Rajiv (engineer to stand-up comedian)
This interview is with the comedian Rajiv Satyal, who has performed stand-up with Russell Peters, Kevin Nealon, Dave Chappelle, and Tim Allen, among others, and has been featured on NBC, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and the Huffington Post. Rajiv co-founded the State Department-sponsored stand-up show “Make Chai Not War,” which toured seven Indian cities in 2012. This interview was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. I am 36 years old, I’m currently a full-time stand-up comic in Los Angeles, although I travel the world. I got an undergraduate degree in materials engineering from the University of Cincinnati, started an MBA at Xavier on the side while I was working at Procter & Gamble for six years, did not finish it, moved to L.A. when I was 30 to be brand manager of Fiji Water, jumped ship, and I’ve since been doing full-time stand-up for six years, ten years total.
Q. How did your career path bring you to your current role as a stand-up comedian, and in particular what were the key thought processes you went through at critical decision moments along the way?
A. I think that’s a really good way of phrasing it — critical decision moments, or inflection points. They say that people’s lives come down to half a dozen or so decisions.
I think actually not going to business school was probably one of my biggest inflection points, because I had gotten into NYU Stern after less than three years of working at P&G. I applied really early to business school, and I was actually surprised I got in anywhere, to be honest.
I didn’t go, because at the time I wanted to focus on branded entertainment, or maybe running a studio, or something in Hollywood. And it turned out that getting an MBA does not help you do that. And my director at the time had the conversation with me that a lot of people wish for, which is, “Hey, what can we do to get you to stay?” And I thought, “Wow, that’s the first indication I’ve ever had that you want me to stay!” He said, “What if we were able to offer you some kind of position here in entertainment?” And I thought, “Well, we work at a soap company in Cincinnati, Ohio, my hometown, so I don’t really see that happening.”
But lo and behold, I ended up co-leading branded entertainment strategy for all brands in North America for Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser. I flew to L.A. and New York every month, or every other month, to meet with movie studios and record labels and all that jazz. And I got experience, instead of going to business school and going into debt. And it allowed me to do stand-up comedy on the side for four years while I was at P&G.
And when I turned 30, I flipped out and realized that, while I had a bunch of cool experiences under my belt, my entire life had taken place in Ohio. And I love my state, but I decided it was time for a geographic change, so I packed up and moved to California.
Q. When you moved out to California to go full-time doing stand-up comedy, what were the specific steps you took to make that happen?
A. Getting a little more granular, I think there are two things that people need to do if they are in a current job and looking to do something else.
First, putting away enough money. You’re not going to be able to just land in Los Angeles and be a full-time stand-up comedian. You’re not going to make money for a while. So you need to put away a certain sum. And I remember speaking to another comedian who had also come from P&G — there were three of us, three comedians who all left P&G within the same two years; it was like a comedian factory — and asking him, “How much money do you need?”
And he gave me a very specific figure at the time — this was back in 2003 or 2004. And he said, “You need $25,000. Put $25,000 away, liquid, that you can spend for a rainy day fund, and you should be able to make that last for about 6 months, depending on your lifestyle and the city, etc.” It took me quite a while to put that amount away.
So part of it was giving yourself that option. But secondly, he said this: It’s going to come down to one day. One day, you’re going to have a client meeting or whatever it is for work in one city, but you’re going to have a gig in another city, assuming you’re moonlighting your passion on the side. And for the longest time, you’ve been defaulting into doing your day job. And one day, you’re just going to say: “F it. I’m gonna go do the gig.”
It is actually remarkably like that. And in my case, I didn’t go do the gig. But I wanted to. And I realized, you know what — it’s time to go.
So I think building something you love and knowing that you want to do it for sure more than your job, and then secondly giving yourself that cushion — those are the two things you really need to do.
Q. For you, when did that moment come?
A. It happened for me probably in January of 2006, or right around then. I left P&G in May of 2006. I turned 30 in March of that year.
I would say that my hand was almost forced. Because I was at P&G, I loved my job, but over time I found myself longing and yearning for something else. I think you crave with your body but you yearn with your soul.
So I decided that I wanted to do something more, but I didn’t really have the balls to just leave, so I got a job at Fiji Water, which is the square-bottled water, in Los Angeles and I was the brand manager there for 12 weeks — that’s it. It was not a fit. We left amicably and I’m still friends with those guys, but I spent September of 2006 figuring out where I was going and what I wanted to do, and I put together an “action plan” — I wrote out 65 pages that I eventually got down to one page.
