Arts, Culture & Media

'Community' star Danny Pudi on his childhood and career

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Photograph of Danny Pudi laughing (image by Flickr user Rob Poetsch (by:cc))

Story from The Sound of Young America. Use audio player above to listen to full interview.

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One of the stars in the ensemble cast of "Community," Danny Pudi grew up in a Polish community in Chicago, and was raised by his mother and grandparents, none of whom spoke English. With a Polish mother and Indian father, Pudi didn't look like most of the kids in his neighborhood.

"It was rough because I don't look Polish," says Pudi. "And so, I was always, like the one kid who had to explain why he's there -- your purpose. And as a kid, that's kind of tricky because you're searching for identity, and one of the biggest things you want to do is just blend in. But when people are constantly like 'What? You're brown. What are you doing here? How do you speak Polish?' And I'd be like, 'Well, my dad's from India, and you know he has a big mustache like you do and your dad, so we're on the same page."

His childhood was a wellspring of funny moments. After school, Pudi would watch television with his grandmother, whose favorite shows were "The Love Boat" and "T.J. Hooker." Because she didn't speak English, he would translate for her. "Everything turned into just a really weird comedy," Pudi recalls. "Everything turned into 'Monty Python' when I would explain any kind of drama to my grandma about what was happening with William Shatner."

His family frequently had distant relatives and friends using their house as a landing pad to start a new life in the US. The first time Danny Pudi saw 'Monty Python,' he thought it echoed the nature of his household. He thought, "that was kind of like my upbringing -- everyone taking themselves real seriously -- which they have to as immigrants coming to America. You know, the first thing you want to do is get settled in and build -- build a little empire -- but at the same time, you can't help but acknowledge that there's 50 of us living in the same house, we're brown, but we're Polish, and everyone has giant mustaches."

Although he grew up surrounded by moments the actor describes as "absurd," it wasn't until college at Marquette University that he began to consider a career in comedy. He was nominated by the school theater department for a comedy award for "humor in a positive manner." The honor made him realize that comedy was a skill that could be honed, and after college, Pudi studied comedy at The Second City. 

Since completing his training, Pudi has pursued an acting career, and he has found his ethnic background plays a part in the roles he is offered. Says Pudi: "I've played one Raj, four Sanjays, Mahir, Arash, Abed, Saffa -- that was a good one. I'm trying to think if there's anything… and a Josh." 

Pudi believes that his roles with stereotypic Indian or Middle Eastern names are an attempt to "explain why he's there," just like when he was on the playground in Chicago. He says: "I get it. […] It's not like, you know, 250 million Americans are like me. […] I feel like people feel like there has to be an explanation for why that character exists. And I think 'Sanjay' is an easy way to sort of be like 'Oh I get it, this character's Indian.'"

His role on 'Community' is a thrill for the actor. He says reading the script of the show's pilot, "I was literally trembling because I saw everything so clearly. […] I saw this world of like, second chances, and just really defeated people who are all looking to just sort of form this bond with other people who are also defeated, and who accept their flaws. And it feels like just this great ragtag bunch of people who need to prove something -- that they can accomplish something."

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"The Sound of Young America" is an irreverent weekly arts and entertainment interview program, described by its creator and host, Jesse Thorn as "a public radio show about things that are awesome." More "The Sound of Young America."