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