With a hugely successful comedy career in the UK that sees the dead-pan British funny man regularly sell out massive venues on tour and smash viewing figures with his hit TV show Asian Provocateur, Romesh Ranganathan had it all to lose when he decided to jump ship and start a new life in the States. Despite a US profile floundering in the negative and with his reluctant family in tow, the stand-up comic booked the legendary Los Angeles venue the Greek Theatre and set out to fill all 5,870 seats… while a camera followed his every move. The result is the hilarious comic doco Just Another Immigrant, streaming on Stan. We talked to Ranganathan about his US jaunt, failing to get a gig in a sex shop and the force of nature that is his Uncle Rags.
What was the idea behind your big move?
I’d been chatting to a director mate of mine. We were sitting in a café and I told him I was thinking about going to America and seeing how I got on over there. When I first started doing stand-up I loved American stand-up so it was an obvious next step career wise. We had this idea of documenting it. I was quite excited about the fact that I had no profile over there so I’d be starting from scratch. Obviously in the UK I do so I’m not gigging as an unknown quantity. That’s what excited me because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
How genuinely terrified were you when you arrived in the States and first stepped into the Greek Theatre and realised the magnitude of what lay ahead?
When I first booked the Greek I thought it would be funny. It would be a weird thing to do. It’s a good target. When I first went there it hit me. It was a wake-up call but at the same time it did what I wanted it to do. By seeing the theatre it put the pressure on me. I’m inherently a very lazy person so by giving myself that target it kicked me into gear which meant getting gigs. Unfortunately, I was being treated like an open mic comedian who had never gigged before because nobody knew who I was. I was doing this as a complete unknown.
You couldn’t even get an open-mic gig at a comedy club in a sex shop. That must have been tough? [Laughs] That was a bad night. I wanted to hit the ground running. I had this Field Of Dreams idea that I could book it, and they would come! It was a mental idea. As soon as I tried to get some stage time to build up some kind of momentum, everyone was saying we don’t know who you are. I ended up doing gigs in the back of pizza places, just to gradually get a name out there. In America it takes years to build up any kind of profile. I was just hoping my UK profile would translate over. It didn’t. I had an epiphany that this was a stupid idea. It took me arriving in Los Angeles to reach that.
Throughout your career you have introduced viewers to your family on-screen, especially your mum, but was it always the case that you were going to have your wife and kids in the show? Were they happy to be part of it?
Doing my shows my family has always been involved but the one person who hasn’t been is my wife. She just doesn’t have any interest in being on TV. In fact, I would go so far as to say she was opposed to it. But because we were doing this documentary she was going to have to be in it as we were documenting my move over there, her and the kids were naturally involved. I had slightly downplayed to her how much she was going to be in it because I knew she would say no! [Laughs] When we were shooting she’d say “you’re filming me a lot more than you said you would?” “No, it’s fine. It will all come out in the edit!” But it didn’t so I’m still dealing with the ramifications of that. The truth is that as important to me as it is making it over there career wise, as soon as my family say they don’t want to do this anymore, then it’s over. That represented as much of a challenge to me. What’s the point in doing it if your family isn’t happy? It also means I can do less work by exploiting the family as much as possible! [Laughs] You know what I mean?
We also get to meet your Uncle Rags…
He is the most excited about the show being shown in Australia. I think for him I am unfortunate thorn in his side on his way to stardom. How he is in the show is how he is in real life. He’s a bit of a crazy character, do you know what I mean?
Whereabouts in Australia does he live?
He lives on the Gold Coast. People seem to think that we have asked him to turn it up or something. But we haven’t. Sometimes we have to rein him in. I probably shouldn’t tell you this… but I will. Where we were based in LA we were living around the corner from this shop that was run by – you obviously know Back To The Future?
The woman that played Marty McFly’s girlfriend ran the shop. So he went in the shop and chatted to her. And he suddenly came back one day to the house and was talking like he’d actually been in Back To The Future. He loved being near Hollywood and around the whole thing. The thing about him is, the reason to have him there is that he is relentlessly positive. One of the most positive human beings I’ve ever met. And I am not. So having him there was a good energy to have. But he is exactly like he is on the show. And that is how he is 24/7. And now the fact that they are showing the show in Australia, he is finally going to get the recognition.
It must have been great having a family member come over to help you deal with moments like your “beer” with Jim Norton and Pauly Shore. Those kinds of moments are pretty excruciating for the viewer but for you they must have been just horrible.
Yeah. It was absolutely horrendous. The thing that I have noticed about America much more than Britain is they are all about networking. It’s all like making your name known. When I started doing gigs out there everyone was talking to each other and talking about opportunities. And stuff like that. And I find it horrific. I find that whole thing horrific. Even in the UK when I started doing stand-up I’d say to my agent it’s probably better if I don’t talk to people about my career. In terms of networking it’s so against my instincts. I’m just not good at it. You saw for yourself how bad I am at it. It was a challenge. The good thing about having my family out there – with my wife and kids – they don’t think of me as a comedian. I am just this useless human being who lives with them. It’s very much kind of a leveller.
No matter how bad things get is there a part of your brain thinking excellent, this is going to be a great shot? Or are you so used to the camera being there that it doesn’t even come into your head that you are shooting a programme as well?
The truth is that you don’t ever forget that you are on camera. I always find that the stuff that is true is always the funnier stuff for me. To the point where it becomes so excruciating I think I have arguably been too honest. So when something like that happens and it is horrendous, you do think that this is horrific at the time but at the same time you think, well at least this will be interesting or funny to watch. I hope. The worst is if it is excruciating at the time and then it’s boring to watch. That would be the absolute worst.
Just Another Immigrant streams on Stan from June 9.