Nitesh starred at the long stretch of highway in front of him. “I shouldn’t have taken this gig,” he thought out loud. The sun was starting to set and he was about an hour away from his destination. The closer the GPS said he got to the bar the tighter the knots in his stomach became.
A few months earlier, Nitesh got an email from a fan of his. It read:
Dear Mr. Chowdry,
I’m a huge fan of your work. I have been speaking to a bar in my area to set up a monthly comedy show and I would love to have come in headline one our shows! I think your brand of high energy political comedy is exactly what this community needs to hear! Please let me know what you charge for a 45 minute set. I can offer free food and drinks as well. Thank you for your consideration.
Bill Burnshowser Jr.
It was such a kind hearted email it was difficult for Nitesh to say no. From the moment he confirmed the date he knew this would be a nightmare gig regardless of the pay. He had done enough of these country gigs in 18 years of comedy to know how it’ll end.
About 3 years earlier, he taken a gig at a fire hall about 2 hours out of town. The headliner of that show decided to get drunk at the bar next door and pass out in the bathroom in his own sick. This meant Nitesh had to take his spot as the show must always go on. He tried to do his cleanest and least ideological jokes, but eventually the crowd’s racist heckles about Nitesh’s heritage pushed his buttons and he unloaded a rant about the effects of late-stage Capitalism on rural areas. The crowd boo’d him for a half an hour. As he floundered, Nitesh realized he couldn’t get off stage until his time was done because that’s the only way the booker would pay him.
The booker walked up to Nitesh after his set and said “If you want to make it in this business, you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Nobody cares what you believe in. Nobody gives a shit if you’re smart. They just want you to be funny!”
Nitesh smiled, nodded and took the cash, thinking “What the hell do you know?!” He was used to the vague, bullshit advice from elder comics, but it always frustrated him. But he wanted to prove them wrong. Nitesh wanted to show people that you can be caring, intelligent and express what you believe and still be funny! So he continues to takes gigs like this.
This mission had taken its toll on Nitesh though. He makes enough money to survive by touring 40 weeks of the year and taking at least 3 weekends of headlining gigs in his hometown. But in the years of touring he’s missed birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions, holidays and at least one barmitzvah. His excessive touring led to a quick, but emotionally taxing divorce and he hasn’t spoken to multiple members of his family in at least 5 years. Comedy was all he had now.
The GPS says he is 15 minutes from the venue. The knots get tighter. “I wish I still smoked,” Nitesh thought. It was getting harder for Nitesh to enjoy the life of a touring comedian. Gigs like this one were becoming more and more the norm. He wasn’t getting booked on the hip indie shows in some of the larger and even mid sized cities. The emails from those bookers say he’s too controversial to book even though their politics and philosophy align with his material.
Nitesh was tired. He was tired of fighting to be heard all the time. He was tired of the rejections. He was tired of his body aching constantly from the long drives. And he was tired of the lonely hotel rooms. Nitesh was ready to hang up the microphone.
“You are now approaching your destination”, the GPS reminded. Nitesh pulled into the parking lot in his worn out sedan. “At least there’s a fucking parking lot this time,” he thought.
He walked in and there were pictures of beaches up on the walls, tiny fake palm trees and cups shaped like coconuts everywhere. It was a Caribbean themed bar. This was new to Nitesh. 18 years of comedy and he had never performed inside a theme restaurant. He wondered if he should do some island themed jokes tonight, just for the hell of it. Laughingly to himself he knew he never would.
He walked up and sat at the bar. A middled-aged skinny black man in a tan shirt walked up to him and asks him what he’d like to drink.
“Oh I’m ok. I’m actually the comic for the evening. Is Bill around?” He asked.
“Oh, you’re the guy!” Exclaimed the bartender, “I’ll go get him for you. I’m Walter by the way. I’m bartending tonight but I’m also the owner.”
“Oh wow! How’d you get stuck taking the bartending shift on comedy night?”
“Oh my staff wanted to see the show, so I gave them the night off to enjoy the evening. So my wife and I are holding down the bar!”
“That’s very kind of you Walter! I hope I don’t disappoint them on their special night off!”
Walter laughs. “You’re getting a head start on the jokes. I’ll go get Bill and a drink for you…on the house of course!”
Nitesh orders a gin and tonic. He wasn’t a big drinker, but he didn’t want to be rude. Besides the booze might take the edge off what Nitesh knew would be a tough night. As he waits he thinks back to the elder comic. He thinks about abandoning his actual material and doing something that would suit the room more. As he ruminated, he looks up to see a heavyset black walk, dressed to the 9s, walking up to him, grinning form ear to ear!
“My gosh you’re actually here! In the flesh and everything!” Bill exclaimed.
“Bill, hey! Thank you for having me here!” Nitesh replied.