Q. That sounds like a very “MBA” thing to do….
A. Oh, totally. And like, getting a degree in engineering, and having that analytical skill, and being able to work as a brand manager. Yeah, bring whatever you have. That’s what I tell people — just bring whatever you have. Everything helps to the extent you want it to.
If you are a nerdy guy onstage — which I am also offstage — then sure, being an engineer is great, and being able to write a business plan or an action plan. If that’s the way your mind works, then use it.
I had spoken to a friend of mine, and I said, “I don’t know if I’m over-thinking this with my 65 pages,” and he said, “Yes, you’re probably over-thinking it for the average person, but you’re not over-thinking it for you. You’re a nerd, you’re a marketer, you’re an engineer — you’re doing it exactly right; do whatever works for you.” And that’s the way it worked out.
Q. I’m reminded of the Steve Jobs quote from his commencement speech at Stanford, that you have to trust that the dots will connect in the future, and things you’re doing now actually will be useful later even if it’s not immediately apparent how. It seems like that was true in your case.
A. Absolutely. I always go back to the “Dark Knight.” I mean, so much wisdom in that movie. I won’t get the quote exactly right (although I pride myself on movie quotes), but the Joker says, “They’re schemers, Commissioner Gordon, they’re all schemers, they’re planners. I just do things.” And I love that! He just did things. Now, he didn’t do the right things, but just do things.
I was actually on a call with a friend of mine who is an actress and we’ve done a lot of strategic work, and I used to manage her, and she’s like, “I don’t know if I should spend more time in Bollywood or Hollywood,” and I’m like, “Look, you’re getting projects. Just do them. Just have something tangible that, after a week or a month or a year, you can hang it on your wall and say, wow I did that.”
And that’s what I always tell people. Just find something and do it. That’s really key, because you can spend a lot of time just talking about it, and even more time thinking about it. You can talk all day long. But until you actually make something people want to buy, you have no check to put in the bank, whether it’s starting your own business or going into freelancing or being an entrepreneur.
Q. What was it like breaking the news about your career switch to your parents, who are South Asian and may have had other ideas for what you would be doing with your career? (Although, perhaps your parents were supportive given that, on your website, you say your mom is a singer; your dad a DJ; you have a brother who is a singer, writer, and actor; an aunt who is a painter and poet; and your dad’s family makes Bollywood films.)
A. My brother is gay. So, next question. (Laughter.)
That’s what I always tell people, because they’re like, “Was it hard? Was it hard for your parents?” And well, look, my brother is gay, so my coming out as a comedian was not nearly as hard as his coming out as a gay man!
He’s got a great sense of humor about that joke.
The truth is, my parents have always been very supportive of the three of us — there are three brothers in my family. And it’s funny to hear that description read to me, because I’ve written it and I’ve read it myself, but I don’t think anyone has ever read it back to me.
And I think that while my family does have these interests, my dad still worked in sales, my mom and my aunt were both teachers, so they did have “straight” jobs — (laughter) gay and straight, I know there’s innuendo there — so it’s not like I came from this amazingly artistic family that just grew up in entertainment. I mean, we always had interests in it, and my dad’s family was involved in Bollywood movies, and that’s all true. But at the same time, I did still have to have that conversation with my parents. I do come from a typical Indian family, a typical Asian family, in the sense that, yes, it is difficult, you have those communal pressures, you have expectations of you, this idea of being a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.
I go back to that movie “Rounders,” where Matt Damon is sitting with that professor and the professor says, “My entire family is all rabbis, and they all wanted me to be a rabbi, and I became a professor and my parents never spoke to me again.” And Matt Damon says, “If you had to go back and do it all over again, would you make the same choice?” And the professor looks at him and says, “What choice?”
And I love that. I think it’s great. He’s like, it’s not a choice, man; I’m compelled to go do this thing. And I think that, if you prove to your parents that you’re a sharp kid, who has your head on right, and you make good decisions, then why wouldn’t you make it?
