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What I Learned from Hosting a South Asian Game Show
Desi Chain: A Postmortem
I normally send only one email per month, but I thought many of you would find this interesting. Separately, I’m obsessed with Succession on HBO and published this piece right before this week’s episode. Alright, let’s get on with it…
In the midst of the pandemic, I launched and hosted an online game show called Desi Chain. It ran weekly for 15 episodes from January through May 2021. It failed. Why bring this up two years later? Because it still bothers me that it tanked. Now, with some perspective, I have some theories as to why. And as a comedian and speaker, I view all of this as a fascinating case study in the sociology of communities, perhaps even a TEDx Talk.
If you want to see it, the Facebook page is still up: https://www.facebook.com/desichain. And of course, thank you to so many of you who did support and participate. And above all, to Micah for trusting me with his baby. That dude is one super sharp and cool guy.
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Through a mutual friend, an Atlanta-based man named Micah Hart contacted me about starting a South Asian version of his creation called Who Knows One? It’s based on a concept called “Jewish Geography,” whereby when two Jews meet each other, they try to figure out who all their mutual friends are. South Asians (“Desis”) do this, too. In fact, that’s how we introduced the game to people:
You know how it feels like all Desi people know each other? Well, Desi Chain is a Zoom-based game in which contestants use their personal networks to find someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who knows a specific person designated “The Chosen One.” It’s kinda like a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” for the Desi community.
Each week, we promoted it with a flyer…
People tuned in to Facebook Live and would listen to me introduce the show:
Welcome, everybody, to the new online show, Desi Chain, where we try to… Connect the Dots! I’m your host, Rajiv Satyal, coming to you, live, from Beautiful Downtown Burbank, California. Here’s how it works: We have two contestants that I’m about to bring into the Zoom. Their objective is to find The Chosen One, a Desi person in the world. I’m gonna give clues and they’re gonna use their real-life networks to find the person (and they can use non-Desis, too). So, they message somebody, shoot them our Zoom link, and give them the clues. If that person knows The Chosen One, then great. If not, then they try to find someone they think might know them. The idea is to create a “daisy chain” until we reach The Chosen One. No googling. We have one hour to do this. Whoever brings The Chosen One into the Zoom wins: you’ll yell, “Touch Brown!”
I listed out the rules and gave clues as to who The Chosen One is. This all might sound confusing, but it wasn’t. People got it. They knew what to do. And it helped that we held a pre-game call with the contestants so they were really on the ball.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, this is what it looked like. These are screenshots from two different weeks:
We even had celebrity contestants like Miss America Nina Davuluri…
…and Aparna from Indian Matchmaking…
And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is probably worth a million. Here’s the full February 11, 2021, episode:
After four months of trying a lot of different ideas, I gave up. Why?
First, the positives:
Several people told me, "You really have something here." To boot, we had a small group of rabid fans: people who messaged and commented that they changed their Thursday night plans around to watch the show. And I could clearly see people enjoying themselves. So, through both self-evaluation and honest conversations, I know that I did well as a host. Humbly, I don't think it was a talent issue.
Our initial numbers were relatively decent (70 live viewers is strong; no less than Maria Menounos often struggles to pull 50), so it wasn’t a marketing issue. In fact, when I attended a pretty hip birthday party in New York, several people walked up to me and asked, “You host that online game show, right?”
This might not be a pro, per se, but as a benchmark, the original Jewish version consistently averaged 280 live viewers since its inception, which is hella impressive, but it also plateaued. It’s 2023 and it never really “took off” into the thousands. There was a ceiling. We’re now out of the pandemic… but I do wanna offer a hearty congratulations that Micah’s still going; they just celebrated their 3rd anniversary!
Alright, so the negatives, a.k.a., the stark reality:
Our numbers gradually and steadily declined, from live viewers in the 70s to the 20s. We bottomed out around 12 (!) and eventually rebounded to the 20s.
Many of those folks didn't return, so it could’ve been a product issue.
What We Tried
Email List: Each week, I added the participants to an ever-growing bcc: distribution list. The list topped out at 212 people, which is nothing to shake a stick at.
Aiming to Surge: Many self-published authors use the tactic of asking all of their friends to buy their book within the first hour of release, knowing it can land them on a Best Seller list. Numbers beget numbers. When people tuned in and saw only 20 people watching Desi Chain, they left. We knew that, if we could somehow convince 100 people to tune in for two weeks in a row, we could turn this around quickly. Sadly, despite the fact that I worked very hard for people at least to turn their computers on and pull up the video, even if they didn’t watch it, most people simply didn’t do that.
