who could work for three days. “Many actors would kill for the right to have SAG eligibility. They couldn’t find enough South Asian men to fill the role, so they had to hire Middle Eastern, Hispanic and African American guys who looked even remotely South Asian.”
He was in India last year, his third tour of the country. “It was absolutely fantastic. Five shows, five cities, five nights – who could ask for more? The only downside is that I would’ve liked a little bit more time to explore, but I did get a day of touring around Delhi. 95% of the time was spent sitting in traffic.” He did a joke in his India shows that the “president lives in a palace, while the Prime Minister lives in a trailer” – they loved that.
So, how does he juggle his personal and professional life? “As the author (and Canadian) Robin Sharma told me, I am a paid tourist. So I guess you could say that my personal life is my professional life.”
Dan’s book The Best Book on How To Become A Full-time Stand-up Comedian is out in the market. His favourite comedians are Russell Peters and Jerry Seinfeld. “Jerry changed my life with his advice, and of course Russell changed my life because he helped expose me to the South Asian community. Russell was absolutely fantastic to work with. A complete class act, and unlike most comedians, not into the self-destructive drug/alcohol/prescription drugs.”
Your next plan of action? Hollywood, of course – that’s the dream of any comedian!