Bill was dressed in a white, 3 piece suite with a fedora, with a quill in it. He looked like the Kingpin, if the Kingpin smiled more…and wasn’t evil. “I’ve been listening to your albums and watching your videos online for years! I showed some to the owner too. They really loved it. This is so exciting that you’re here!”
“Me too! So where’s the show taking place?”
Bill takes Nitesh around the bar to the back room. It was huge open space with rows of picnic tables. The room was packed, even though the show didn’t start for another hour. There were more beach photos on the wall. Some of the photos were from an old vacation Walter and wife took. There was one that was clearly Walter buried in the sand with his wife standing proudly over him. Bill pointed to the front of the room with a large barren space with a huge backdrop of a beach sunrise. Behind that was an actual stage where the DJ had set up shop.
Nitesh sighed on the inside.
“At least this place has some kind of a stage” he thought. The last bar he performed, the “stage” was a literal soapbox. It only seemed appropriate Nitesh do his bit about why Billionaires suck. He was booed this time too. As he rolled his eyes, he lost balance and fell off the soapbox stage. It was biggest laugh he’d gotten all night.
Walter brings over Nitesh’s drink. Nitesh finds a seat in the back of the room to watch the show. At this point, virtually everyone in the room had lit a cigarette. The air became thick with smoke. As a former smoker in a stressful situation, Nitesh was feeling the urge to break his nicotine sobriety. “I’d take a few deep breaths if that didn’t make my craving worse,” he thought.
He fidgeted with his fingers and held strong not to bum one from a stranger.
There were 4 comics performing before Nitesh, plus the host. After his set there would be a raffle. This was looking like it was going to be a very long night. He found a seat in the back of the room to watch the show. The crowd was a majority black crowd. Nitesh had no issues performing in front of an all black crowd. As long as he remained confident and authentic he had nothing to worry about. Even if it was an all black crowd, Nitesh’s policy was to treat every crowd the same and show them the same level of respect he’d want from them.
“What’s wrong with you?!” Nitesh remembers a comic saying to him when he expressed this sentiment. “You have to be more high energy with all black crowds. They don’t want to hear your sermons! They just want to be entertained! Man you’re the reason why places shut down comedy nights! Just be funny for fucks sake!”
“Maybe that guy was right,” thought Nitesh as he observed a few people hugging and laughing with each other at the table in front of him. He smiled and remembered that last time he performed for an all black crowd.
It was a really nice stage and an intimate room. The crowd was on fire. They were willing to go wherever the comics took them. Nitesh remembers having a really great set…for the most part. The beginning of his set was about his heritage and growing up as an immigrant’s kid. It turns out there’s a lot of similarities growing up as a lower-middle class immigrant and a lower-middle class black person. He got at least 4 applause breaks in first 15 minutes of his set.
And then he transitioned…
“There’s a lot of hypocrisies in all religions, you know. Like a lot of religions, including Hinduism, can be rather homophobic and against the LGBTQ community. Which is crazy, because Jesus was most definitely bisexual! I mean come on, doesn’t it sound like Judas had a thing with Jesus right before he hooks up with Mary Magdalene!?”
The crowd went silent, abruptly. Nitesh was a bit shocked at how quickly the temperature of the room shifted. One woman stood up in the middle of the room and pointed at Nitesh and yelled, “Booo! Boo this man for Jesus!” And then they did.
“Lets be light on the religious jokes tonight,” Nitesh thought to himself. He was getting tired of all the boos.
The show started with Bill Burnshower Jr. introducing himself and the concept of the show. Then the DJ spun a track to bring up the host. It was really well coordinated and got everyone in the room hyped up for the show. Even Nitesh started feeling a bit more upbeat.
The host was pretty good at keeping the crowd hyped up. The jokes were a little hokey, but the delivery and timing were immaculate. The host was a showman and he put on a show. He closed his set with a family story and bounced from one side of the stage area to the other. The physical stamina this man had was incredible. In 10 minutes he had worked up a sweat. As he began to introduce the next comedian, he started wiping the sweat from his brow with a thick green hand towel.
The first 3 comics to go up were carbon copies of each other with different clothing and catchphrases. These 3 comedians did an impression of what people would expect to see at a Night at the Apollo. They ribbed on the audience, made countless sexual advances towards someone’s mother, talked about how large their penises were and wrapped up that segment by viscerally depicting their orgasms. Each depiction received an applause break. Each one of them closed with a dramatic rendition of different R&B songs, which also received an applause break. In between each comedian, the host would keep the energy going and the drinks flowing!
Each comedian made Nitesh cringe on the inside more than the last. By the time the fourth comedian was about to be introduced, Nitesh felt the need to step outside for air. He had to prepare himself for the fight this crowd was going to give him. The host introduces the comedian: “Ladies and Gentlemen please a big round of applause for Baltimore’s, Regina Carlow!”
