On May 30, 2015, Sameena Mustafa, Prateek Srivastava, and Rishika Murthy draped Indian fabric across the walls of Bughouse Theater, cooked up a batch of samosas, and hosted a comedy show. It was the premiere of Simmer Brown, the name of both their monthly stand-up showcase and their south-Asian comedy collective. The inaugural event sold out, and now, one year later, the group are celebrating with a special anniversary program.
The trio met at an open mike just more than a year ago and bonded instantly—they found they had more in common with each other than with the typically white, male comedians who dominate lineups across the city. Though it was important for the group to represent their Indian culture onstage, their real goal was to create a forum where audiences could expect a diverse roster of comedians who didn't just tell dick jokes.
"The impetus for this particular show wasn't 'No white people allowed!,'" Srivastava says. "It wasn't even 'the Diversity Hour Show.' It was 'Let's find people who we find funny who aren't necessarily performing together, and let's represent those comics that aren't getting the push that they deserve to be getting.'"
That objective doesn't apply only to comedians. Several of Simmer Brown's shows have featured underrepresented variety acts such as a mind reader, a belly dancer, and a rapping violinist. The disparate lineup and the BYOB location have brought and continue to attract an equally mixed crowd, one that might normally avoid a comedy club with a two-drink minimum. And the tradition of serving samosas to the audience has carried over from that first show.
"It's like an Indian-hospitality thing," Mustafa says. "You're coming into our home, so we're going to feed you, then we're going to entertain you." But make no mistake, though the hosts embrace their heritage, they're not here to make fun of it. On a scale from Russell Peters to Aziz Ansari, they find themselves somewhere in the middle.
- Joshua Macwan
- Rishika Murthy
"I think a lot of people, when they see we're doing comedy, they kind of expect us to do imitations of our parents or do accents, and that's something that we don't do," Mustafa says. "I have done accents of other ethnicities [laughs]."
Mustafa, Srivastava, and Murthy perform stand-up sets every month, and past guest comics include Dave Helem, Azhar Usman, Emily Galati, Sherman Edwards, and Kellye Howard. The one-year anniversary celebration will feature three headlining acts: Chastity Washington, Kristen Toomey, and Erica Nicole Clark.
Simmer Brown plan to do more than produce a monthly comedy night: along with expanding their schedule to include more one-offs across the city, the group have started a podcast, hope to create Web videos, and are in talks with Chicago Desi Youth Rising about teaching a stand-up workshop to young kids in local south-Asian communities.
"My main reason for doing this is to convince young high school Indian kids out there to not be a doctor—be a comedian," Murthy says.
The number one focus, however, will always be to provide a showcase for worthy comics of all genders and ethnicities. "I want to make sure that we're getting the voices we're assembling heard," Mustafa says. "That's what we're trying to do—create this forum, this space, this collective, which is about representing the voices that aren't normally heard." v