Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
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Q and A with Comedian Deepak Sethi, BSc'02
The Alumni Gazette (A.G.) had the opportunity to speak with comedy writer and stand-up comedian Deepak Sethi (D.S.), BSc’02 (Computer Science), recently following his visit to Western. We offer you this uncensored, unedited Q & A with a rising star in California’s cutthroat culture of comedy.
A.G. It’s obvious listening to you speak that family is important to you – in particular your Dad. When launching your career, was that a help or hindrance to a career in comedy and show business. And how does your family view your career now?
D.S. I think with my father it was definitely a help because he’s a fan of comedy. He’s one of the guys who would know “Richard Lewis did this joke.” He was a guy who would quote comedy. He’s always writing jokes for me now. He’s kind of a student of comedy. For me it was helpful to bounce ideas off someone. He kind of knows what’s funny and what isn’t. For me it was definitely a help.
A.G. And how does your family view your career now?
D.S. A lot of times you have to explain exactly what happens in Hollywood because it’s really confusing for a lot of people, and it’s confusing for myself as well. But they’re proud. They’re really proud. They love hearing stories about what I’m doing and what the next step is, and shows that I’m trying to sell and stuff that I’m pitching. I think it’s all a fun experience for everyone.
A.G. Do you draw any inspiration from Indian Canadian Russell Peter's success? What about your approach to comedy is similar and different?
D.S. I’m a huge fan of Russell Peters. I think he’s an amazing comedian. I was lucky enough to grow up in his circle of friends. So, I’ve known Russell since I was a little kid. So, I’m definitely influenced by him. Interestingly enough, I wrote a show for Comedy Central called Brickleberry. I wrote an episode going to guest star in.
Similarities? – I think Russell is a master of comedy and it’s hard for me to even strike (a comparison)… I don’t know if I can answer that. I’m too new. It’s too early. I think what Russell does so well is authentically tells a story and it doesn’t even feel like he’s doing comedy… it just happens and that’s what makes it so funny. If I could get there, that would be great. And one of the cool things is that Russell is going to watch my stand up tape and is going to give me some pointers. So, that’s really cool.
A.G. Part of what that question was leading to is that he uses real life and his family as source for material, … a later question I have, what inspires you… but do you draw on real life episodes for material?
D.S. Yes, I think as authentic as you can get, I think that’s the best part for comedy. If you can anchor your character’s jokes in something real, I think people appreciate that. I think one of the most telling lessons I learned is that the audience is really, really smart. They know if something is real. They know if you do a line (that’s not true) and they go “it doesn’t really sound like someone said that” or “You’re making that up.” I have that one line about my job was outsourced to India – and to my cousin. That line, a lot of people go “you made that up.” But I go “I swear to God, it sounds like I did but it really, really happened. That’s a real story. I think if you can draw on that, things are really funny when you’re telling something honestly.
A.G. So far, what is your favourite creative outlet for comedy? (writing, standup, etc)
D.S. Standup. I just started about 4 months ago (May or June 2012) But I love it… I did Yuk Yuk’s last Saturday in downtown Toronto. It was my first time doing a Canadian crowd. There’s something so pure about being able to make someone laugh, random strangers laugh. I think it’s exciting and thrilling. At the same time, the idea that you can go up and bomb in front of 300 people, I think that’s a drive for me. You want to do it even more.
But I love writing. I tweet a lot. I think Twitter is a great way to test jokes out. I think it’s a great way for you to go “is this funny – or is this not funny?” You immediately know if it’s good. I try to write every single day.
A.G. You mentioned in one of your discussions SCTV – were they an inspiration for you and is that kind of humour missing from Canadian television?
D.S. Absolutely. I think when I was a little kid, about 5 or 6 years old, my Dad used to make me watch SCTV with him. First of all, I didn’t realize it was a Canadian show. It was funny. There was kind of an innocence to it. They were all doing something they loved and they were doing it for the love of comedy instead of “hey, this is our stepping stone to becoming big.” I don’t think they could have ever seen how their careers could have exploded from SCTV.