Because I think, especially in entertainment, people have this idea that it’s dichotomized. You either make it or you don’t. You either become Aziz Ansari or Russell Peters, or you’re working at Wendy’s. That’s it. There’s nothing else. And, it’s like, no that’s not true. There are a lot of people walking around making $200K, $300K, $400K a year who are just speakers, or comedians on the college circuit, or people who are not on TV but they’re doing really well.
So just like any other profession, you can become CEO or general manager, or you might not move beyond your current job, but there are a lot of steps in between. I think that’s what a lot of people forget, that there is a ladder to be climbed; it’s just as Asians, I think we want a formula, and you have to be very comfortable moving away from security and stability and embracing adventure. And if you can’t do it, that does not mean you’re a bad person; it’s just that freelancing might not be your gig, whether it’s entertainment or anything else.
Q. Got it. And it sounds like from a parental perspective, they just want to see you’re making your decisions thoughtfully and not carelessly.
A. Absolutely. I think that’s exactly true.
Q. What is it like working day-to-day as a stand-up comedian, and if I were to shadow you for a day, what would I see?
A. You know, I always want to try to paint that picture because I always feel like people are bad at doing that. I remember hearing speeches from people who were GMs or CEOs, and they’re asked, “What’s your story? How did you get there?” And they’re like, “Well, I was director of this division….” And I’m thinking, “No no no, how did you even become director of that division? I’m still an assistant brand manager, so what does that mean?” In other words, they start their story so far ahead that they just make it sound like the first ten years were effortless.
So in my typical day, I spend a lot of time writing. I spend a lot of time preparing for shows and booking shows. I mean, I have a manager and an agent and all that, but you still end up doing a lot of the work yourself, because no one is going to care about your career as much as you are.
I have an assistant right now who also helps with the mundanities — contracts, answering e-mails that are less skilled in what they require, things like that. I’ve tried to outsource my non-core competencies as much as possible, and try to focus on being a creative.
I spend a lot of time on the road. I’m gone probably 40-50 percent of the time. So I live out of a suitcase a lot of the time.
But I generally get up around 9 a.m., I go to sleep around 3 a.m., so I sleep for six or seven hours. I don’t take naps, which I always thought I would but I don’t. I eat at home a lot. I grab coffee with people and do networking meetings and try to stay connected to people.
And being a comedian, sometimes you don’t know whether you’re messing around or you’re working, because your job is to stay up-to-date with, like, “Funny or Die” or Cracked.com or Facebook videos or YouTube. You’re always spending your time doing that, and you know as an engineer or a marketer you’re not really supposed to be doing that!
I’m very goal-oriented, so I had read Tim Ferriss’s “The Four-Hour Work Week,” and I loved the book, and one of the things he says is, “It’s 6 p.m. the day before. Ask yourself what is going to make tomorrow a successful day.” And that’s what I do. I ask myself what one or two things I have to accomplish, and I wake up, and I’m like, all right I have to get these one or two things done. Like, yesterday, I had to send out my monthly newsletter. I had to prep for a gig I then performed last night in Cincinnati. And those were the two things, and I got them done.
You know, we all have that thing where we come home, and there’s a couch and there’s a desk. And there’s this decision: am I going to sit on the couch and watch TV, or am I going to go to my desk and do work? And that’s what it comes down to; it really comes down to that moment. When you come in, and you put your keys down, you get your drink from the fridge, where are you going to sit? And my trick a lot of the time is, I tell myself, “Rajiv, just give me ten minutes. Just sit down at your desk for ten minutes and work. Just work really hard for ten minutes.”
And every now and then, I’ll get to minute eleven, and I’ll be like, forget it, I can’t do this. But it’s rare. Usually ten minutes will turn into fifteen, will turn into half an hour, will turn into an hour, will turn into three hours. And then I go sit on the couch. But I tell people more often than not, if you can just decide when you come home, just go to your desk for ten minutes and see what you can get done, you’ll be surprised.
Q. Where do you draw your stand-up material from? What’s the inspirational source?
A. You know, there’s a movie called “Comedian” that Jerry Seinfeld did, it’s a documentary, it was actually proposed to him by the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. And there isn’t a better depiction of where comedians get their material from. The tagline of the movie is, “Where does comedy come from?” So it answers that question way better than I could.
But in short, if you don’t have two hours to watch it, I would say that it comes from life, from living. And the difference between comedians and what we call civilians, which is everybody else, is that we write things down. And whether that’s on an iPhone or Evernote or BlackBerry or pen and paper, I think a lot of it is just that: observing things and writing them down.
