Month: April 2015

Saurin Choksi on Family, Faith, and ‘White Guy Talk Show’

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – April 23, 2015

Scott Gries - Fuse
Scott Gries – Fuse

The asterisk punctuating Saurin Choksi’s new talk show title, “White Guy* Talk Show,” gives a hint of what viewers should expect – specifically, a brown host.

“There’s not going to be a white host. But at the same time, I definitely hope when you watch the show, that it is inclusive of everybody,” Choksi, co-host of Fuse’s new late-night pop culture talk show, told NBC News.

Since the show’s March 2 debut, Choksi and co-host Grace Parra have invited and featured guests from the literary, music, and entertainment industries: “Black-ish” star Yara Shahidi, Iranian American author-comedian Maz Jobrani; actor Ernie Hudson from “Ghostbusters” and Japanese American DJ Steve Aoki, whose father founded the Benihana restaurant chain.

Choksi, who comes from a sketch improv and stand-up comedy background, believes that a big part of being a comedian is the ability to empathize and understand different perspectives not often reflected in the mainstream. On his show, that means speaking to “younger, multicultural, and millennial points of view.”

“Who you are is what the show will be,” said Choksi, who says he wants to avoid the celebrity gossip and obsession with the lives of the rich and the famous many talk shows seem to favor.

“Isn’t it screwed up how we’re analyzing their looks?” he asked. “As I’ve been doing comedy longer, empathy is a big word to me and important. I always want to have in fusing with what I do.”

“On the outside of being an outsider.”

Choksi grew up as a first-generation, Indian American, the son of immigrant parents from Gujarat, India. His mom is from Ahmedabad and his dad hails from Mumbai, a “proud Bombay-ian.” Choksi describes his dad as a “funny, confident Indian man.”

Choksi spent much of his childhood surrounded by a huge Indian American population in Texas. Growing up as a young Hindu boy with aspirations of being a comedian was not exactly the norm. There were many times when Choksi felt it was difficult to relate to family friends and kids his age.

“I was a small kid. I wasn’t really athletic, but I was funny.”

“My parents friends were mostly other Gujarati folks and their kids were kind of my only set of friends,” he recalled. “I’ve always had that feeling of being a little bit on the outside of being an outsider.”

Choksi remembers his mom asking him why being funny was so important to him. It was a question he just couldn’t answer; it had just always been a part of his identity.

“I was a small kid. I wasn’t really athletic, but I was funny,” he said. “I only enjoyed hanging around with funny people.”

His parents defied South Asian stereotypes, never pushing him into the typical professional career tracks of medicine, law, or engineering.

“I didn’t have those stereotypical parents like, ‘you have to do this, or you’re a shame on the family,'” said Choksi. “My dad is actually the type of guy who believes you have to love what you do.”

In elementary school, Choksi purchased comedy tapes, re-screened episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” and secretly watched “Eddie Murphy Raw” when no one was supervising. During English class one day, Choksi’s teacher asked him to define the word, “opera.” Choksi, always looking for a chance to add levity to the room, turned it into one of his first public performances.

“I sang the definition of an opera, just like an opera,” said Choksi, “and killed it.”

Weeks later, he was given a different word to define, and tried the same response. This time, his joke failed to land.

“I felt the same shame you feel even as an adult,” Choksi remembered. “Just that sweat, and that feeling like everyone thinks you suck. I felt early on the glory of crushing and the despair of bombing hard.”

For an aspiring comedian, the moments of failure carried an important lesson.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” said Choksi. “But you learn more from the bombing than from the killing.”

Saurin Choksi attributes his leap of faith to a full-time comedy career to his father.
“Leap of faith.”

Even as he built up his performing chops, to Choksi, the lack of relatable role models felt like a distinct disadvantage.

“I’m trying to think who was out there who looked brown. The guy who built Johnny Robots from ‘Short Circuit?’ The dude who operated the Temple of Doom from ‘Indiana Jones?'” said Choksi. “And then Appu came along and that was like a bummer, so you didn’t have too many people.”

