How long have you been performing stand-up, and how did you get involved in the scene?
I started when I was 17, and I’m 34 now, so I’ve been performing half my life. I went to Bowdoin, in Maine, for college and got more into comedy while I was there. Then I moved to Seattle after graduating and started performing more seriously while I was there, around 2005.
Before you became a full-time comic, you were an immigrant rights organizer. What prompted the career change?
I was a comedian before I was politically active. I became politically aware after 9/11 – I’m from New York and saw hate crimes in my community, things I didn’t expect to see in the city. It was a wake-up call. It made me want to do more, contribute more.
And, at the time, pursuing comedy full time didn’t seem realistic. There were no examples of other South Asian comics in 2005 – that was before Aziz [Ansari] got big. So I started organizing instead. I performed at night at the time too, but I didn’t take it too seriously.
Eventually, though, I got discovered at the “HBO Comedy Fest” and pretty soon after that I went on Jimmy Kimmel Live. All of a sudden I had a manager. I just sort of stumbled into it.
Do you think comedians can use humor to enact positive social change?
I don’t see comedy as a way to change the world. I make art because I like art. People can be affected by it, but I don’t want to give what I do that kind of grandiose status. Maybe I can introduce people to new ideas, but I’m always focusing mostly on making people laugh.
If you go into comedy trying to change minds, instead of making people laugh, you’re bound to fail.
In addition to performing stand-up, you wrote for the FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. What was that experience like?
Kamau and I are best friends. We record a podcast every week called “Politically Reactive” – it comes out on Thursdays. So I knew Kamau and told him that when he got a TV show I was going to write for it – I was sure he would get one. He was too good not to have one.
I think the show was a little ahead of its time. We talked about topics like transgender rights and police brutality before they were really mainstream. At the time those topics were still kind of taboo.
You’re also the creator and star of a feature-length documentary, The Problem with Apu. Can you talk about that project a bit?
Sure. I made a documentary with truTV called The Problem with Apu. It comes out this fall. I wanted to make it because I grew up without seeing any representations of South Asians on TV. Except Apu. And he’s an awful, one dimensional character.
On Kamau’s old show, “Totally Biased,” I did a piece about South Asian identity and representation, and it really took off. It became clear that a lot of other people were thinking about it too, so I decided to try to turn it into a full-length documentary.
Which comedians do you consider influences?
Stewart Lee, the British comedian – I’ve been obsessed with him for the last decade or so. And Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Mark Maron, George Carlin. A lot of people sort of seep into you, and you pick up different skills or ideas from them. Kamau certainly influences me and motivates me to write more too.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Oh, that’s tough . . . Doing Letterman, in front of my parents at the Ed Sullivan Theater, was a big deal. And I got a standing ovation for my half-hour Comedy Central special.
What should Milwaukee audiences expect from your September 15 appearances?
I talk about what I care about. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Anything to do with oppression – I like to go after the people in power.
There’s going to be silliness and pop culture bits woven into the set too. It’ll be consistent with my work so far but the material will be new.