“Welcome, contestant. Your word is ‘adroit.’”
“May I have a definition?”
“Adept. Masterful. Ingenious. Quick-witted.”
“May I hear it in a sentence?”
“When comedy is adroit, it’s very funny, relatable, universal, entertaining, and says something about the human condition in a new, memorable and unexpected way. Please spell adroit now.”
“That is correct!”
Prateek Srivastava says that growing up, he was not a child prodigy. But he had the opportunity to observe some of those fortunates up close. They seemed to be riding the arc of a charmed life. Prateek saw them “verbally massaged” and showered with opportunity. But what happens when these champions grow up? Will they live up to their parents’ (and our) expectations? Or do some fall headlong from grace?
At some point, probably everyone who’s reading this has misspelled their own l-i-f-e, dispelled early hopes and repelled even themselves. No matter the distance you fall, how do you come back and reclaim your identity? What role will your friends and family play if you’re not who they thought you were?
Find out the answers this Saturday night at iO at 7:00 p.m. That’s when Prateek will debut his new comedy pilot Abnormally Spellbound. Abnormally Spellbound follows former spelling bee champ Nisheeth Normal as he’s leaving rehab and arriving at a new reality.
The staged reading will star Chicago comedians Subhash Thakrar, Mona Aburmishan, James Fisher, Preston O’ffill and more. A raffle, an after-party, and a request for your honest opinion will follow.
Prateek, who is one of the founders of the nationally acclaimed comedy showcase Simmer Brown with Sameena Mustafa, is a writer and stand-up comedian. He created Abnormally Spellbound in iO’s “Script Tease” writing program which is directed by Michael McCarthy.
Prateek regularly appears at comedy clubs and festivals in Chicago and around the country and was selected by NBC as a Chicago finalist in its Stand Up for Diversity Talent Search. He is also a new cast member of iO’s Monday night show, POV.
He describes Abnormally Spellbound as “East Bound and Down meets Curb Your Enthusiasm with maybe a touch of Master of None.”
Prateek kindly spoke with me about the inspiration behind Abnormally Spellbound, life with an uncommon name, why he and Sameena decided to end Simmer Brown, and about his life in comedy including an incident that could have ended violently if he weren’t such an adroit comedian.
Teme: I’d love to hear about the show!
Prateek: Abnormally Spellbound is about what happens when a former spelling bee champion grows up, but not into who we thought he would be. This kid had a Speak ‘n Spell endorsement deal and riches thrown at him from an early age. This is a world where spelling bee champions are regarded like athletes. But maybe he’s made some mistakes. Maybe he has an alcohol problem. You see stories like that with athletes, but you don’t see it from the intellectual side. I had the idea of taking a spelling bee champion and playing off of that minority archetype.
It is also about the pressures that our parents/families may put on us and how we internalize them.
When you hear about South Asian parents being tough, it’s very broad and farcical. I want to do a deeper exploration of parents and their expectations and of kids struggling to live up to them. These are universal truths.
One of my favorite shows is King of the Hill. It’s about a conservative Texas family. I have nothing in common with them, but I could see the mom and the dad archetypes and elements of that in my own parents. To me, that’s the mark of a good show. You can see the universal truths underneath the external surfaces. I’m not gearing this show just towards South Asian people. I want everybody to relate: “I’ve made mistakes” or “my parents set up expectations I couldn’t meet.”
Teme: I love it when comedy makes you feel less alone and more understood.
Prateek: Comedy is a little bit of therapy. It can also be a cathartic release and help us release tension, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry gets into an escalating series of arguments. You feel, “I’ve been frustrated with that, too!”
Teme: How did you decide on Nisheeth Normal as the name of your character?
Prateek: I’ve been told, “You need a normal last name.” So I incorporated my frustration with that into the show. Why not go with the last name “Normal”? It’s a “normal” fucking last name. You’ll learn that “Normal” isn’t his real last name. I like the first name Nisheeth as it is not a very common Indian name. It’s alliterative to the title.