In college, Choksi forged ahead into unknown territory, feeling his way along the comedy path as he went. He bought comedy books and booked local clubs where comedians were the background act to the booze and blaring television set.

“I didn’t know open mics existed. I didn’t know you could do an internship at the ‘Tonight Show.’ I would have done so if I had realized,” said Choksi. “I can’t tell you the number of bar shows I’ve done where they didn’t turn off the TV. To me, you’ve got to know to go to those places and hold your own, and in the beginning, you don’t always do well.”

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Choksi moved to Detroit in 2003, developing his skills on the Second City stage and paying the bills with day jobs writing code and programming at start-ups.

“Most of the times when I was performing in Michigan, I was performing, if not all, to a predominantly white audience,” said Choksi. “And I’m coming in as this Indian kid with experiences with things they might not know.”

For a comedian finding his own voice, including stories about race and personal experience was essential to his work.

“My culture is not that I’m Indian, but that I’m a Hindu first-generation child of immigrants who grew up in Texas. I want to talk about the experiences because it’s all I can talk about. How can I talk about stuff that’s not about experiences?” Choksi asked.

By 2012, Choksi has moved to Chicago. He was ready to focus on comedy full-time, but unsure how to do it. Far from home, it was a conversation with his father that ended up pushing him over the line.

Over a single phone call, father urged son to give up his safe, 9-5 job, to throw all his energy into making his comedy dreams a reality. The call was just the nudge that Choksi needed.

“Having this conversation with my dad, preparing to just focus on comedy instead of having to work a 40-hour job, and then I feel like by doing that, I eventually got to a place where I could get by doing comedy,” said Choksi.

He quit his job and spent two years living off savings and devoting himself, full-time, to comedy. Eventually, he moved to New York, emboldened to take on comedy’s premiere city.

“I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t sort of made the leap of faith,” reflected Choski, “where I’m going to quit my job and give it everything I’ve got.”

“I had some cool things happen.”

By 2014, Choksi had racked up some big wins in the comedy world: first place at the Boston Comedy Festival, Funny or Die’s Oddball Festival Side Stage, and The Onion’s 26th Annual Comedy Festival. He also landed a TV appearance on “Funny Talk” with Andy Boyle in the Laugh Factory where he laid into his fellow Chicagoans and their summertime habits.

“White people are allergic to the goddamn sun, are you kidding me?,” joked Choski. “How did they get past the Stone Age?”

Choksi’s voice was finally being heard. His appearances and performances led him to an audition for a-then-untitled talk show.

“I just came to New York, crashing on couches, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I auditioned for this show and I didn’t exactly know what it was. But I got a call back, and in between, I had some cool things happen.”

That audition turned into a job co-hosting “White Guy Talk Show.” Choksi has made a home, with three fellow stand-up comedian roommates, in Brooklyn. And he says he’s proud to be part of the rising tide of South Asians making their mark on stage and screen.

“There’s Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Russell Peters,” he said. “I hope little kids are seeing all these folks and having their perspectives larger than maybe when I had when I was a kid.”

Saurin Choksi and Grace Parra host Fuse’s White Guy Talk Show.

Amma & Appa on Marriage and the Union of Two Families

Monica Luhar for The Aerogram, April 12, 2015


Jayakrishnan (“Jay”) Subramanian’s parents would have been thrilled if their son had decided to carry on the tradition of an arranged marriage with a suitable South Indian girl of choice. But Jay, a Tamil artist, is the first in his family to have fallen in love with someone before marriage.

Amma & Appa — which translates to mother and father in Tamil — is a documentary based on the love story of director Franziska Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan Subramanian. The film also centers around the first encounter between their parents — each with their own different set of beliefs when it comes to love and arranged marriage.

