Happy holidays to all! Prateek Srivastava is playing Santa this year in more ways than one and Christmas is arriving early no matter your denomination. Tonight at 7:00 p.m., you’re invited to Prateek’s comedy benefit "34 for 34" for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital which will take place on Zoom and Facebook Live.
Since Prateek celebrated his 34th birthday on December 2, the show will feature 34 comedians from across the country. Each set is 4-5 minutes. Performers include Tim Barnes (The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), Steven Rogers (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert), Ahmed Bharoocha (Comedy Central, Adult Swim), Subhah Agarwal (A Little Late with Lilly Singh, Comedy Central), and many more. The audience can also expect some excellent giveaways. The show is free, but will provide a direct link to donate to St. Jude which offers no-cost care to children with complex medical issues.
And that’s just the beginning of the comedy haul in this Santa’s sleigh. Prateek recently released a free comedy EP called Read the Room with intriguing sneak previews of his new album, Nick and Sheila’s Kid. The album will be released on December 22. If you pre-order through iTunes, you’ll receive free artwork plus a personalized message from Nick and Sheila themselves. From talking to Prateek, it’s clear that Nick and Sheila are exceptional parents, so you can be sure that any message they send will be the holiday balm we’re all seeking this year.
And that’s not all. After many years of volunteering at area children’s museums, Prateek is offering a free service to parents. In memory of his uncle who enjoyed playing Santa, Prateek will assume the identity of the jolly red-suited man and make phone calls to little ones. As he told me, “I want to provide something to take kids’ minds off what’s going on in the world.”
And there’s one more gift to come! Three years ago, I had the good fortune to speak with Prateek about the television pilot he’d written for Michael McCarthy’s famous scriptwriting class at iO. The pilot Abnormally Spellbound follows former spelling bee prodigy Nisheeth Normal as he’s leaving rehab and learning to cope in the real world. On December 30, Prateek will host a free encore reading of the pilot. Health issues kept me from attending in 2017, but nothing will stop me from attending this online edition. You should too!
Prateek, who combines warmth and energy with uncompromised truth-telling, kindly gave me some behind-the-scenes intel about his new album and insight into how comedians perfect their craft and persevere in these strangest of times.
THE ALBUM AND THE SHOW: THE INSIDE SCOOP!
Teme: Please tell me about your new album Nick and Sheila’s Kid!
Prateek: My family doesn’t celebrate the religious elements of Christmas but we get caught up in the family spirit of it. There's a lot of good vibes in December for me. My birthday's in December. December fits the family theme of the album. Even if people don't always get along with their family, they certainly are thinking about family at this time of year. Also, my family raises money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital every year around December.
Teme: How did your family decide on St. Jude?
Prateek: My grandmother on my father's side, we call her Dadi, passed away in 2010. We wanted to figure out a charity where we could donate in her name. The children's hospital was very important to her. We felt this time of year can be tough for kids in the hospital, plus everything going on in the world right now can be tough for a child to process. So St. Jude is taking some of the stress out of other parts of life. That message resonates with me because I utilize standup in a service mission kind of way. I've always looked at entertainment as providing a service, maybe not a health service, but to help people feel good, which is something we certainly need now.
IT STARTS WITH FAMILY
Teme: How did you decide to call your album Nick and Sheila’s Kid?
Prateek: Dave Winnyk of Saint Dude Productions approached me about doing the album. At the time, I was going through my recordings. One of the biggest lessons I learned early on is to audio record everything, even an open mic show. I'll say things on stage after a punchline, like an extra joke or an extra tag, and forget that extra ad-lib the minute I get off the stage. That's where the audio recording on the phone came in handy. Like a post-game analysis.
One of the things I learned as I was going through the recordings is I talk a lot about growing up with my parents and my experience as a first generation immigrant. There are experiences that feel kind of Indian. Then there are moments where I don't feel as Indian, so it's this unique experience. As I was listening to the material and thinking about it, I was like, "There is definitely a through line here and that through line is family and my parents."
I'm a big fan of the opening joke that I do, "Hey, my name is Prateek. Parents’ names are Nick and Sheila." I thought, this is a great thesis statement for the album. It ties into other jokes throughout the album. I got a carbon monoxide detector and it was beeping and wouldn’t turn off, so I had to get it back to the store. So I just accidentally throw a beeping thing into my backpack and get on the bus. That's just an insane story but it started because it was a present from my mom Sheila. It's one of those things where it all intertwines with my family.
