Raj Sharma Can’t Stress Enough How Unusual His Rise in Comedy Has Been.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Raj Sharma appears to have had a charmed life when it comes to comedy. He started performing in Dallas in 2002, and took to his craft with remarkable quickness. His strong early grasp of comedy helped him create and capitalize on opportunities, and he’s been able to ride a wave of successful shows and positive press practically since his debut.
Sharma considers his career unusual, to the point that he insists new comics not use him as an example of how a career in comedy tends to play out. While every aspiring performer’s career arc will take its own unique shape, Sharma possesses one crucial element to making it as a comic – the dude is bursting with talent. He can spin gold from his personal and family history, and he’s more than sharp enough to dissect the oddities of the world around him. He also possesses a dangerously swift wit, and can veer into pitch-perfect crowd work on a moment’s notice.
Sharma and I discussed his path in comedy, his upcoming special, My Generation, and his efforts to keep up with other Dallas comics who’ve found success in L.A.
You started comedy in Dallas, correct?
I did, yeah.
How long were you performing in Dallas before moving to L.A.?
I think it was close to nine years. I started in 2002, and moved in 2011.
Can you tell us about starting comedy in Dallas?
I was always a huge fan of comedy, since I was a kid. That was kind of my thing. That’s what I did when I was growing up, because I grew up in Mesquite and we were the only two Indian kids, me and my brother. We got picked on a lot, and I learned to use laughter and comedy to get out of situations like that, because you can’t punch a guy when you’re laughing at him. Or you’re just a really big asshole. I was a huge fan. I was 25 and I was dating this girl who took me, for my Christmas present, out to dinner and out to the Improv for a show. I remember walking in. We were a little bit late, and Paul Varghese was on stage. And it blew my mind. I was like, “We have an Indian comic, holy shit. That’s amazing, I didn’t think we could do this.” So he gets done, and there was this, basically a play, it wasn’t even a stand-up show. This guy was called Buff Tanner, and it was awful. I remember people booing, and the manager giving us free tickets to come back to any show, and people were yelling, “Bring back the brown guy,” because he [Varghese] was so good. And the next day I was in my office at my day job – I was working with my folks, we staffed nurses at hospitals. My brother did a banquet every year to raise money for juvenile diabetes, and he always had stand-up in it. I was like, “If you want to get somebody, there’s this guy Paul Varghese, I saw him at the Improv. I don’t know how you get him, maybe just give the Improv a call. You gotta book this guy, he’s amazing.” A couple days later I’m still sitting at my desk, I look out the window and I see Paul walking up the stairs. I look at my brother, like, “You got him.” He says, “Yeah, he’s coming in to sign the contract.” He sat down to sign the contract and I said, “Hey man, I’m the one who saw you, can I pick your brain for a second?” He was like, “Yeah, I got thirty minutes, and I have to be somewhere else.” Three-and-a-half hours later, we’re still talking. He’s like, “You gotta get into this man, you gotta do it.” I said, “How did you do it?” He said there’s a workshop taught at the Improv by the comedian Dean Lewis, who I knew from ages before. I don’t remember how much it was, $250 or $350, something like that. It’s eight weeks long, and it gives you five minutes of material. They can’t teach you to be funny, but they can teach you how to structure a joke. And you get to go up and do five minutes at the Improv. I was like, “Deal.” Because I was going to the Improv, I would watch shows. I took the class, and I went up, I did my time – it was April 14, 2002. It was supposed to be five minutes, but with applause breaks, it ended up being seven minutes, 54 seconds. And people started coming up like, “Hey, I run this open mic here, I have this cable access channel here, can you do this show here,” and I was hooked. That was April. I think it was June, they gave us Indians at the Improv, it was me and Paul. Paul got me a guest spot so they could watch, and the manager said, “Great. We’ve done Jewish Night, we’ve done Latino Night, we’ve done Urban Night, what do you think if we did an Indian Night?” I was like, “We’ll sell it out.” Paul’s like, “Shut up, dude. You don’t know what you’re talking about. What if we don’t sell anything?” And they gave us the show, and it sold out. We had to turn away over one hundred people at the door. Then we took it down to Houston and sold out at the Houston Improv, and we ran that show back and forth for two years. And we started getting work fast, because Indian comedy was a new thing. Indian people started booking us for their special events like New Year’s Eve and somebody’s reception, stuff like that. We got really lucky early on. That’s kind of how started, and it’s all because of Paul Varghese, and going to the Improv that night and seeing him there. It changed my life.
