This Friday and Sunday evening, actress Melanie Chandra (HBO’s ‘The Brink,’ CBS’s ‘Code Black’) and comedian Rajiv Satyal (first person ever to do standup on all seven continents) are putting on a two-person comedy show, Back to School, at The Tank NYC.
The Tank’s mission is to remove economic barriers from the creation of new work for artists launching their careers and experimenting within their art form and to do so in an environment that is inclusive and accessible.
The show is a nostalgic evening of sketch comedy, improv, standup, and audience participation that pays homage to high school in the 1990s. Friday’s show is sold out but Sunday’s tickets are available via TheTankNYC.com.
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So, how did you two meet?
We met in 2007 through a group out in Los Angeles called DesiYou. It was a platform designed to be of, by, and for South Asians. At a ten-person dinner one night in NY, we discovered we had a personality connection AND that we’d both be performing at this 5,000-audience-member event called the Bollywood Awards in New York…. OK, it was in New Jersey. Melanie modeled and Rajiv hosted. And we just stayed in touch and started creating content.
You both transitioned from corporate careers to pursue creative ones, Melanie pursuing acting from a consulting role and Rajiv leaving behind marketing to pursue comedy. What was the transition from corporate into entertainment like?
M: For the first time in my life, there was no set path to success. I found my way through a lot of trial and error. I felt a lot of insecurities emerge. I would think, “Maybe I’m not good enough. Everyone has been doing this a lot longer than I have.” My achievements in the non-acting world didn’t count for much. I was starting at zero, and it was humbling. At the same time it was thrilling, because I was finally putting all my energy into something that I truly believed in.
R: As much as I loved my jobs in Brand Management at P&G and FIJI Water, the thing that bothered me is that any smart person could do my job. I wanted a job that I could do in my own way, to leave my own mark. Doesn’t matter if it’s large or small… just that it’s mine. The coolest thing about being a standup comic (besides sleeping in) is that you can talk about literally anything you want. That’s fascinating to me. You have one job: make people laugh. Not easy but simple. The scariest thing is that it’s really all up to you. You can have all sorts of ideas, but unless you execute them well, you don’t get paid.
Any advice you’d give to South Asian creatives trying to break into the industry?
M: Seek out schools for your craft. For acting, that could be as simple as enrolling in an improv class or as committed as joining a conservatory. Not only are you honing your craft, but you are also forming a community of creatives whom you can lean on throughout your career. In terms of finding representatives, the ideal scenario is that they find you. Maybe through your performance in a showcase or because you have a piece of content out there in the world that’s getting traction. If that’s not the play, then the strongest way to get a meeting with an agent is through the right referral, preferably someone with whom you have worked that can vouch for your talent or potential, and one who is highly respected by said representative.
R: It’s as hard as everybody says it is, so try to work on what exactly your path forward is. I remember in college that I was getting several Bs (gasp!) and figured I’d get an A somewhere, until my friend asked me, “In which class are you going to get this A?” When he asked that, I realized how bleak it was. I was doing a bunch of work and hoping. Just hoping doesn’t achieve anything. You need to have SMART Goals… remember those? Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Tangible/Time-Bound. There is SO MUCH CONTENT right now. Just about every single time I hang out with my friends, I get a bunch of homework assignments: “You have to watch this Netflix show and listen to this podcast and kick this musician’s latest album!!!” Honestly, we don’t need another voice in acting, writing, hosting, podcasting, or anything else. OR DO WE? Your task will be to convince us why we need to listen to YOU specifically. What do you bring to the table that isn’t already being said by a thousand other people? Answer that and you have a path.
What are stories that are important for you both to tell?
M: It’s important for me to tell stories that bring more empathy into the world. I especially hope to tell stories that change the way people see women of color, by virtue of the narrative itself or the narrative of the people behind the project (as producers, directors, writers, and actresses) to inspire a younger generation to say, “I can do that.”
R: It’s important that I can tell our grandchildren someday that I did everything I could during this era. I’m a natural-born cockeyed optimist, but I am not hopeful for the future in America. This way, at least I can say I did everything I could. I don’t think anything I’m doing (or anyone is doing) will make a shred of difference, but one thing we learn over and over from so many of the great works throughout human history is that you can never give up. If you lose, you lose, but you go down fighting. According to Hinduism, we’re in the fourth stage (Kalyug, the worst one), but it still matters that you did your personal best. That’ll matter in the next life. And that way, you can know how dope you are. Which is what it’s really about. How dope you are. Perhaps this is why I’m personally doing this show… a look back to when things were more simple and positive. The 1990s were a time of great optimism. Thanks for asking this question. You pulled this out of me. I feel better now.
The show is set in high school. What was high school like for you? How are you two different than you were and what parts of you are still the same? What did you want to be while you were in high school?
R: I recently had a couple of high school friends (one male and one female) say to me that I always seemed like I knew how I was and where I was going. I was touched by that, even though it’s not true at all! I’m glad it seemed that way, though. I’m kind of into the whole “seeming” thing. Like, who cares if I AM smart as long as I SEEM smart, you know? Haha. I recently had a convo with a friend and the difference was that my parents impressed upon me that, when you’re smart, you become a physician. To this day, I see the world as Doctors and Failures. Like, Barack Obama is the most successful of all of us people who couldn’t quite succeed in life. My friend’s parents told him that, when you’re smart, you can do anything you want to do. He said that it wasn’t necessarily better when I interrupted him to say that it was FAR better. Much love to my amazing parents but his parents’ way is the right way to do it. At the high school reunions, people tell me I’m still the same guy… simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating… a leader who wants to build things but still the class clown who wants to tear it all down for a laugh.
What was it like going to high school pre-social media time? What were some of the challenges? Benefits?
R: I hear bullying is far worse. I can only imagine (or watch 13 Reasons Why). Also, when you said you were gonna be somewhere, you just had to be there. There was very little last-minute cancelling. It was much harder to communicate with your friends. If I wanted to talk to somebody late at night, we’d say, “OK, sync up our watches. Call me exactly at 11:00 pm tonight.” Then, at 10:59 pm, I’d call Time & Temperature (a local number that gave, well, the time and temperature), and you’d call me and I’d hit the Call Waiting button. That way, the phone wouldn’t wake up my parents and I could talk to girlfriends into the night without my parents’ knowledge. Oh, wait. This was high school. I mean, my girlfriends that I wish were my girlfriends.
What were your favorite shows going up in the ’90s?
R: I’m very much a Seinfeld person. I also loved The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and SNL.
M: Fresh Prince, Saved by the Bell, Cosby Show.
It seems you have a super, super dope team, for the show.
The show is directed by Nick Vango with special appearances by Reema Sampat of “Orange Is the New Black” and Ami Sheth of NBC’s “Blindspot.” We’d like to give a major shout-out to Cole McClendon for all of his help with wardrobe and props. So, actually we’d like to give him props.
What projects should we be on the lookout for?
M: I have a few feature films releasing later this year, and I’m currently developing a show with HBO called ATTACHMENT.
R: I’ll be releasing season two of my talk show, “What Do You Bring to the Table?” as well as relaunching my podcast, “The TanGent Show.” It’s called that because we go on tangents…and I’m a tangent.
With so many exciting projects lined up, we can’t wait to see what Melanie and Rajiv bring to the audiences! Catch the show at The Tank NYC at 9:30 p.m. this Friday and Sunday!