'Coming to America in Trump's era has been a very different experience', says comedian Romesh Ranganathan
In an interview with Meaww, Ranganathan tells us about his experience in the US so far, his docu-comedy series and how it is like to live as an immigrant in America.
One of the most popular stand-up comics in the United Kingdom, Romesh Ranganathan — who is Sri Lankan by heritage — has immigrated to the United States, aiming to make it big in the grueling comedy industry of America.
After living for months in Los Angeles, Ranganathan is now telling the story of the hardships he had to undergo in the beginning in his quest to find success and happiness in a new country through his docu-comedy series 'Just Another Immigrant'.
The series follows Ranganathan as he uproots his entire family - his supportive wife, three kids, his Sri Lankan mother and his eccentric uncle — and moves to LA to build a life and career in the US. Displaced in Los Angeles, Ranganathan attempts to find success and happiness, while rebuilding a life from scratch.
In addition to his efforts to adapt, he has committed himself to booking a US gig – the 6,000-seat Greek Theater – with only three months to sell it out. The series chronicles the true-life adventures of this modern immigrant family and the obstacles of making it in today’s America.
In an interview with Meaww, Ranganathan tells us about his experience in the US so far, his docu-comedy series and how it is like to live as an immigrant in America:
You are a popular figure in the UK, so despite your popularity did you face the casual racism an immigrant or specifically a brown person faces in America?
I wouldn't describe it in the likes of racism, there were although all kinds of assumptions I came across after coming here. For example: almost everyone assumed that I was a Muslim because of my beard, which I am not; a lot of people assumed that I recently arrived from India, which I did not; and then one more thing I noted is that they didn't expect that I would have a British accent, which was a surprise for a lot of people here. In England, we've had so much immigration from that part of the world, it is usual for people from the Indian subcontinent to have a British accent, but in America, people find it surprising.
We came to Los Angeles with an understanding that it is a very liberal town, which it is, but these things happen nonetheless. On one of my nights out here in LA, one guy came up to me and asked me if I was a Muslim, I told him I wasn't and then he asked me about the Palestine-Israel conflict and I said that I am not really qualified to give you an answer to that and then he said that he asked me the question to test me if I was a Muslim because Islam is like evil or something.
Another similar incident I had was when I was in a restaurant with my family and another guy and his family who were white and this woman came up to congratulate us for eating together and it not being an issue. It was weird, she was trying to be nice but what she meant was 'it's so good that you can eat together and there's no problem with laughing.' We were just having dinner.
But I never faced any incident where I felt scared and intimidated, it was more preconception, stuff like that.
Uprooting your entire family from one country to another is daunting; were there times during your stay in America when there was friction in the family because of your decision?
Yeah, when I started stand-up in the UK, just before I thought of doing stand up my dad passed away, we had hit rock bottom, we could not pay our bills. So obviously, to do that once and then coming back to America to try to do it again causes friction because I could happily stay in the UK and was lucky enough to make a living doing comedy in the UK without having to go to America. There was obviously friction there, I mean the truth is the friction doesn't come from my wife, she was very supporting, the friction comes from your desire to try and not let them down.
We struggled when I was trying to make it in the stand-up industry in the UK, so I don't want my family to go through that again, it will be a mistake, it is more about the pressure you put on yourself. I don't want to take my wife's support for granted and now I have children, I don't want to see them struggle.
So at the end of the day, if my family turns around and say that they don't want to be in America then it's over because they come first, they come before my job and everything else. So keeping them alongside is going to be important.
How different has the stand-up comedy industry been in the United States for you, when compared to the comedy scenario back home in the UK?
I think there are a lot of similarities, I think my experience as a comedian in both the countries has been very similar. I think the audience here is great, it took me a couple of gigs to get a grasp of the audience, I realized my British accent was a little bit impenetrable so I had to slow down a little bit, but once I got that I really enjoyed the gigs.
There are a lot of comedians in the UK but I think it feels easier to rise up there because it is so much smaller than the States. In the US, the comedy scene is enormous, even just in LA there are so many comedians, I can understand why the idea of trying to garner a following or doing gigs could be intimidating enough to put you off completely.
The stand-up here seems more industry savvy than in Britain, in America the comics know the intricacies of what is required for a successful gig.
However, I think both the countries are competitive, you have to go through the hard yard, working your way up, that is what they have both got in common. In the UK, if you are good you'd get spotted a little earlier than in America where you can be very good for a long time before you start to get any traction.
I also think that there are a lot of great comics in America who have not received any recognition. My overall impression of the States is that it can be more difficult to rise to the top here.
As a modern immigrant family, how difficult was it for you and your family to adapt to Trump’s America?
The feeling across the world is that America is less welcoming than it once was, I guess that's true but I think America is going in the similar direction Britain is going through Brexit, so politically I think the US is just following a similar trajectory.
The truth is that had we moved to other places in the US, we might have found it a bit more challenging than we did, LA, however, is very liberal and my family loves it. It is very difficult to worry about Donald Trump when your studio is this closeby.
When you watch the news you can't help but feel like it colors your impression what America is going to be like, I think coming to America in Trump's era is a very different experience than how it would have felt like in Obama's era.
The general feeling is, you know, people joked about it when I was getting here, my mates were like will you shave your beard because you will not be able to get past the airport. Every joke has an element of truth.
It felt like a different experience coming to Trump's America than it was before.
We witnessed a great comic chemistry with you and your mum in the Asian Provocateur, will we get to see some more of it in the series?
Yeah, my mum is with me and my uncle is with me. You will see a lot of my family, my mom has to say a lot about my life, my career, my family life my wife and the general appearance, you will see a lot of that in the show.
One of the things that's true about the relationship with me and mum is that she is very clear how she feels about what I am doing with my life, so you'll get to see a lot of that in the series.
We know the Greek theatre wasn’t exactly packed on the final day, do you think this entire idea was a mistake?
No, I don't. The truth is that filling the 6,000-seater Greek theatre was my idea to give myself a tangible goal to aim at, I had no idea how it was going to go but I wasn't going to stand and fall by just that.
I am planning on continuing in the United States and that was going to happen regardless of what happened at the Greek theatre. I love American comedy and to be a part of that has been an ambition of mine, it is very important to me.
However, the outcome of the Greek theatre was expected, people would be naive to think that it was going to determine my success or failure. I don't have any regrets.
How would you define your relationship with James Corden? I presume the 2011 'stool' tweet comes back to haunt you every time.
(Ranganathan in 2011 had slammed Corden and has described him as 'less interesting than stools' on Twitter.)
"I've passed stools more interesting than James Corden's presenting tonight. And I'm vegetarian."
James has been a very good friend of mine. I knew him from when we worked in the UK, obviously, he has been a massive success in the US.
He has been kind enough to look out for me, he has tried to help me when he can. We knew each other before I came here, he always helped me. It's a good relationship, obviously, I don't want to continue taking favors because he is very very gracious. He's a good mate and I am very grateful. We've also got to know each other very well ever since I shifted here.
Ranganathan debuted on the British comedy circuit in 2010 and was nominated for Best Newcomer at the 2013 Edinburgh Comedy Awards. The comic, since then, has appeared on several television shows and is best known for his performances on Live At The Apollo, Mock The Week, The Royal Variety Show and A League Of Their Own, among others. The comic was nominated for BAFTA for his hit series Asian Provocateur, which followed his escapades after being sent by his mother to his parents’ homeland of Sri Lanka in an attempt to connect him with his roots. He was also awarded Ents24 Hardest Working Comedian of the Year in 2016.
Just Another Immigrant's ten-episodes, half-hour series air episodes on Friday beginning June 8 at 9 pm.