The Subramanians were initially shocked and disappointed over their son’s choice, but now they must come to terms and welcome their soon-to-be daughter-in-law Franziska, a Bavarian German woman working as a journalist. The couple kept their relationship a secret for at least a year until the anxiety of meeting Jay’s parents simmered down.

amma.appa.2When Franziska’s parents travel from Bavaria, Germany, to a small town in Tamil Nadu to visit their daughter’s soon-to-be Amma and Appa, they attempt to set aside cultural differences. But, there are roadblocks along the way.

Franziska weighs in on her parent’s encounter with Jay’s parents:

For my parents, it’s the first visit to India, and for the Indian parents it will be the first encounter with foreigners. While my parents married out of love, the marriage of Jay’s parents was entirely traditionally arranged. It was thus a great shock to Jay’s parents to learn that their son now wished to marry out of love. And what is more: a white girl from Germany. His decision challenged their traditions and their faith.

Each family attempts to assimilate and make adjustments to make the other feel comfortable for the sake of their children’s happiness. But it’s not always rainbows and sunshine.

There are some major differences and nail-biting moments that cause the parents to reevaluate and reconsider whether their children can actually go through with marriage. Pet peeves and other striking differences cause tension, but it’s not enough to disrupt the love each parent has for his or her child.

For instance, Franziska’s father believes alcohol should be consumed in moderation, whereas Jay’s father vehemently opposes alcohol and has never had a drop of alcohol in his life. Jay’s parents had an arranged marriage, and they can’t quite fathom the idea of someone having a love marriage — let alone their son. Franziska’s parents, on the other hand, had a love marriage. Jay’s Amma, or mother, halted her dreams of becoming a teacher in order to fulfill her duty as a wife. She had an arranged marriage with Jay’s father and did everything in her power to delay marriage so that she could complete her education.

amma.appaIn a heartwarming scene, Jay’s father attempts to assemble a table upon the arrival of Franziska’s parents. For as long as he remembers, Jay has always had food on the floor, rather than a dinner table. Traditional South Indian food was always served on banana leaves, without utensils. And this, of course, is a totally new custom for the Schönenberger family.

But both parents find a way to trade unfamiliar customs and come to terms with understanding one another. This starts with embracing the unconventional: Learning how to wear a sari, eating food placed on a banana leaf, celebrating an arranged marriage in town, and trading recipes for medicinal plants traditionally grown in backyards in Tamil Nadu.

But Jay’s parents are not afraid to express their concern over the possibility of losing their son to marriage and not having an Indian daughter-in-law to look after the family in Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu, the daughter-in-law is assumed to look after her mother and father-in-laws, but that wouldn’t be the case if Jay and Franziska decided to move to Germany. They mention that it is not the norm to marry outside the caste system, let alone a European woman.

Amma & Appa is a heartwarming story that brings two completely different families together to celebrate the love between their children. The folk-inspired animation throughout the documentary provides a beautiful way of telling a story that is not always easy to document. After all, the parents have agreed to be filmed at any given time without being censored. But the raw, and humorous everyday interactions of these families creates a story that helps viewers connect to something that is universal: Love.

Reporter’s note: Amma and Appa had its Los Angeles premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on April 11. The premiere comes in the midst of a bittersweet time: Jay’s father passed away shortly before the screening.

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Monica Luhar is a digital producer and freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Connect with her via Twitter: @monicaluhar.

Bill Seeks to Reduce Prescription Drug-Related Deaths in California

Monica Luhar for KCET, Published April 7, 2015


Prescription drug abuse is among the top leading causes of death in L.A. County. To address the epidemic here and across California, Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) last month introduced new legislation limiting access to opioids — medications, like OxyContin, morphine, and codeine, that alleviate pain.

One of the main features of AB 623 would be to allow health care providers to prescribe pain relievers that take the form of abuse-deterrent opioids. Described as ADF, for abuse-deterrent formula, this type of medicine blocks the effect drug abusers seek when the pill is manipulated by crushing, cutting, or dissolving.