That’s a great way to start, to hit the ground running like that.
And that’s why when people ask me how long it took before I started making money, I was like, “I’m a bad example, don’t ask me.”
It was like three months in.
I imagine people hear that and really want to hear some secret you have to share.
People think once you start, you’re making $10,000 a night. I tell them that’s not how it works. I tell people I’m a horrible example, don’t look at me. I started and then three months in, just because we were a novelty. So don’t look at me as the example for when you’ll start getting paid in stand-up, because I don’t know.
You talked about getting your start in Dean Lewis’s class, but one thing you’re known for is your crowd work, which is something you can’t really teach. When did you start experimenting with that?
Here’s the thing, it wasn’t really an experiment. I did a show, I think it was still 2002, or 2003, at a place called Andy’s in Denton. It was amazing. I went up, I did seven or eight minutes, and the place was loving it. When I walked offstage I had people high-fiving me and buying me drinks, and the owner was like, “Hey, I want you back next week, you were fantastic.” I now know that he didn’t know that was my only seven to eight minutes. And I didn’t know that that was going to be the same audience. So when he put me on the flier, everybody that was there the week before was there again, and I’m doing the same shit, and it’s silence. People are like, “We’ve heard this!” I keep trying to pull through, and one guy started heckling me, and I didn’t know what to do. So I just kept going. I remember looking up at the rafters, Paul was up there, it was a little area for comics, and he was giving me these looks of, “Get out.” And people started to laugh at me, not with me. They were on this guy’s [the heckler’s] side, so everything he was shouting, they loved it. I was like, “I’m out, I’m done.” I put the mic down and walked off to silence. We’ve all done this – you know when you’re walking away from a fight with someone, and you’re like, “Oh man, I should’ve said that, and I should’ve said that,” I wrote all those down on the way home from Andy’s. Cut to 2006, Paul and I are on tour with Gurus of Comedy. We’re in San Jose, and there’s a guy heckling every comic. So I’m in the wings, and the comic before me gets off and he’s like, “Fucking heckler.” I asked who’s heckling, and where he’s at, and he points him out to me. I walk out, and before I can even get the first words out of my mouth, he shouts something at me, and it didn’t make sense. I was like, “OK, we’ve all been there before, man” and I did this whole act-out of him being drunk, and I go to start my first joke, and he does it again, and I go, “Fuck this, I want to talk to you, man.” I didn’t know that they could turn on the lights in a section, and not just turn all the house lights on. I was like, “I want to talk to you, buddy,” and they pull up the lights and I say, “What’s your name?” And he goes, “Junior.” He was this huge Mexican dude resting a Corona on his belly. I tore into him so hard – everything I wanted to say to that dude at Andy’s, I’m now saying to him. And it’s destroying to the point where it made the front of the newspaper. I made front page news in San Jose: Raj Sharma Goes After Heckler With the Speed of a Scorpion. He literally stood up waving a white napkin. I told him, “Junior, if you say another word, if I hear you laugh, I’m gonna start in on you again.” And I finished my set. And it was from then on…that paper was called India West. It had a circulation of about 250,000. I guess a promoter in Arizona got it and saw I shut this heckler down. He had me go on a run of shows where, I didn’t know this, but the deal was if you can shut him down, they’ll pay your tab.