Teme: I love that and can relate to the name issues! How much of the show is autobiographical?
Prateek: In the first few scenes there’s an incident at a bar that’s straight out of real life. Overall, I would say it’s about 50% autobiographical and about 25% stories that happened to people I know. Then 25% is creative liberties.
The overall themes are feeling like an outsider, trying to figure out who you are, and moving on from a sense of loss. Trying to redeem yourself. It’s about dealing with mistakes and struggles with whatever your vice is. It doesn’t have to be alcohol or drugs. Everybody is addicted to something.
I also wanted to explore how, especially given social media, we love to watch people grow, but we also love to watch train wrecks. We love to watch negativity. And then that negativity breeds inside of us and we become more negative.
Teme: Why are we like that?
Prateek: Perhaps it’s a primal thing, like we’re looking for food. We’re like the predator pouncing on the wildebeest.
Teme: It’s a shameful truth, but so true.
Prateek: Also, in the current media landscape we have South Asian performers taking the forefront in front of the camera. But it is important to have people from all walks of life behind the camera, too, creating our own products. There are discussions about inclusion in casting. Lost in those discussions is that there are not enough minorities creating behind the camera. So it is important for me to create my own content as well.
Teme: Did anything surprise you about the pilot-writing process?
Prateek: Yes, the anxiety about rewriting. I found that you have to be able to adapt and make changes. There’s always going to be a wrench thrown at you and you have to be able to modify accordingly. You may be fearful of vital change, but you have to be open to it. For example, I read the original Silicon Valley pilot. You wouldn’t recognize it from the show that exists today.
You also have to be willing to put those first ideas to page and know you’re going to adapt later.
Teme: Oh, yeah. Sometimes I don’t want to start writing if I know it isn’t going to come out exactly how I want.
Prateek: Yes. You just have to have faith in the rewriting process during the first draft.
Teme: I’m still thinking about the name issue, too. I love your stand-up about name mishaps!
Prateek: That will definitely be part of this first episode as well. That’s why I chose the name Nisheeth. It’s like Prateek in that it’s definitely troublesome for some people like I’m sure it is with your name. It’s a simple name, but people still stumble over it.
Teme: Just about always!
Prateek: Something I may explore in another episode is that I went through feeling I don’t have to remember other people’s names because like, “Well, people aren’t remembering my name, so I don’t know if I need to be so great at remembering theirs.”
Teme: I understand that.
Prateek: Perhaps that’s not the way Nisheeth should be, but he has flawed qualities as well where he takes things a little too personally. That’s something we can all relate to. Going back to Curb Your Enthusiasm, we’ve all let our frustration and anger get the better of us.
Teme: So right. I understand if people don’t know how to say my name. It doesn’t look how it sounds. But people call me “Team,” “Tammy” … If I have hay fever, people think I’m saying “Debbie.”
Prateek: Depending on allergy season, right?
Teme: Yes! Sometimes I’ll let people think my name is whatever because I’m tired of explaining. What is your advice to those who will never find a souvenir key chain with our name on it?
Prateek: What’s helped me is realizing you have to have the same patience as when your parents are like, “Hey, I don’t know how to use this email.” You use kid gloves with your mom and dad to show them technology. You have to have that patience explaining your name.
For a while, I was going for the easy answer. Like the classic Starbucks thing. Depending on my mood, when I had to give them my name, I would use “Nick.
But as much as it’s frustrating, my advice is to bite the bullet and sound out your name. When I perform, unless the host knows me, I know that 80% of the time it will be that dance of “how do you say it?”
Like you mentioned “Tammy,” they’ll try to force a nickname on me like, “You should be Patrick today.” But if we let that happen, we’re giving in to the frustration.
So now I say, “I’ll write it phonetically for you.” Or sound it out for them.
Teme: That’s a good idea.