What We Didn’t Try
We never got around to doing more of these but I’m not sure they would’ve made a huge difference:
Make a promo video. The Jewish version had one. We could’ve made a two-min video and asked people to share it.
Book Contestants with large followings.
Encourage viewers to all do the same thing during the show: Desis love to drink whiskey or chai or water in a stainless steel cup.
Conduct a tournament with a prize at the end.
Edit 30-second clips to syndicate across Instagram and TikTok — and ask my more successful friends to post/share.
Bring Aunties on as "Super Connectors." Micah always said this is indeed a unique aspect of our network.
Here, I’ll dive into what I find the most interesting piece. Finally, huh? Some of this might come off as harsh, but I believe I’ve more than earned the right to discuss these things, given the Herculean effort I put into Desi Chain and all of my other hosting gigs over the course of two decades.
I could’ve entitled this section…
Why Jews Are Better Than Us
…though I probably couldn't cover that point in such a short post.
Micah and I debriefed weekly, and we were both confused as to why the Jewish version was so much more successful.
I will say this: I love Micah; he and I were largely on the same page. But we did have one disagreement and so we made a critical mistake. I really wanted to start broadcasting from my own Facebook page. We threw away one of our greatest assets: I have 10K friends + followers on my FB profile and 25K+ on my FB page... shouldn't we just have live-streamed from there instead of starting from scratch on facebook.com/desichain?
That said, I think there more fundamental reasons than this. Reason? Because we were hitting 70 live viewers an episode, which is more than enough to build on.
Anyway, I’ve numbered them to make it easier to discuss, but there’s really no particular order. Here goes:
1. Indo-Entity Crisis
There’s a brewing identity crisis amongst my people in America. This might extend around the globe, but focusing on what I know, I can tell you that there’s no consensus on what to call ourselves. Sure, other communities have grappled with this: “African American” vs. “Black.” “Hispanic” vs. “Latino.” In an effort to be more inclusive of eight countries, many Brown people are using “South Asian.” I applaud inclusion, but the Indian identity is getting lost. There’s even a very funny LA-based comedy group called South Asian AF. You know who’s South AF? Indians.
(IMO, I’d just use “Indo.” Yes, it sounds more like “India” than “Pakistan” or “Bangladesh,” but India is by far its largest country and is also the origin point for all these folks. Indo-American would cover it.)
So, it’s difficult to describe the show: did I host an Indian game show or a South Asian game show? As long as we keep having these internal battles, it’s hard just to back the car out of the driveway. It took us a long time to brainstorm a name. Though “Desi” is apparently not accepted by everyone, it seemed to ring the most true. But we expended a lot of energy on this when it could’ve been better used to build the show.
2. Cultural Divisions
The Jewish community is probably the smallest English-speaking group on Earth. The English-speaking Desi community is the largest. So, it's an issue of scale. Moreover, it's fragmented. Yes, we’re mixing more and city-based Zoomers do tend to have a diverse set of friends. But…
If you’re over 25 and Hindu, let’s be honest: how many Muslim friends are in your social circle?
Though I die inside to write this, maybe I tried to be too inclusive too fast. Instead of booking "diverse" contestants, the path might have been to book the typical Priya Shah from New Jersey and win with the "traditional" Desi before branching out. Again, I don't love this from a DE&I perspective, but from a business POV, it might've led to higher numbers, which would have allowed us to provide an even larger platform for connection. Shout-out to Priya Shah. We had some crazy times on the turnpike.
3. We’re Late
The original Jewish version launched at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were looking for something to do. They started tuning in and the habit stuck. By the time we launched the Desi version in nearly February 2021, people's habits were already formed. Even if it took us much longer to extricate ourselves from the pandemic, the zeitgeist emotion was that we were rounding a corner and emerging from Covid. Did we really wanna watch people on Zoom after Zooming all day?
4. We’re Early
I don’t mean we’re on time. But actually… let’s define “we.” It’s a running joke that Indians/South Asians run late. However, this applies to my parents’ (Boomer) generation more than my (Gen-X) generation. Over the course of the last 15 years, I’ve noticed that we consider it uncool to start events late. Many of the shows I do or attend started on-time or very close. Like, an 8 PM show would begin by 8:10 PM or earlier. That was not true during most of my parents’ lives, when an 8 PM show didn’t have a prayer of going off till well past 8:30 PM.