The bill would also help pharmacists instruct patients on how to protect oneself from harm by properly storing and disposing the medicine and for health care providers to write prescriptions for less than 30-days.

According to the CDC, prescription drug overdose in people ages 25 to 64 caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012. Out of the 22,767 related pharmaceutical overdose deaths in 2013, approximately 71 percent involved opioid or prescription pain relievers, reports the CDC.

People susceptible to drug abuse often crush, snort, or inject opioid drugs into their system. Alternatively, ADF medication is not easily destructible, which makes it difficult to abuse or sell on the streets.

In L.A. County alone, 8,265 drug-related deaths occurred between 2000 and 2009. According to a study published in 2013 by the Department of Public of Health, approximately 61 percent of those deaths involved an over-the-counter prescription drug.

“Pills without ADF have high street value, so people who don’t abuse them can make a lot of money selling them. There is not one solve-all solution to this problem. The White House, FDA, and others have identified multiple steps that can be taken to reduce abuse. AB 623 addresses a few of them,” explained Wood, a dentist by trade. “Tragically, I also saw my share of people attempting to engage in ‘doctor shopping’ to feed an addiction or pattern of abuse.”

Wood said the FDA is currently in the process of drafting a guidance document that would require any new opioid on the market to include ADF technology to reduce opioid abuse. “The FDA considers the development of these products a high public health priority and continues to strongly encourage development of opioids that deter abuse.”

Under current law, physicians are required to explain the dangers of opioid abuse, and enter specific prescription information about controlled substances into a special database called CURES. “AB 623 would ensure that if a physician writes a prescription for 10 days, only that amount will be dispensed,” Wood noted.

Mendocino County, which is represented by Wood, currently has nearly double the statewide average of deaths and rehabilitation from prescription drugs, he told KCET in an email. He added that while AB 623 will not completely stop the abuse of prescription drugs, it does contain some important steps that will reduce it.

“If patients get only the pills they need, there won’t be extras for people to abuse or sell on the street,” he said. “This is an important step toward addressing our rapidly growing prescription drug abuse problem and now is the time to make these changes.”

Clarity for Social Media Accounts of the Deceased Sought in Bill

Monica Luhar for KCET – March 16, 2015


A state lawmaker has introduced a bill to protect a deceased person’s digital assets or electronic communications. | Photo: Anonymous Account/Flickr/Creative Commons

When you or a loved one passes on, what exactly happens to their digital information?

Many social media services offer privacy settings to prevent unwanted access or identity theft, but there is no standard process for disclosing or hiding information once a user passes away.

Assemblymember Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) is seeking just that with a bill to protect a deceased person’s digital assets or electronic communication. AB 691, the Privacy Expectation Afterlife and Choices Act, would apply to social media, e-mail, audio recordings, photos, and any other form of electronic communication stored on a computer.

Under the bill, a decedent would be allowed to grant their loved one’s access to their accounts through a written will or an online setting through the product or service, said Calderon. He believes individual users should be the one to decide what to do with their digital assets, not the online company providing the service.

“Often times, families attempt to contact the online company to access their loved one’s online information, but this can be cumbersome. And as we’ve seen in the past, it can lead to a court battle between the family and the online company,” Calderon told KCET in an email.

Some large social media networks like Facebook already allow users to report a deceased person’s account. AB 691 would complement those policies, Calderon said.

Facebook most recently added the “Legacy Contact” feature which allows a user to designate a trusted family member or close companion in the event that he or she passes.

Benjamin Orzeske, spokesperson for the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uniformity of state laws across the nation, says law has not kept pace with the evolving nature of digital property.

When people pass on, courts usually appoint another person, or fiduciary to manage assets, or property, he said.

“A generation ago, we kept our files in file cabinets, photos in photo albums, and a human being delivered our mail,” Orzeske explained in an email. “Today, many of us use the Internet to perform the same functions.”