A couple years ago, back when a certain movie about a certain game show that took place in a certain country on the South Asian subcontinent was a huge popular and critical success, comedian Paul Varghese started getting the question:
"Oh my God, you're Indian? Have you seen 'Slumdog Millionaire?' "
There's a simple answer to that, and there's Varghese's answer, which is far more telling - and way funnier. But that's for you to find out, when Varghese performs at 9 p.m. March 29 at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Paul Varghese will perform at 9 p.m. March 29 at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. A Texas native of Indian descent, Varghese mines both universal experience and his ethnic background for the smart, sharp-edged humor he features in his act.
A Texas native of Indian descent, Varghese mines both universal experience and his ethnic background for the smart, sharp-edged humor he features in his act. In particular, he draws considerable comedy from the space between "Indian" and "American." But any topic is fair game.
"I'm inspired by literally everything around me, from what happens to me directly, to overheard conversations, to stories that my friends and family have gone through," Varghese said. "I try to soak in everything around me at all times."
As a result, Varghese might tackle any situation, from the awkwardness of elementary school photo day, to unwanted parental dating advice, to an unexpected bonus of being Indian on an airplane. It's all about finding the common denominator that will let the comedian and his crowd see things from the same perspective.
"I enjoy making people laugh at what I think is funny," Varghese said. "I really strive to be creative and original with what I do, so I get a significant rush when a crowd also agrees with my sense of humor."
The crowd of Varghese fans has grown considerably since the University of North Texas graduate started doing stand-up in 2001.
After playing open-mics and clubs around Dallas, Varghese has appeared on NBC's "Last Comic Standing," Showtime's "Russell Peters Presents," and Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham" and "Gabriel Iglesias Presents Stand-up Revolution." He constantly tours, taking his show to colleges nationwide, and will release his first CD this upcoming summer.
Varghese approaches cross-cultural confusion and intergenerational exasperation with the same dry insight. He also tries to joke about more than just getting drunk or having trouble with girls.
"So much standup is derivative and a re-hashing of the same old stuff," Varghese said. "I really put a lot of thought into what I do so I hope the audience not only laughs but realizes the uniqueness of what I'm trying to do."
That goal, according to his website, is to provide an "outsider-looking-in and insider-looking-out commentary," about being Indian in the United States. While bridging cultural gaps isn't a priority over getting a laugh, Varghese also isn't opposed to the idea that humor can brook understanding - and an unexpected commonality between diverse groups of people.
"I'd like to think that when I touch upon culture and race in my act, that it does provide a little insight to those who are unaware of my experience," Varghese said. "I never set out with that in mind but I'm always surprised [how], considering how physically different we all are, internally most of us have had simi-lar experiences."
For example, while you may not know what it's like to have your father's grasp of English send mixed signals about your mother's current state of existence, you might find yourself on somewhat of the same page when it comes to calling tech support, or looking slightly askance at your own parents when they try to understand what exactly you're doing with your life.
For Varghese, the answer is comedy. Being a stand-up comic on the road comes with specific challenges. Long days - weeks - of travel. The pressure to perform. The competition, not only to break through the ranks and make a name for yourself in the comedy world, but also just to keep people laughing and keep your material fresh.
But, for Varghese, stand-up never gets old.
"I still get a rush every time," Varghese said. "I truly enjoy sharing what I've written with people who have no clue who I am. It's a great challenge to get a crowd - who knows nothing about you when you get onstage - after the show saying how much they enjoyed it. The travel can be annoying but the shows never are, even when they're not going well. If I ever feel like my act is getting old, it's because I'm not writing enough new stuff and [I'm] being lazy."
"The biggest [challenge] for me is mental," he added. "Trying to grind out a career without industry representation. There's no set one way to make it and be successful in comedy so I'm just trying to figure it out as I go."
In the future, Varghese would like to sell a few shows to networks, or perform in one himself. He's also trying to get the word out about his upcoming CD, "so it doesn't sit in my apartment collecting dust," he said.
But no matter what, comedy lies ahead. "I've been without a boss my entire career so anything I'd pursue outside of stand-up would have to be something I truly believed in," Varghese said.