I just think I’m going to a show. Most people don’t know about it, but certain people did. Most people just came for the comedy, but some people were like, “I’m gonna get a free tab.” And at all these shows I’m like, “Why the fuck do these people keep heckling me?” I didn’t understand. Finally he [the promoter] told me, and I was like, “Never do that again.” Luckily, nobody ever won. From then on it just became a thing. For me, it turned into this – I’m gonna tell you my story, but I’d really like to get to know you, too. As many people as I can. I want to hear about you guys, where’d you get married, how long have you been married, what’s the secret to it, what’s he like, what’s she like. You pay really good money to go to the clubs. I can do a great job and not talk to an audience member, and 20 years from now you won’t remember it. But if we’re having fun and I’m picking on you, you might forget my name, but 10 years from now you’re like, “Remember that time that kid that took you down at the comedy club? We ought to go to the comedy club again, that was great.” I want to get to know my audience as much as I want to tell them about me.
I know you’re putting together a special, does it throw you off when people know you’re a crowd work guy, and you’re trying to cultivate material for a special?
I incorporate it. The new special is called My Generation, and I incorporate it. Now the crowd work’s a little different in the sense that I’m asking people to go back with me. “Do you remember this? Do you remember this?” And then I go back and forth with people. Then I’ll talk to them a little bit, “You guys married?” Whatever, whatever, and then I’ll go back to, “You remember this? And this?” It’s actually them coming along with me. That’s how the crowd work is developed for this special. I’m sure it’ll go back to the way it was, because I love doing that, but for now, I’m just asking people to reminisce with me, and talk about the rotary phone. “You guys remember the rotary phone?” Two people. “Yeah, you had one, I know how old you are, I know you had one.” I’ll go into that. What a piece of shit that was, wasn’t it? And they’ll start talking to me about it, then I’ll get to my joke. So it’s kind of evolved in that sense.
Huh, that’s interesting – it sounds like it’s become a sort of hybrid of crowd work and jokes. You’re doing a couple of dates in the DFW area here in November. What’s it like coming home to do comedy?
I love it, man. I miss Texas. That’s the thing, people are real in Texas. People in L.A. — they’ll tell you, you can find good people in L.A., but you have to actively search. Coming back to Texas, people are just genuinely real, it’s fun. A lot of my friends are there, my dad’s there. I get to spend time with family and friends, and get paid to tell jokes, not a bad day at all. [Laughs.]
We’ve had several Dallas comics leave in the last few years to go to L.A. Some have made appearances on TV, gotten writing jobs. Do you stay in touch with comics you knew here who’ve moved?
Oh of course, we’re all meeting at Tone Bell’s house tomorrow night (note: the interview was recorded on October 29) to watch the Cowboys game. It’ll be me, Tone Bell, Dustin Ybarra, Mark Agee, there’ll be a few of us. We try to get together as much as we can. We used to try to do it like twice a month, but then everybody started getting busy, God bless, because it worked out. When I moved out here, I called Tone, like, “You gotta move. I’m not making this up, you and Agee have to move out here because you will rise to the top so fast. That’s just how it is. Because you guys are good, and I’m watching a lot of bad comedy.” So they came out for a week. It’s funny, because the day they flew out to stay with me, I left for Texas to do shows at Hyena’s. I didn’t even get to watch them do it. But yeah, they moved out here, and Tone’s Tone, he was out here eight weeks and landed a national Miller Lite commercial. And then Mark and Tone sold a show to FX, Justin Foster’s on tour with Drew Lynch and Michael Malone, those guys. Then Dustin Ybarra blew up. So everybody’s doing a great job out here. It’s a lot of fun to see that. Unfortunately we don’t get to see a lot of each other, so football season and the Cowboys are a good excuse.
