CW: This article references troubling world events. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
Nimesh Patel headlined the Warner Theatre on Nov. 11 in a controversial performance that touched on his Indian heritage.
An ornate Prohibition-era marquis greeted the crowds as we made our way in, giving us only a whiff of what was to come. The red-velvet-and-gold-painted detailing might normally be criticized as gaudy; however, everyone who enters the theater is immediately entranced by an opulence that extends even to the exit signs. From the sconces to the gold seals and vines that framed the stage, the environment evoked the sentiment “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” even from the youngest in the crowd.
Patel opened with the jokes with the most shock value, a common tactic used by recent comics. While these jokes run the risk of gasps and outrage, comics often would rather hear that than deafening silence.
Among these jokes, there was a story of a stripper who asked Patel to bring her under his wing and teach her comedy. He joked at the stereotypical trauma surrounding entrance to the industry and said that the stripper turned out to be Ron DeSantis. The Washington, D.C., audience seemed to love the seemingly made-up story because of how it poked fun at GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, despite an uncomfortable “ohh” when the hypothetical stripper trauma-dumped to Patel.
When asked how he got into comedy, Patel said comedy moreso happened to him, as he graduated with a degree in finance from New York University in 2008. After a pause that let the audience remember events that occurred the same year, the joke set in, leading to uproarious laughter. Patel said his friends who stayed in finance, however, are now millionaires.
Patel explained that when he went out to dinner with one such friend — who of course paid for the meal — his friend started bragging about how he manages billions of dollars now. Patel recalled replying, “I think I’ll stick to comedy,” despite regretting having spent hundreds of thousands of his parents’ dollars on NYU, a notoriously expensive school. Not only did his parents spend thousands on his tuition, they also tried to ensure he got into Columbia by cobbling together $1,000 for him to go to a summer business camp for high schoolers.
Patel’s teammates were CEOs and royalty — all too familiar to this Georgetown student — and he began to realize that his family was not, in fact, very rich. On the other hand, he came from, as he liked to call his family, “liquor store Indians.”
Patel said that he feels criticized for not telling enough Indian jokes, and promptly went into an explanation of the hierarchy established in the United States for Indian immigrants: doctors and hotel Indians, convenience and restaurant Indians and finally liquor store Indians, the latter of which pertains to his family. While the other Indian Americans might look down on liquor store Indians, Patel rhetorically asked, “where do they all come to drown their sorrows?”
Patel had recently discovered that people had been selling tickets to Indian weddings which “is the most Indian thing to do.” After describing what it would be like to go to an Indian wedding with him — starting at only $350 — Patel joked that his anxieties were his parents’ superstitions. His mom wouldn’t let him cut his nails after dark or enter a car with only three people. Even before finishing the coconut joke, I heard the women behind me say in tandem with Patel, “you always need a fourth.” This deep cut into Indian culture seemed to resonate with a large portion of the audience.
The set seemed to be euphoric for the crowd, as Indian culture has been largely underrepresented in stand-up comedy. And with the recent fall of comedy king Hasan Minhaj, there seems to be a gaping hole that Patel is starting to fill.
At this juncture, it is important to clarify: offensive jokes made for shock value are never classy, even when clever. Patel seemed to try to mask the low-brow punchlines with twists and turns in the plots of his comedy, but at times it must be said that his humor was clearly more meant to wound than to elicit genuine laughter.
In particular, Patel made several mean-spirited jokes poking fun at suicide, sex workers, and the Israel-Hamas war which might be hard to swallow even for some devoted fans. Granted, the way in which he slyly weaved personal stories into his jokes about his background made the audience cackle when they related, tapping into the shared experiences of his fanbase, but two things can be true: Patel can be a funny comedian who pushes the envelope at times, while still crossing the line at others.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-6985).