But here’s the other thing that has changed: shockingly, we ran into a lot of Desis' declaring that 9 PM is late. It was infuriating to both Micah and me, perhaps more to me since I always thought of us as a late culture, but the reality is that Desis seem to sleep earlier — or at least are more reluctant to ping each other — than Jewish people.
5. No Shared Experience
Micah told me that Jewish folks play an informal game called Jewish Geography, whereby when they meet, they try to trace who their common friends are. Yes, Desis do that, but we don't have a name for it (though we do now: Desi Chain). And we don't have a shared experience: I learned from Micah that almost every Jewish person he knew went to some kind of Jewish camp. The closest thing we have is college dance teams and corporate networks, like P&G or Teloitte & Douche. But not everybody belonged to a dance team. And despite my joke that P&G stands for Punjabis & Gujaratis, corporations aren't actually true Desi networks.
6. Jews Acting Like Jews
Micah asserted that the success of his show was rooted in the fact that it's "Jews acting like Jews." Jewish people tuned in to watch their people “acting Jewish.” It’s hard to describe, but there was a cadence, a way, a rhythm they’d all fall into. I see the same with Black and Latino peeps. I’m not so sure I see that with South Asians. Yes, if you go to an Indian party, invariably, many of us will end up on the dance floor. But not everybody. And there are certain mannerisms Indians do (the head nod) but that’s mostly Indians in India. I’m not so sure there are words or movements that stateside Brown people use when we’re together. The closest I can come is… chai. Of course, it’s impossible to name something that literally everybody in a group does; there are always exceptions. But if we’re trying to find the thing that all Desis do and only Desis do, it’s drink chai*. (Yes, you can get a chai latte at Starbucks, but it’s not indigenous to White culture.) We did ask people to get their chai out, but per Point #4, for many, it was too late to drink it.
*Much like how the password for many U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War was the answer to Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. The number was something every American knew but only Americans knew: 56.
7. All I Do Is Win
Jews are self-deprecating. Desis are not. When Azhar Usman, Hari Kondabolu, and I toured India in 2012 (in fact, calling our tour Make Chai Not War), the most common question we received from the throngs of reporters based in the motherland was: "How are you going to make Indians laugh when they don't have a sense of humor?"
(Well, besides, "What are you doing after the show, you strapping young buck? Wanna come back to my place and Bang-Galore?")
I was taken aback, because South Asians are the backbone of the support of my comedy career. But over the course of many years, I came to understand what they meant: standup comedy, which originated in the West, often involves putting oneself down. It's the American, and to an even larger extent, British way. Desis perceive themselves as very much still on the come-up, so we embody the Japanese cultural trait of "saving face." Desis fear ignominy. We do not want to be humiliated in front of our peers. It's something to which I cannot relate at all (seriously). Perhaps because I have no sense of shame: if I strike out, I can always make a joke. Humor is my failsafe. But the fact remains: several of my Brown friends outright expressed to me that they're scared to participate in case they fail or lose.
8. No Man’s Land
We played in no man's land. Whenever I used to watch journalists at the end of their career talk about how their favorite interviews weren't of major celebrities but rather of everyday people, I figured they were just full of crap. Now, though, I feel that. I believed the charm of this show was that the everyday person was connected to the everyday person. So, I avoided booking my actor and comedian friends. But because of whom I know, we often ended up with entertainers as our contestants and chosen ones, anyway. That isn't exactly the everyday Desi, who's far more likely to be a computer engineer or a doctor or a Priya Shah. So, maybe we should’ve gone whole-hog and booked people with large followings. And because it wasn’t the Jewish version, we weren’t restricted from hogs. Amirite?
In the end, I’m glad I gave this a shot over the pandemic. (It was between that and writing a book. And I’m very glad I didn’t start the book, because I really needed to become a father before writing it. What’s it about? Keep following me to find out.)
As a host, I love connecting people in both my professional and personal lives. And the messages I received made it all worth it. People said the show made them feel a little less alone and more connected. It gave them something to do, and lest we forget, there was a lot of death and pain through the pandemic. If I could provide a small ray of light to a few people, I’ll take it.
Rajiv Satyal is a host and comedian. He resides in Los Angeles, California.
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