For local-born comedian, ethnicity is liberating and limiting

When Rajiv Satyal, a Cincinnati-born comic with first-generation Indian parents, started doing stand-up comedy in 2002, he said his minority status granted more opportunities than barriers.

“White and black comics serve so many,” he said. “So if you’re brown or yellow, you’re automatically different, though I can see how if it weren’t funny, people might say, ‘well, Indians shouldn’t do comedy.’ Race is the first thing anybody sees, but as long as you’re funny, there’s no reason to heckle you.”

Satyal lives in California now, but he’s coming home to do a show at the Aronoff Center for the Arts Saturday. To mark the occasion, Satyal plans to work in some jokes about UC (where he studied engineering), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (where he did a pair of co-ops), and how Dayton International Airport measures up in the city that invented flight. He said the makeup of his audience varies, often half Indian and half “everyone else.”

“I probably do 30 percent Indian jokes, but they’re tailored in such a way that everyone gets them,” he said. “Growing up in the heartland, I had to learn to make jokes that resonated for people who aren’t like me. My identity now is mainly that I’m short and bald. But the Asian audience has been very good to me. I couldn’t do what I do without them. I know a lot of comics like to say they reach everybody, but I did marketing at Procter and Gamble. I know who my market is.”

Indeed, after not doing any ethnic humor at all during his first few years in the business, Satyal participated in the Indian Comedy Tour, a government-sponsored outreach program that sent Satyal and two other Indian comics to India. (This $100,000 “comedy as diplomacy” effort caught the attention of libertarian Senator Rand Paul). He also started a podcast called “Funny Indian,” where he interviews other comics, actors, and even politicians.

Satyal said that while he was wary of being boxed in by this ethnicity, it at least allowed him greater leeway to make fun of other ethnicities.

“I’m a minority with no power to discriminate against anybody, so I can’t be racist, right?” he joked. “It doesn’t always work, though. I once saw a black comedian make a Korean joke, and there was just silence.”