Is that advice, going to L.A, something you would recommend to just about any comic? Or is that something you’d hesitate on, depending on their skill level?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t tell every comic to move out here, because every comic is here. There’s like 2,000 comics in this town. Out of which – I use the term loosely when I talk about it – because out of those 2,000 comics, maybe 150 of them are actually working comics. That actually work. You have a lot of people out here, and some people use it for different reasons. Some people are trying to be actors or models, and they’re just trying to do whatever they can to get stage time so the industry can see them. If you want to do stand-up, make sure you’re good in your town before you move out. If you’re not good there, don’t come out here and just fill the pond with more garbage. Be good there. And if you’re good there, stay there for a while, and get work. Get noticed by Randy [Butler, the owner of Hyena’s Comedy Club], or Jeff over at the Improv, or go up to the Backdoor Comedy Club and test your clean set with Linda Stogner. If they’re telling you you’re great, if you’re getting consistent work, then you might want to look at your options, New York or L.A. I was told four years in by Ahmed Ahmed when I worked with him, “What are you still doing here? You have to move to L.A. now.” And it just didn’t feel right for me. He would call me every year, “Are you moving out? Are you moving out?” I wasn’t sure. And then it was Bryan Callen who I worked with. He watched my set and said, “What are you still doing here? You’ve already headlined the Improv, you’ve headlined at Hyena’s, what else do you have to do? What other mark are you going to achieve? You’re already headlining all the clubs in the Southwest, what else do you have to do now? Pick one right now – L.A. or New York?” I was like, “L.A. New York winters suck.” It’s 79 degrees today, and we’re in October. I told him I didn’t know if I had contacts, and he said, “Come hang out with me for a week, and I’ll introduce you to everyone.” And he did, and it was amazing. The first night I was there I met Jamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory, and then Dane Cook, Bob Saget, Sebastian Maniscolo and Bill Burr. All in one night. It was amazing. He introduced me to a lot of people. He got me into clubs, to watch him perform and meet the managers and whatever, and the last night, when I was saying goodbye to him, he said, “OK, I did my job. I don’t want to hear from you again until you move here, so until you move here, don’t talk to me.”
Yeah. That was November 2010. And I called him in January, like, “Yo man, I got my apartment, I move in in March.” So March 22, I got out here. That’s the thing, though, you have to be good in your town. And when you have people like that recognizing your talent, or TV stars and movie stars and nationally touring comedians are telling you to leave your town, that’s a good time to go.
I know you’re working on My Generation, but are there any other projects you can tell us about?No, just working on that really hard. I think we’re going to film some of it in the Dallas [Hyena’s] club, some of the hour. We’ll submit to Netflix – my agent, I’m not just going to send it on my own. I just wrote this pilot, and I have people interested in it, which is nice. Let’s see how that goes. Maybe a few rewrites here and there, get it ready for pilot season next year, but right now, just focusing on going on the road and working on the new special.
This last question is almost just for me – I think I’m opening for you when you perform in Plano, so…what’s the most frustrating thing one of your openers has done?
I don’t mind it, but it really fucks with the middle, because the middles like to do a little banter as well. I’d usually tell people “No, don’t do crowd work” when I was heavy into that. Now I’m burning through this new special with just people going back and forth with me about what we’re talking about. I don’t mind it now, but back then – and I’ve seen a lot of headliners that say that’s the most frustrating thing, when the opener or middle talks to the crowd. A lot of the club owners will tell you just go up there and do your fuckin’ seven [minutes], and don’t say shit. Do the announcements. And I would hear the same thing with the middle – don’t do any crowd work. Don’t talk to the audience. I think that and burning the light. If you get the light, wrap it up. When you get there, they’ll ask if you want a one- or two-minute light. I’ve seen people go over by three or four minutes – you’re cutting into the middle’s time, you’re cutting into my time on the first show because we have to cut that first show tight. If you want to go late on the second show, I don’t give a fuck, do it, because we have all the time in the world because there’s nobody after us. So I don’t care. And hang out, that’s another thing. I did Reno a couple of months ago, but last year I was there, and both the opener and middle were both older guys who lived there, so I had no one to hang out with the whole week I was there. We would do the show, and they were gone. Like gone the minute I said good night, they left. It was literally me at a fuckin’ penny slot by myself. So hang out. We’ll get to know each other – we haven’t met, so let’s get to know each other, hang out and talk comedy. That’s always fun.
Raj Sharma performs at Hyena’s Plano from November 10-12.