Profile: Cleaning Up in the Comedy Business
Former Intel techie flourishes as a funnyman with profanity-free act.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Dan Nainan once heard that if you do what you fear, the death of fear is certain. So Nainan, who had a fear of heights, went out and bungee-jumped. Then, to overcome his trepidation of being underwater, he went scuba diving.
How did he conquer his fear of public speaking? He took a comedy class.
Though Nainan originally felt “hideously terrified” about performing in front of an audience, he stumbled onto his calling as a professional comedian in a serendipitous turn of events. He was working for Intel Corp., when the company’s events planner saw a tape of his first comedy performance. Subsequently, Intel asked Nainan to speak at a dinner for 250 people.
“That went well so they requested I perform in front of 2,500 people at a sales convention,” he recalls. “During the show, which included my impersonating [former U.S. president] Bill Clinton, my left leg shook uncontrollably from nerves, but the crowd’s reaction was amazing. It was eight o’clock in the morning and they were dying of laughter. After the show, several people asked if I was a professional comedian.”
That was 1999. By 2001 Nainan had left Intel to pursue comedy full time. Today, he travels the globe as a professional entertainer, speaking to a variety of audiences. Nainan’s brand of humor is clean and designed for universal appeal. He’s also an actor, having landed a small role in the popular TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and a spot in a U.S. commercial for Apple Inc. (where he’s swathed in bubble wrap!).
Nainan, a member of Toastmasters 90210 in Beverly Hills, California, joined Toastmasters four years ago to polish his presentation skills. He didn’t want to use profanity in his act, which made Toastmasters the perfect venue in which to practice. A chance meeting with U.S. comedian Jerry Seinfeld deepened Nainan’s resolve to stick with clean humor:
“I met Seinfeld, who is one of my favorite comedians, at a club one night when he performed. We chatted for a few minutes and he told me that if you work clean, you can work just about anywhere, and I’ve definitely found that to be true.”
Working Diverse Gigs
Nainan performs at all kinds of events, from corporate functions and conventions to charity galas and “Sweet 16” parties. He’s also performed for well-known people such as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Nainan says good comedy explores the personal, and touches on the everyday aspects of life. In his act, he often jokes playfully about his Japanese mother and Indian father. Here’s a snippet from a performance in front of 4,000 people:
One day I was driving in the car with my family, and we passed cows grazing in a field. My father said [Dan uses an Indian accent], “‘Graze.’ There’s a word that can have a lot of meanings. For example, cows can graze.” I said, “You can be grazed by a bullet.” And then my mom says [Dan adopts a Japanese accent], “Or it’s a kind of a donut!”
“Dan’s material resonates with everyone and he never uses profanity as a crutch,” says fellow comedian and actor Paul Singh, a Toastmaster and president of the PowerToasters club in Washington, D.C. “A lot of television comedians are such potty mouths that every other word is bleeped out. But Dan really knows how to write a joke and deliver it without offending anyone.”
Friend and former roommate Nykki Hardin echoes those sentiments, praising Nainan as a comic who’s not only very funny but who refrains from sexist and racist comments. In other words, he doesn’t try to create an ugly, exaggerated persona to get laughs. “I love that his jokes reflect what is actually happening in the world,” says Hardin.
Revenge of a Nerd
Given his current success, it seems logical to assume that Nainan was born funny. “People think I was the class clown, but that’s actually the furthest thing from the truth,” he says. “I was a computer nerd – bespectacled, skinny, unathletic, hopelessly shy and withdrawn – and I got bullied a lot. Back then, the concept of speaking in front of people would have seemed impossible.”
The only inkling Nainan had during high school that he might be hiding a funny streak was when he occasionally blurted something out that made the whole class laugh. He also enjoyed making prank calls, especially using a Japanese accent.
Is Nainan funny in real life now? “Definitely,” says Singh. “Dan has the gift of audio – hearing sounds that normal people can’t hear – and then re-creating them. He is especially good at impersonations. It’s not uncommon for me to have two or three voice mails from him imitating me or someone famous.
“Because he has the ability to do many voices, when he makes a prank phone call he always gets me. One time he impersonated a phone operator asking if I would accept a collect call from Dan Nainan.”
Though it may seem like a daunting task to make audiences laugh, injecting humor into speeches and presentations is actually easier than many people think, says Nainan. “You don’t have to be a professional comedian to use humor,” he says. “You already have the necessary tools – especially if you’re involved in Toastmasters.”
Eliciting laughter is as simple as taking good notes, he adds: “Good humor doesn’t come from spending hours writing a speech the night before. It comes from observing what happens to you over the course of days and weeks and recording it. You should be constantly looking for occurrences in your own life that are funny, because good comedic writers base their routines on the little things that happen to them.”
Connect to the Crowd
To choose the best material for a stand-up comedy show, Nainan points to the age-old rule of knowing your audience and considering the type of life they lead.
“If the members of your audience all have children, for example, think of funny, everyday things that happen when you’re a child or a parent,” he says. “Likewise, if you’re speaking to college students, talk about issues they can relate to such as dorm-room life and pulling all-nighters to study. The greatest comedy comes from extraordinary twists on the ordinary.”
Nainan also suggests associating with more advanced presenters and speakers from whom you can learn. “For two years, I toured with comedian Russell Peters,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience, and I learned quite a bit. There is no better way to learn about comedy than to hang out with someone who is at a higher level. Such an individual can suggest jokes and give you tips that you might not otherwise have thought about.”
Perhaps most important of all, test your material. “Good comedians are constantly trying out their material on audiences, which is the only way you can tell if it is truly funny,” Nainan says. “Humor can be used in just about any type of speech, and it’s often really appreciated. Toastmasters clubs give you an opportunity to try your speeches and presentations out on a regular basis, and that’s priceless.” For more information about Dan Nainan, visit www.danielnainan.com.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.