There are quite a few albums on the immigrant experience, but my album has a unique lens on immigrant parents. On the album I talk about my love of shitty bands from old yesteryear, one of them being Limp Bizkit. A typical immigrant parent story might be, "Why do you like this weird band? Turn that garbage down!" Well, my dad didn't tell me to turn that garbage down. He took me to see them in concert.
I’ve seen a lot of comedy about immigrant parents where the parents are presented as out of touch or not as cool, whereas I'm celebrating my parents. There are some jokes at their expense, but I get to make fun of them and you don't. We actually recorded the album on December 7th which happens to be my parents' wedding anniversary. They got to come to the show. That was probably the most festive of a wedding anniversary they've ever had – in a room with eighty-five people laughing.
THE CUTE KID ON THE ALBUM COVER
Prateek: The photo was taken when I was three or four years old. We first lived in the Uptown neighborhood near North Center. We did the album show at Bughouse Theater, so I grew up near where we ended up doing the recording. Then we moved to Lombard, Illinois. Within the first or second week of us moving out there, the three of us decided to take this picture at the Sears Portrait Studio at Yorktown Mall.
For some reason, I remember how the photo room smelled. There was a white chair in the center of the room. I remember first sitting on the chair by myself. My mom was like, "No, you're going to sit in my lap." I didn't want to get out of the chair. I just wanted to sit in the chair by myself. I was a rapscallion little kid. We were able to modify that photo for the cover art. Chris Santiago, a very talented comedian, designed it. This is my first album. I want to make sure my parents are on the cover. I also wanted to break that mold of comedy album art. There is a typical formula: standup photo with microphone, with big lettering. I wanted to do something different.
We made the cover art resemble childlike drawings. There's definitely a sense of childlike wonder in the album. I'm a goofy guy but I'm presenting kind of serious topics but with the absurdist element that I bring in my comedy.
I'm a big old adult with the heart of a kid. When you listen to my comedy, there are going to be a lot of absurdist voices. There's going to be different volume pitches. There's going to be funny references. There's going to be goofy sounds and sound effects. To me that's just all of the elements of being a kid. So that element of family and that element of being a kid is wrapped up in this album.
SOME INSIDE EXCLUSIVES
Teme: I was reading the names of your album tracks that will be on Nick and Sheila's Kid. Every single track name is intriguing. Can you tell me about “The Better Sibling”? I related to that because I am not the better sibling.
Prateek: My sister Shivani was born when I was seven. Our relationship has only grown stronger day by day, but there were times in my life where it felt like she is the better sibling. Then I learned that she felt that I was the better sibling. I talk about that in that track and some of my experiences trying to apply to her college.
Teme: There’s a track called “comedians in cars vaping gogurt.” What is that one about?
Prateek: That track is an incredibly absurd tangent. It’s about me asking other people about their jobs in the way that people ask me questions when they find out I'm a standup comedian. With other Indian people the reaction is, "What do your parents think?" Or, "What's your real job?" Lately, people ask “What do you think about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? Or Comedians in Cars?” Am I going to go up to a cop and ask him about cop shows? No, but in that track I explore that in a really absurd way.
Teme: I loved all your track names. I’m impatient for December 22! I want to hear them now!
Prateek: I'm glad. A lot of work definitely went into making sure that every part of the album sounded unique and funny.
There's a short EP that I released on Spotify and iTunes called Read the Room. There is a track called “Hinduism Pinball Machine” which touches on that identity crisis that we all have like, "Hey, what am I? More American? Or more like my family in India?" People have reached out to ask me, "But what is a Hinduism Pinball Machine?" You have to listen and find out.
I'll give you an exclusive. Nobody else knows this. There’s a reason for the sneak preview of “The Better Sibling” on Read the Room. It’s an “Easter egg” that also shows up on the album, but on the album I take that story in a completely different direction. Anyone who listens to both will get to be surprised at how that material evolved.
HOW TO MAKE KIDS LAUGH
Teme: You’ve done a lot of volunteer work with kids and even produced standup shows for kids. Do you have a favorite story from those performances?
Prateek: Being a performer who performs mostly for adults, the challenge is figuring out how can I “kiddify” my jokes? I'm fairly animated and goofy to begin with, so I didn't have to worry as much as I thought I did. My general movements are very funny to kids. In my standup act I'll do things like take off my glasses to emphasize a punch line. Once when I was taking off my glasses during the punch line, there was a little child in the audience who also had glasses on. He started taking off his glasses in sync with me taking off my glasses for the punch lines. It was so adorable.
THE SCIENCE OF COMEDY IN 2020
Teme: What is it like to write material in this crazy year?