Regina was a petite black woman in a Nirvana hoodie and dark lip stick. She walked up with her hood up and opened her set with a story about dealing with depression. This caught Nitesh’s attention. Most of her set was about how she’s coped and dealt with mental health concerns and the struggles of being a quirky, punk-rock loving, black woman. The material was insightful, witty and interesting. It had been a while since Nitesh had heard something like this.
As she kept going, the crowd grew more and more silent. The only sounds of laughter came from Nitesh. But he also knew that he shared a similar fate to Regina. Silence he can handle just fine. Oddly enough he wasn’t tired of silence.
She wrapped up her set and walked off the stage area. Nitesh stopped her right before the host was going to introduce him and said: “You were fantastic! I’m not sure the crowd really understood how funny you were! Please keep going! Your voice and who you are is very much needed in comedy.” She thanked him and walked out of the bar.
Nitesh hoped that she doesn’t quit. Her voice truly was important. The host said Nitesh’s name and he walked up on to the stage area as a Nas track starts playing. Nitesh laughs and wondered if Bill told him to play this artist. Either way, if Nas is on the playlist, maybe this show isn’t going to be as bad as he thought. He grabs the mic and starts his set.
“Hey everyone, thanks for being here! A big round of applause for all the comics you’ve seen tonight and for the bartenders keeping everyone liquored up for this evening.”
The crowd applauds and cheers.
“And another round of applause for the DJ for playing a rad fuckin Nas song! Y’all fuck with Nas here?”
The crowd is silent. Some people start shaking their heads ‘no’.
“All right then,” Nitesh continued, “So my name is Nitesh, and if that sounds odd to you it’s because I’m a foreigner. I hail from India, which means my English is better than yours because I speak the Queen’s English!”
A chuckles filter up to the stage from various corners of the room.
“Its interesting growing up in the states as an immigrant. A lot of times you get really odd questions…”
“Say something in Indian!” A voice cried out from the audience.
“Like that one!” Nitesh responded. The audience laughs at his retort.
“Come on man! Say something in Indian real quick!” The voice cried out again.
Nitesh turned to his right and saw a very drunk black couple giggling to themselves. “Look dude, there’s over 30 languages in India. If you name one, I’ll say one word in that language and then we move on. Cool?”
“Yeah man, speak that Indochinese or whatever! You know the one!” The heckler responded as he giggled through his sentence.
“That’s not a language. It is a type of food!” Another good laugh from the crowd. Nitesh still had a chance to swing out of this interaction and recover the set. “Look I’ll give you a freebie. Chup Ra-ho. That means be quiet. Now be quiet so the adults can talk!”
Nitesh switched back to his material, but the heckler didn’t stop. He had now started yelling yoga poses at Nitesh in the middle of his jokes. Most of them were made up poses. Nitesh noticed, an older woman giving this couple more drinks and egging them on to keep disrupting the show. He heard her say “Ask him say some Indian shit like chow-cho, bow-cho and do a Bollywood dance or something! Spice this show up instead of this boring crap!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Nitesh yelled, “These guys are way over served and you’re getting them more drinks! That’s so irresponsible. Not only for the show, but in life!”
“Excuse me!?” The elderly woman replies in shock.
“These two have been interrupting my set from the word go because they’re hammered! And now you’re giving them more alcohol and encouraging their racist disruptions! You know everyone else paid to be here just like you did, so if you’re not going to show me some respect you can at least show your neighbors some!”
The crowd started getting on Nitesh’s side a bit more. But there are still a few folks in the middle of the room that don’t care for Nitesh’s humor.
“Maybe you should talk about shit we care about, not some political agendas that want to strip my freedom away!” An elderly man yelled.
“Let him do his jokes, Redd! If you don’t like them then go outside you old coot! You have the freedom to leave. I didn’t give up my bar shift so you could pretend other people’s beliefs don’t matter!” Another woman yelled!
Things were getting out of hand. Nitesh turned to the DJ and asked him to scratch the record to get the crowd’s attention. So the DJ did and the crowd fell silent.
“Ok, everyone settle down,” Nitesh began. “Look I have one story I want to tell. Just one from start to finish. And I promise you if you stick with me at the end, every single person in this room will get something out of it! After this story, I’ll be off stage and you guys continue drinking or whatever!”
Nitesh prepared to close his train wreck of a set with a story about his ex-wife’s uncle who accidentally made a racist comment to him. And when he got called out for it, he lashed out in embarrassment and went to the garage. After reflecting on what he did, he came back to apologize in his own particular way, by making a less off-color joke.