To the extent that you’ve had an eclectic background, that’s only going to inform your comedy or your art. So I think you draw from different sources of inspiration.
Q. What’s most exciting about being a stand-up comic?
A. Sleeping in. I think sleeping in is just the best thing ever. I love sleep. Even though I really don’t even get a lot of it now. I went to bed at 5:30 a.m. last night. I got up at 11:30 a.m., which sounds late, but it’s still only six hours of sleep. That’s not that late.
Honestly, though, it’s a weird kind of pressure, because you don’t have day-to-day pressure. You have that knowledge that at any given point, you can sit on the couch. You can take a nap. You can go get a cup of coffee. You can go to the beach. And knowing that you can do those things reminds me of how I used to take family trips with my parents. You would take, like, five magazines and eight books and eighteen CDs, and you’d probably just listen to the same CD for the eight-hour car ride, and you didn’t even read any of the magazines or books. But the fact that you had all that stuff, made you feel good. You were like, oh my gosh, I have all these options. I’m just not going to do any of them, but at least I have them! And I think knowing that takes a lot of the pressure off, that I could, on any given day, not work.
Even though I work more hours now than I did at my previous jobs, and I worked a lot of hours there too, it’s not the same thing, because in an office you have to be on. You have to be on all the time. Like, you can’t just slump down in your chair and put your feet on your desk. You’re very aware that other people are around. Whereas when you’re in your apartment, you’re far more relaxed. And you can go out to coffee shops or wherever else.
But there’s a longer-term pressure. Like, I don’t have a 401k, or I have to do my own retirement planning, I need to buy my own healthcare, or where am I going to be in a year, where am I going to be in five years. So that’s the kind of pressure that’s extrapolated over the course of your career. And you have no idea how long or short that’s going to be.
Q. So how do you manage to take care of those things while keeping your sanity?
A. Well, I think it takes five things to make it. I think there’s love — from yourself, your family, your friends, your significant other. There’s luck, which I think most of it is luck, honestly. There’s talent, and there’s a difference between talent and skill: skill is learned; talent is congenital. And you have to be very honest with yourself about whether you have the talent to do whatever it is you want to do, whether it’s karate or piano or stand-up. Then there are desire and drive. And those are the two I want to focus on.
Desire is the fire within. It’s the thing where you’re like, “I really want to do this.” I really want to host the Oscars. I really want to play in the NBA. I really want to start my own charity in India. And great, you can have that desire and vision, but drive is having the motivation to get out of bed every day and actually do it. To do that ten minute rule of going to your desk.
There’s this quote that sounds simple to the point of stupidity, but it’s actually quite brilliant, and it reads: “The successful person is willing to do the things the unsuccessful person isn’t willing to do.” And it’s very simple. But at the same time, it’s like, are you that kind of person that’s willing to do those things and make those sacrifices. So I think that’s really what it comes down to.
You’ve got to do those things. You’ve got to check your mail, you’ve got to pay your bills, you’ve got to research healthcare, you’ve got to do a lot of things that you feel have nothing to do with your job. But you know, they say you can’t save the world if you can’t pay the rent. So you have to keep a roof over your head, you have to stay alive, you have to have car insurance and all those other mundanities. You do have to be very self-directed, and there’s no one to blame it on. No one’s going to tell you, hey now it’s time to sign up for healthcare, now is the time to renew your insurance. Those things have nothing to do with being a stand-up, but you have to do them.
Q. What do you most wish you could change about your current career path?
A. What I’m looking to do right now is actually hire somebody. I already have a manager, but you know, managers and agents are busy with other clients, and they always say that “you work for them until they work for you.”
So Chris Rock’s manager works for him. But I kind of work for my manager right now. So I’m looking to bring on somebody that I’d call my “Conrad Riggs.” Conrad Riggs is Mark Burnett’s right-hand man. Mark Burnett is a TV producer, did “Survivor,” and he’s been very successful. He’s got a guy who does a lot of his strategic work, and he is able to focus on the creative. And I feel like that’s the missing link. I’ve had assistants in the past, but I’m looking to hire maybe an MBA, or someone who just wants to come out to L.A., and maybe even live with me or something like that, and just be like a coach and a manager and edit videos and put things up and scale my business ideas. Basically just clone myself! We all have that feeling — yeah, I just want to clone myself! I want to find maybe a younger version of myself, and hire this person to take it to the next level.