I feel like that’s what we need in Canada, in Canadian television, something where we say you know what – this is our own thing. We like it because it’s funny to us – and if something else happens from it, that’s great. You know, Canadian TV doesn’t have to mimic American TV. It can be its own thing. But the only thing it really requires is a really good sense of what’s really funny and what isn’t. I think we try a lot… and still replicate. Instead of that, I think we should take chances and say “this is what we think is funny” and if it’s not funny, fine. At least we tried.
A.G. If you had carte blanche to change Canadian TV – or at least comedy on Canadian television, what would you do?
D.S. I would do stuff that pushes the line. I would do stuff that we, ourselves…light stuff… a little joke like in Canada we call that rapper “Jay-Zed” instead of Jay Zee. That’s light. At the same time, we can push… we can have a nice balance between light sense of humour and we can make fun of ourselves. Let’s make fun of ourselves for who we are. The idea that we have to be so politically correct, so that if someone from like Sri Lanka comes up (and we say) “Oh, we love your culture.” We should make fun of that. The fact that we are so scared of offending, that we’ve now become so ultra-politically correct. That we’re so scared of offending anyone, that we can’t offend anything at anywhere at any time.
That’s something we should laugh at and look at ourselves and go “come on, we can do this.” It’s funny that even Indians who have just moved here are now racist to other races. What a second, you’re an immigrant.
A.G. Is it easier to make a living as a comedian in Canada or the US and why?
D.S. I think if you find yourself funny, I think the success will find you. I think if you can make yourself laugh and you can keep doing it, I think the success finds you in multiple places. There are some comedians who are so big in other countries. It wasn’t like they were catering to those countries. They were making themselves laugh first. They kept doing it and then found a place. I think you find your own place. I hope that’s what I’ll continue to do, just worry about making me laugh. If I can do that, then everything else will fall into place.
A.G. Can you explain your advice of “being dumb” to aspiring writers approaching Hollywood with their scripts and ideas?
D.S. I think you have to be ignorant to the fact that the possibility/odds are way, way stacked against you for doing anything in L.A. The chances are very low. You have to go “I don’t care. I know this is a good script. I know what I’m writing is great.” That kind of confidence is what’s required. You kind of have to Braveheart away. You have to do it. You just have to go in and do it even though you’ve never sold anything, you have to keep doing it and keep thinking to yourself “my stuff is good and my stuff will make it and I can see this happening.” I think you have to keep doing that.
Eventually people will stop doubting you and say look, maybe he does, maybe he’s right.
That’s what I do. I have a long, long, long way to go but I just try to keep doing it. And I forgot I can fail. And failing is part of it.
A.G. Why is failure key to success in your experience?
D.S. I think you kind of have to fail continuously to understand at the end of the day it’s 99 people that rejected you and one person who said yes. “I got a yes.” That’s success. It’s not the 99 people who said ‘no’ to you. I think that’s important to learn for young writers that immediately you’re not going to get a “hey, this is so great.” You’re going to get a lot of no’s.
And I think once you start learning that no’s are part of the game, then you start becoming better at it. And then you start thinking “what can I learn from that rejection?” Even at standup comedy, if you did a bad set and you get booed off stage, a lot of people would say “forget about that.” Again, I would want to look at my tape and say “what did I do there that I can fix?” You learn from all the notes. You go, “okay, that was a rejection but what can I learn for the next time and come in with something better.”
A.G. Do you do that after a performance? Will you go over where you think it was weak or strong?
D.S. Yeah, I tape every single one of them. If I can analyze and make the joke better, it’s really helped me out. To help make me better. It’s really hard to look at that stuff. But you have to continuously do that. Writing as well. If you went out for a pitch and they said ‘no,’ I like to ask for feedback. I get some feedback and I try to get better.
Another good point I think I learned from other people was “it’s not personal.” It’s not “hey, we don’t like you – that’s why we’re saying this.” If you can divorce yourself from that, then you can learn and things become better.
D.S. When thinking of jokes, and having worked on shows like Family Guy that push the envelope, are there areas that are taboo or too far over the line for you? (What’s achieved by pushing the envelope in terms of comedy and an audience’s reaction?)