Prateek: The tough part is having that patience every time. It’s like another way of performing, to put on that customer service-y, adaptable smile. Like, “Yes, I’ll just write it out phonetically.” But not like hit yourself in the head every time like, “What the fuck, are people that fucking dumb?”
Teme: Do you think having an uncommon name had an impact on your identity? It makes me feel a little apart, or maybe feeling apart is just part of being human.
Prateek: I think we all have those moments of feeling like an outsider, which is something I explore. I know a few Prateeks, but it’s not even that common within the South Asian community. I’m used to being the only Prateek in the room. There have even been South Asian people who have not been able to say it. So I’m like, “Yep, I’m used to that now.”
I recently hosted a South Asian dance recital. At the end, they were giving out participation trophies to everybody in the company. There were over three hundred names. They hadn’t told me that I would be presenting the awards. So I had to read three hundred Indian names. There were some last names that were like twenty-six letters and I struggled with a couple. I got a chance to deal with that frustration from the other side.
Teme: I’ve definitely mangled names, too.
Prateek: I think we feel less guilty about it because we’ve had so much struggle with it ourselves.
Teme: We get some slack. We’ve earned it.
Prateek: We’ve earned our stripes. That was our Vietnam. Our Hamburger Hill is a Starbucks cup that butchers our name.
Teme: I love that. There’s been no treaty or peace.
Teme: What inspired you to go into comedy?
Prateek: I’ve been a writer since high school and college. In college, I wanted to do a sketch group, but I found it was hard to find people who were reliable. I was drawn to stand-up because it was something I could do on my own and I didn’t need to rely on anyone else.
Also, there is immediate feedback. You go on stage and you get a reaction whether it’s laughter or no laughter. It is a reaction.
My first open mic was right after I graduated college. I’d had a bit of a fear of public speaking in high school. So going to open mics was my first foray into being in front of people and into that boxing ring-type of mentality that stand-up requires.
Also, in college I started going to stand-up at the old Lakeshore Theater. They were giving away tickets to college students. So I got to see Reggie Watts, Marc Maron and Louis C.K. when they were still at the cusp of success with maybe ten people in the audience.
Watching them, I could see the power of live performance and of creating a human reaction through cathartic release. They were dealing with frustration, dealing with their anger, especially Louis C.K. and Marc Maron.
There was something about being in a room with people you don’t know. When you go to these shows, it’s like a movie theater. Just strangers there. But at these shows, we’re all laughing at what’s being said. We’re all on the same playing field, despite being from different backgrounds. Maybe we all disagree politically, but for that hour everyone’s on the same page. We’re all one. It’s a way to connect people. That’s what appealed to me.
Simmer Brown was pretty politically charged. My cousins who are Trump supporters came to the show. They were able to check their politics at the door and enjoy themselves. That’s the role of comedy. Sometimes “funny” can neutralize all those external conflicts.
Teme: How did you and Sameena decide to conclude Simmer Brown?
Prateek: We were both just getting busy. Sameena is getting into politics. I started this writing class and I was going on the road more.
We hadn’t anticipated the level of success we were going to reach. We had so much support from the community. The shows were sold out. With such a strong brand, the biggest worry is maintaining your momentum.
The fear of diminishing in quality outweighed our wanting to maintain the monthly show. So that’s why we decided to ease off the throttle, at least of the regular monthly show. We’ll still do one-offs.
Teme: That’s great to know!
Prateek: Our Facebook page, is still active. We still post. We’re still shining the light on artists in the community. We were taking both diverse and marginalized voices and putting them on the stage, and giving them a platform that wouldn’t necessarily be shown.
I hope the message of Simmer Brown carries over to the show on the 29th. Minorities are not one-note. We’re not necessarily Raj from The Big Bang Theory, although even Raj has a lot of complex layers. So that’s part of the message of the 29th.
Teme: Often people do assume things about people without even realizing they’re assuming.