But within the first 3 minutes of starting the story the hecklers were at it again. The crowd was getting exhausted of the fight just as much as Nitesh was. He looked at the clock on his phone. The timer read 38 minutes. He turned to the DJ and said “Kick up the Nas, Mr. DJ. I’m out.” Nitesh turns to the few audience members still paying attention and says, “I’m sorry!” He walks off stage.
The host rushes up to the stage area and grabs the mic. “Nitesh Chowdry everyone!” There’s a smattering of applause as Nitesh makes his way to the back of the bar. Walter sets a drink down in front of him.
“On the house, again! That one was our bad. We didn’t know that lady kept buying drinks for them. I had cut them off in the middle of show when they were already drunk. I should’ve been keeping a better on the situation!”
“Don’t stress it, Walter. I appreciate the drink. I’m sorry to turn your venue into a den of chaos.” Nitesh replied.
“What?! Hey, I really like your material man. Bill showed us some of it earlier. I didn’t agree with everything, but you got me thinking about some things. Plus even the jokes I didn’t agree with I enjoyed anyway. You’re a smart dude. Keep that shit up man. We need voices like yours. Eventually they’ll have no choice but to listen!”
“Wow, that’s an incredibly kind thing to say. Thank you Walter. That means a lot!”
At the same time as Nitesh & Walter’s conversation, things continued to get out of hand at the stage area. The host confronted the heckler by calling their table a “rowdy, disrespectful bunch of fools”. The heckler took heavy offense to that decided to threaten the host. The host responded by telling the heckler, “If you’re really tough then you’d be able to do what I do!”
The heckler walks up and takes the mic out of the hosts hands. “This shit ain’t all that hard!” He claims. The host takes a few steps back. The heckler begins:
“Ok, ok ok! So ya’ll ever just be walking to church! But you know you can’t just walk into church like a bitch, you walk in with style right!? Even though you’re hungover as hell from all that partyin’ you been doin’ the night before and shit!”
As the heckler starts his story, Walter notices what’s happening on stage. He looks at Nitesh and says, “Excuse me for a moment.” He walks towards the stage, still standing behind the bar and points at the heckler and screams: “BOOO! FUCKIN BOOO! BOOO THIS MAN! FUCKIN’ BOO!!” The whole room in unison begins booing the heckler! The cacophony of a single sound made the heckler stagger backwards. Nitesh had never witnessed a venue owner booing a heckler before.
“Ok, ok!” He tried to retaliate. “Y’all booing Jesus! You see that! That’s our lord Jesus that I be talkin’ about! Fuck all y’all!” But the ‘boos’ were way too loud! The host grabbed the mic back and the heckler walked back to his seat and the boos subsided. Bill walked up to the stage in disappointment and turns to the table of hecklers.
“Wow, um. I don’t really know what to say. Nitesh drove many hours to be here and I really wish you guys would’ve heard him out. I’m embarrassed of my community right now. But the show keeps goin on so I guess it’s time for the raffle!”
After the raffle was called, Bill profusely apologized to Nitesh for what happened and offered to add extra pay to cover all of Nitesh’s expenses.
“Bill, it’s ok. Just make sure you keep an eye out of hecklers and drunks next time. I appreciate you having me here. There’s a lot of potential here.”
Bill handed Nitesh the check in an envelope and gave him a hug. On his way out, Nitesh runs into the heckler and his girlfriend by the bar. The first 3 comedians were drinking right be the guy. The heckler puts his hand out to shake and says, “Lets bury the hatchet. We both fucked up and we both can be the bigger men!”
“What, no! I didn’t fuck up, that was all you man.” Nitesh replied.
“Come on man, let’s just bury the hatchet. I’m forgiving you for embarrassing me!”
“Embarrassing you? You did that to yourself pal!”
“They’re just jokes dude! Get over it! Aren’t comedians supposed to be able to take jokes!” The heckler spits into his hand and puts it back out to shake. Nitesh grimaces. The other comedians at the bar see Nitesh’s face and get involved.
“That’s fuckin’ gross bro!” The first one says.
“Why would you think that would make your offer better!?” The second one chimed in.
“This is how you spread diseases you idiot! Look at you, man! You probably got some kind of old colonial disease too! Get the fuck outta here, you gross ass bitch!” The last one said.
Embarrassed, the heckler wiped his hand on his pants, mumbled some curse words under his breath and stumbled out the door.
“Sorry about your set, bro. That sucks. Sounded like tight jokes though! I wish I would’ve been able to hear them, bro!” The first comedian said.
Nitesh thanked him, shook their hands and walked out the door. Right before he leaves, Walter reminds him that his voice is important and he should keep going. Nitesh smiles, shuts the door and walks to his car. He sits and starts his GPS to the hotel room. As he began his hour long drive, he smiled again reminiscing about the night’s events. He thought “Maybe I’ll quit next year.”