Prateek: The shows I've done this year have been virtual and outdoors. Storytelling is a big element of my standup and it works differently at virtual and outdoor shows than in a theater. I’ve found I have to pick up the pace for virtual and outdoor crowds.
If you do the same story in a black box theater you might be able to let the story breathe a little bit. You know how you're hearing a story and you hear that climax, and then there's that collective reaction in the room? In a theater or club, you can let that reaction sit for a second. It's harder to do that when you're on Zoom or outside in a drive-in theater where there is background noise and distractions. That's where the comedian has to figure out, "Okay, where do I cut that story to have the same punch?”
There's a science to comedy. People who don't know about comedy think that, "Oh, it's just comedians going up there talking about dating." It's so much more than that. Sammy Obeid of KO Comedy is also a mathematician. He told me that he and some other comedians actually take the audio of their set and put it through a compressor to analyze the wavelengths. They look at the few seconds where there's no laugh versus when there's a big laugh, and literally get it down to a science of seconds between each laugh and how long each laugh lasted. There really is a science to it.
COMEDY: AN ANTIDOTE TO AWKWARDNESS
Teme: It seems to me that comedians' minds are always working. Do you ever not think about comedy or are you always observing?
Prateek: In a lot of situations I think, "Oh, this could be funny.” My comedy often includes embarrassing things and awkward situations. If I'm in a situation where I'm embarrassed and kind of awkward, it's a therapeutic mechanism to alleviate some of that awkwardness to immediately think, "Hey, this could be a bit." We had our awkward years in high school. We don't need to be feeling that awkward now as adults. The time has passed.
Teme: I think I'm still living it.
Prateek: I'm quarantining with my family and I'm literally in the bedroom I was in in high school. Lately I've certainly been reminded of those feelings. But I also think that right now it's an environmental thing. But I can understand how even as adults we feel that sometimes.
I think there's a little bit of embarrassment and awkwardness in everybody in the arts community. I don’t think you need to be awkward and embarrassed to create every piece of standup, sketch, or improv. But I do think that awkwardness and those high school feelings, the identity stuff, are good fertilizer for creating something that's artistic.
Teme: I was socially awkward before the pandemic. With all the isolation, I’m concerned that when things get back to normal I’m really not going to know what to say to anybody.
Prateek: I was just talking about this the other day. I'll try to have three or four phone conversations every day just to not have social-muscle atrophy. We’re all going to come out of this together and commiserate over our awkwardness.
WISE WORDS WE ALL NEED TO HEAR
Prateek: I'm glad that you're able to keep up Comedians Defying Gravity. It keeps going even with COVID and everything.
Teme: I have to get my act together. This has been a horrible year and I've not been productive the way I wanted. Thank you for the encouragement.
Prateek: Well, I believe in you, Teme. You're a very hard worker and you've been on top of everything whenever we've needed you. I'm sure you're closer to getting it together than you think. We're all hard on ourselves. I know I am. I was not even sure this album was going to get done this year, but we got it done. But I definitely can relate to that feeling of this year. There was definitely a feeling in September and October of just like, "This has been a rebuilding year."
THE UPSIDE OF 2020
Teme: What have been the most memorable things about this year?
Prateek: During the height of the George Floyd protests, we were able to do a virtual marathon show and raise money for My Block Chicago, the ACLU and Black Lives Matter.
I've been eating healthier. I've become a vegetarian. I'm moving towards becoming vegan next year. That's been a personal goal.
I tried to make the album recording a unique experience. Something special was captured that night. I hope people enjoy the album and get a little window into me, and what makes me tick, and what's important to me. One of those things is family.
Nick and Sheila’s Kid has been ten years in the making. We had some family stuff and personal challenges last year, so being able to record the album at the end of last year was great and I’m excited to release it this year. It’s ending the year on a high note.
Teme: That's a great reminder for the rest of this year. Not to shut down and to keep looking for possibilities.
Prateek: Sometimes you also have to accept the shutdown. But it's never too late. Part of the year definitely was spent taking it easy, but I'm glad in the latter half of the year we were able to get this album out and do the benefit show. It's never too late in the year. There's no time like now.
Prateek’s “34 For 34” benefit show for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is on Friday, December 18th, 7:00-10:00 p.m. on Facebook Live. If you don’t have Facebook, you can be part of the Zoom audience by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is free, but please consider a direct donation to St. Jude’s here. And get free access to "34 for 34" on Facebook here.
Nick and Sheila’s Kid will be released on December 22. Pre-order Nick and Sheila’s Kid on iTunes and receive free gifts, including artwork and a personal video message from Nick and Sheila. Nick and Sheila’s Kid is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music.
More about Prateek at prateekcomedy.com.
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