Prateek: I want to relay that not every member of a minority is a representative of that ethnicity. Not every action becomes the entire group’s thinking. There is a scene where Nisheeth has bad service at a bar and feels like not tipping. But he thinks, “If I don’t tip, they’re going to think all Indian people don’t tip.” You can feel like an ambassador, almost like you’re acting on behalf of your community. Because people can’t see the individual differences.
Teme: Yes. With my maiden name, Weinstein, I felt self-conscious complaining about things like bills and overcharges. I can’t be arguing and negotiating about money. They might think, “Oh yeah, all Jews …” As a “Ring” I feel more comfortable. In your mind you have this chess game played out. “If I do this, they might think that …”
Prateek: Yes, like you almost have to plan out a whole conversation before it happens.
Prateek: People can be that narrow-minded.
Teme: I don’t want to fit into some stereotype, so I’ll just back off because the bigger picture makes me more concerned about the stereotype than getting $10 back.
Prateek: Like the butterfly effect. That little $10 starts a whole other rabbit hole of problems.
Teme: Right! What is your favorite story from your career so far?
Prateek: NBC had their stand-up talent search here in 2014. It was at Jokes & Notes on the South Side. They only take the first one hundred people, so you go to a club and spend the night waiting to perform for one minute.
That night, I’d already done another show at midnight. I got back to my apartment. I’d just moved in and was sleeping in a makeshift sleeping bag on the floor. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and thought, “Ah, I’m not going to make it.” Then a friend, another comedian, texted me “Get on the Green Line and get down here! There are only fifty people in line.” So I went there at 5:00 a.m. I ended up being 98 of 100. I made it into the semi-finals showcase the next night.
Then this past June, the NBC talent search was at The Laugh Factory. I got the callback and I got to the showcase again. I got great feedback and some of the NBC people remembered me from 2014. It was nice to feel that a lot of hard work came to fruition.
Prateek: I also have a crazy road story.
Teme: I’d love to hear that, too!
Prateek: Two years ago, I was in Rockford for a road show. The show was at an aggressively bro-y, sports-y, dive-y bar. They had two Guns and Roses pinball machines. How many do you need? They’re the same machine!
A lot of times, bar shows don’t have a stage. They’ll just put a microphone in front of a table. At this bar, they’d put a microphone in front of the pool table while the pool game was going on.
So I’m “on stage” and a really old guy who looked like Guy Fieri meets Jabba the Hutt, started yelling during my set. He was yelling, “Hey, rabbit! Hey, rabbit, you rabbit! Are you one of them rabbits?” I said, “I don’t know what makes you think I look like a rabbit!” It turned out, this guy was so drunk that he was slurring the word “Arab” to the point it sounded like the word “rabbit.”
Whenever I go to dicey conservative towns, I try to get someone to open for me who’s a bigger, muscular dude. If shit goes down, they can help out because I’m not a fighter. So my friend, who is a bigger dude, got in the guy’s face and calmed him a little bit. I finished the set. I tried to play off his aggressiveness. I said, “Oh, are you going to chase me around the pool table?” And I kind of ran around the pool table. I had “Yakety Sax,” the Benny Hill song, on my phone. I played that off like a gag.
Teme: What a world! So much insanity. But I love your response.
Prateek: He couldn’t even racist properly. Eventually, the show ended and I got paid in a bounced check. But I don’t consider it a sad story. I consider it paying your dues in this crazy business. It’s something to laugh about looking back.
Abnormally Spellbound is on Saturday, July 29 at 7:00 p.m. at iO, 1501 N. Kingsbury in the Chris Farley Cabaret. This is a free event.
Michael McCarthy’s “Script Tease” program will feature free pilot readings every Saturday through August 12. The evenings begin at 6:30 p.m.
Prateek is a cast member of iO’s POV, a free Monday night talk show at 7:00 p.m. which previews the week’s programs through interviews, desk pieces, remotes and improv. Details here.
Simmer Brown is still active! Keep up to date at FaceBook.com/simmerbrowncomedy.
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