I think you can go too far… but I have a friend, a Canadian…. Did a 911 joke – elegant, innocent…. (better when it’s face to face) “I just got my teeth whitened around 911 and people would tell me my friend died, etc. And I would say ‘that’s terrible’ and then smile and show my teeth.” It’s not about 911 – it’s about a guy who got his teeth whitened at the wrong time.
It’s like taking an idea and saying I can unpack this and get to the funny part and it’s not just shock humour.
A.G. Do you think it’s important for a comedian to test the waters like that? I guess it’s the difference between playing it safe all the time and tackling things that are on the fringe.
D.S. Yeah, I think that’s the best part of comedy – trying to figure out where you can go. And you’re like “now we’re here – let’s do this.”
A.G. Where do you draw inspiration for your humour & comedy when writing or doing standup?
D.S. A lot through my family, a lot through my relationships. (Current events) I wrote a joke about how the NHL lockout is making all my dumb guy friends into advanced mathematicians. They just know everything about this collective bargaining agreement. But if you ever asked them about math, they’d be like, “I’m stupid.”
That’s just kind of social commentary. I like listening a lot. I think if you want to be a good writer you have to listen to people’s conversations. I was noticing in Canada that a lot of conversations are like “I heard it was going to be 24 (degrees) tomorrow. No, I heard it was going to be 15. No, CP 24 said 18.” We sound like this weird passive-aggressive what temperature will it be tomorrow. Etc. I don’t know why we do that, we just do that.
A.G. So, listening & timeliness are important?
D.S. Being timely is important. Reading the paper is important – I read about four or five newspapers a day and go through everything. At least I’m aware of stuff that’s happening.
A.G. And things like presidential debates that are driving everyone crazy?
D.S. I like Canadian politics and following that. And I think if you can read the news as much as possible, that helps.
If you brought our (Canadian) most right wing politician to the US, he’d be a democrat. He’d be a liberal. In Canada, there really isn’t a marijuana debate. There’s no two sides to it. It just doesn’t happen. We get it. A lot of the things we have conversations about here, Americans don’t have at all. I think they’re jealous, or interested in the fact we have a three party system. I say usually none of those parties work. We need three to make sure one operates at some level.
A.G. What role models in comedy did you have when you were younger? Biggest influences.
D.S. I loved John Candy. In terms of physical humour. He could deliver a line. A subtle way of delivering, even through his motions. Trains, Planes & Automobiles, one of my favourite movies. He perfected this character. If you read that script, and you say “who is going to play this guy?” because he has to be annoying but also loveable. And he nailed it. If you put anyone else there, it would be hard for someone. You have to have this guy who is so frustratingly annoying and at the same time you’re like “I like that guy.”
I love John Candy, Jim Carrey, Russell Peters especially. He was one of my biggest influences. And they’re all Canadian, which is great for us to have. You know who is (surprisingly) funny? Alan Thicke, who is a Western grad. He’s a funny actor, too and I know he loves Western.
A.G. You mentioned you were working on a musical and that it was personally important to you – why is that – and can you shed any light on the subject matter of your musical?
D.S. Because I watch so many of them. When I go to Vegas, friends will say “let’s go to a club,” trying to be cool. I’ll go to the bathroom and then go watch Phantom of the Opera and come back crying. They’ll say “that was a weird bathroom trip.”
I love musicals. I love the idea of moving people. I just watched “Rock of Ages” on Broadway and I liked it. The fact that I get to be involved in one from the beginning is exciting. I love every aspect of it. The only thing I can say is that it’s sort of like a “Rap of Ages”. Comedy – laugh and sing along (old school hip hop).
A.G. You have your foot in the door of many genres. And are there any other things going forward that you feel you MUST complete as a writer, etc – like a screenplay or an opera or a symphony?
D.S. I definitely want to write a children’s book. If you can write a children’s book and really make that age group laugh I think …. That’s one of my favourite things to do. To accomplish that feat would be interesting.
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