As a comic, Milan Patel admits he's still in development. One thing he's already figured out, though, is that being a dick doesn't really suit him.
"I used to be very aggressive onstage and get really mad at people," he says from a table at Muchas Gracias on Northeast Weidler Street. "I don't know how I haven't gotten the shit beaten out of me."
Watching him now, either in front of a crowd or between mouthfuls of taquitos, it's hard to imagine Patel ever fit the "angry young man" profile. Frankly, it doesn't seem like he'd have the energy for it. Onstage, as in conversation, his demeanor is best described as "between naps," and his bits about Jamba Juice and the length of his butt crack hardly suggest there's a cauldron of rage simmering beneath his deadpan exterior. But until about a year ago, if an audience had the temerity not to laugh at his jokes—or, worse, talk over them—well, God help their souls.
"There's a point at which you're just laying into somebody and it's not funny anymore," Patel says. "I became the asshole."
So scratch "in-your-face jerk" off the list of potential comedic personae. As for the kind of comedian Patel actually wants to be, that's still a work in progress. At age 26, he's outgrown the suffocating-in-irony anti-comedy he gravitated toward as a teenager, but hasn't yet lived long enough to feel comfortable assuming the role of wizened truth-teller. For now, he's sticking with what he knows—which, as a 20-something stuck in that peculiar spot between college and real adulthood, is basically nothing. But at least he knows that, and that's something to build on.
With his slackerish affect and bedheaded look, Patel comes across like the shy, quiet kid who finally got someone to ask what he thinks, and he's using the opportunity to express all the strange, mundane thoughts he used to keep to himself. Obviously, it's worked out well for him so far. Because truth be told, that's pretty much exactly who he is.
Growing up in Vancouver, Wash., Patel indeed mostly kept his head down. In high school, he was less into comedy than "comedy shit"—he liked funny things, but never thought of standup as something he'd ever want to try. Nevertheless, his senior year, he signed up to do a five-minute routine at a talent show. He decided to perform the show as a character who was really nervous, "because I was really nervous," he says. He mostly stuck to cringingly unfunny anti-humor: "Here's a funny story that happened to me. I was at a vending machine, and I pressed the button for Coke, but Pepsi came out. So that was funny."
"I think I just wanted attention," he says. "Everyone wants attention, no matter how shy they are."
Somehow, it got the audience to laugh, and the reaction pushed him to keep going. While attending the University of Washington, Patel played open mics around Seattle, testing out different approaches to telling jokes, but generally trying to entertain his friends before anyone else. After graduation, he spent another year up north finding his feet as a performer before moving back in with his mother in Vancouver for what he thought would be a brief stopover before continuing on to Los Angeles. Three years later, he's still there.
"I was just living here at home, and it was just easy. And I was getting stage time," he says. "Portland is like anywhere—if you stick around long enough and people see you, things get better and better."
In the years since coming back to town, Patel has gradually moved away from the metacomedy and absurd nonjokes he started with and has begun working on material drawn from his real life. It's been a challenge, mostly because he suspects his life at this point isn't really worth drawing from. But his awareness of that fact—that he might not have anything to say, but there's a mic in his hand, so he's going to say something—is what makes his current stuff click. "I'm pretty stupid," he'll often confess onstage. But that won't stop him from disputing the perceived vastness of space, or vehemently defending his uncircumcised penis, or advising his even-younger self that it's best if you "don't ever tell anyone how you feel about anything."
What he doesn't talk about is anything related to being Indian. When he steps onstage, Patel says he can sense what the audience wants to hear from him—the customary joke about his name or family. He skips that.
"They'll be like, 'Say it! Tell us what you are!' They want it so bad, I can tell, and I just avoid it completely," he says. "They want you to address it. But if you don't address it and you just move on and say, 'I'm all these other things, too,' people forget by the middle of your set. Then, they're just listening to a comedian."
GO: WW's Funniest Five showcase, hosted by Adam Pasi, is at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St. 7 pm Tuesday, Nov. 28. $10.