By John Ortved
Photos by Meredith Jenks
Pursuing Nimesh Patel’s shows might land you in some unexpected places, like the back of some Brooklyn recording studio that’s been transformed into a small theater. Wood everywhere; it looks something between a chapel and a cedar closet. You might feel a little out of character. You’re here because of Nimesh Patel, the comedian, who is between sets at the Comedy Cellar and doing this for a promoter friend. He is currently at the front of the room, on the mic, disassembling a heckler.
The heckler isn’t a real heckler. They’re just drunk and don’t realize their interruptions are one, not funny and two, ruining the show for others. They’re drinking Hennessy from a bottle, with a straw. Nimesh asked what led to that decision. The heckler says they didn’t want to drink out of a plastic cup anymore; they thought the bottle would be fancier. “It’s the exact opposite,” Nimesh says. “It’s a clear way to tell the world you don’t care about yourself; or turtles.” Some people get it; this one certainly does not. He continues: “Straws kill turtles. I don’t care about turtles but some white lady in the audience does. What have turtles ever done for me other than maybe help find Nemo?”
Twenty minutes later we’re out front of the Village Underground (one of three locations near Macdougal and West 3rd Street that make up The Comedy Cellar) and he’s hugging Judd Apatow. It’s been a big year for Nimesh. In 2017 he was hired as a writer on SNL, working on their “Weekend Update” — a first for an Indian-American, which is not a detail Nimesh would like to hang his hat on. “Progress takes time. That’s why it’s called ‘progress’ and not ‘instantaneous’,” he says. The year before, Chris Rock hired him to write for the Oscars, and in-between he’s sold some pilots, passed at the Cellar (that’s what the comedy mafia calls it when they let you work there), written for the White House Correspondents dinner and become one of the most simmering comedic talents in the industry. The only question is what he wants to do next.
A few days later, sitting over lunch, he’s on about a different conundrum. A popular Comedy Central series cast him as “The Hot Guy,” which is funny for him, not because of anything to do with his ethnicity, but because saying “yes” to the role became a decision about his diet. The camera adds ten pounds. “I’d rather not eat shitty food for the next 10 days,” he tells us.
That said, the notion of changing modes, and being the “first Indian” this or that, or just the adjective “Indian” before whatever follows, is in the air. Nimesh often jokes about “riding the brown wave” of comedy that has seen Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, and others come to prominence. But his take is somewhere between a throwaway shrug and a cynical dose of opportunism mixed with some damn solid logic.
“It’s weird to me that this industry is supposed to be run by very smart people and yet they don’t understand demographics,” he says, laughing at the surprise the media shows when movies like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians do well. “If you put Patel on the back of an NBA jersey right now, his jersey would be the biggest seller on the planet. Overnight, Jeremy Lin was the most famous athlete on the planet. But that wasn’t enough for the people at the helm of Hollywood to say, ‘Holy shit, maybe we should be looking at people who are not white to be in shows’. How do you not see that? It’s marketing 101.”
Patel’s own background is New Jersey, where his father ran liquor stores, first in East Orange, and then in Irvington — “the worst.” Dad was shot at more than a few times and only left the business when he was held down on the floor with a gun to his head. Nimesh, raised in the nicer neighborhood of Parsippany, remembers waiting anxiously for his dad to come home at night. “We always know Dad closed the store at 11:00, he should be home at 11:40, latest. Because otherwise, you know some shit went down.”
The experience places him in a category of South-Asian-Americans (he says “brown people”) that the media portrays less often: those whose parents weren’t doctors or engineers, but worked in liquor stores, or drove cabs. You think this would inspire him to work on some sort of “Atlanta” about his experience, but no, he’s in love with 3-camera sitcoms: “I want to do Cheers,” he says.
Before now, Nimesh worked in finance, assisting analysts at midtown hedge funds. He’s really only been full-time funny for a few years. Before it shut down, you could have seen him hosting and performing on Monday nights at Matchless bar, in Williamsburg. That’s where Chris Rock found him in 2015. “He’s got a very distinctive laugh. I heard that, and everything else is a blur,” Nimesh says. Here’s the joke that got him:t the time, the Internet was very upset about a lion, named Cecil, that a trophy hunter had killed in Zimbabwe. “I was like, ‘I had four chickens today. Why do you care about lions? Lions are stupid. The hypocrisy is insane’. [Chris Rock] died at that. And I wrote it in the bathroom.”
Attention from Rock got him attention from producers, and then the Oscars, and more writing gigs — on TruTV comedy shows, on pilots, on Rock’s movies — and more opportunities. Last September, he got an Instagram DM from SNL’s Michael Che saying, “Congrats fucker you now work at SNL.” It was tough, digesting a constant stream of news, “Like drinking from a firehose,” he says. He didn’t return this year, but he remains in awe of the comic writers — like his friend Che — who can do it, and sees the experience as invaluable (“I’m in pretty good company with one-and-done.”) It made him a better comic, squeezing in sets when he could. “People say, ‘are the hours [at SNL] crazy?’ Not if you've had a day job before,” he says.
Outside the recording studio, he reflects a little. “That was a fun show; sometimes it’s nice to get a reminder that you’re funny.” And then he immediately looks to the future. “This is the year I want to do more autobiographical stuff. I haven’t done a lot of it before. I’m smacking myself in the head saying why didn’t I do this earlier?”
If you ask him what he'd like to do, he talks about Nathan Myhrvold, the former technology officer of Microsoft, and polymath, who has been as successful in finance and cuisine as he was in tech. But pressed further, he goes back to what he knows: “Indian doctors is a great thing but there are also bad Indian people. There are so many untold stories that I’m privileged to, just from living that I can’t wait to tell,” he says. “While doing standup.”
John Ortved is a New York City-based writer who watches altogether too much TV. His articles and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, the New York Times and Vogue. You can twitter him @jortved.