I feel like that is what Aziz Ansari had in Jason Woliner; that is what Mark Burnett has in Conrad Riggs. I think you find your team and I am constantly working with different people, but often it’s finding that right piece that’s going to package it and pull it all together. That’s honestly what I think I would change, and the good thing is, it’s something that is actionable. It’s something that I can do.
Q. You wrote on your website FunnyIndian.com that one of your big goals is to host the Oscars on television. Give us some color around that and, more broadly, what do you want to do in the future, medium-term and long-term, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. Great question. I think the long-term goal is leaving the world with something. And this is really lofty; I know you’re aiming for the stars here. But I recently interviewed Seth Godin, the marketing guru, on a podcast. And he came up with this idea the “purple cow.” Andy Warhol came up with the idea of “15 minutes of fame.” They gave people a different way, and a positive way I think, of looking at life. Now, it doesn’t have to be the entire world. But I wouldn’t care if I died penniless, or with nothing tangible to call my own. But if I could leave the world with, “Oh yeah, that Rajiv guy said that.” Just something quotable. Comedians do this all the time. George Carlin did it, Jerry Seinfeld has done it, Chris Rock is doing it, Louis C.K. is doing it. I mean, the great comedians are able to do that. And I think that, to me, is the mark of creativity.
Because like, men have this thing about immortality. Because women can make babies. (Laughter.) I read something about how men always have this thing where we want something to live beyond us, and that’s why we build buildings, and write things on walls, and we donate money so we can have our names inscribed on sidewalks. It’s like this way of beating mortality and finally catching up to women in the immortality game. So that’s my huge, long-term leave-the-world-with-a-good-way-of-thinking-about-stuff goal.
But the medium-term goal, if not the end-goal, is to host the Oscars! I love the movies. And it is a really lofty goal, I understand that. But to me, that would be amazing. It’s a really difficult job, but you’d be forever remembered as part of the silver screen — it’s Hollywood, man, c’mon, what job would be better than that?
Q. What advice would you have for people who may be sitting in a day job currently but are trying to break into a full-time creative profession?
A. That’s a great question, and I know that’s probably the biggest reason people are reading, is to find that out.
So when I do my personal branding work, the two things I do are what I call “hook” and “hate.” First is, finding your hook, finding what your interest is, finding what you are. Really putting serious thought into what are the attributes that define you. Are you a Hindu? A Christian? Do you define yourself by religion at all? Do you define yourself by your job? Do you define yourself as a father, or a son? Are you witty? Are you provocative? Are you anger-inducing? In other words, what is your thing?
And once you define what you are, say, you’re a comedian, then now the words you use to describe yourself, like witty or funny are no longer a point of difference. You’re not going to be the “funny” comedian, or else you wouldn’t be a comedian — you better be funny, that’s all part of our game. So you’ve got to figure out: are you the logical comedian? The nerdy one? Are you a hip-hop guy? Are you an alternative? What’s your thing? So defining what you are, and then filling it in and packaging it, that’s one part.
Second, I like to ask people what do they hate? What do they fear? What do they want to change about the world? Because it’s easy when you ask, “Hey, what do you like?” And they say, “I love food, I like travel, I like hanging out with friends, I love going to the movies.” And it’s like, yeah, we all love doing that stuff, man, everyone’s going to say that.
But what do you hate? What pisses you off? What makes you mad? If you had 30 seconds to just yell at the world and shake the entire planet, what is it you want to say? And if you spend a lot of time on that, and you really ask what pisses people off, they really start talking. That is not a “stumper” for people. They will get into it very quickly. And you just dig and dig and dig.
First, people will say, “Oh, it’s people who cut me off in traffic,” or “It’s people who lie.” And you say, “OK, got it. But go deeper.” Why does that really bother you? Really start to define it for yourself. We used to use this thing at P&G called the “Five Whys,” where you ask, why, why, why, why, why, and you get to what people’s basic motivations are.
And I think that process in itself, asking what you love, and then asking what you hate and want to change, those are the two things I wish people would spend a little bit more time focusing on, and it should lead them to some answers.