Nimesh Patel doesn’t walk over familiar ground in his latest special. The title alone spells that out loud and clear: Lucky Lefty OR: I Lost My Right Nut And All I Got Was This Stupid Special. The damn good special, which is available to watch on YouTube, is about Patel’s experience being diagnosed with and treated for testicular cancer.
Once again, Patel is doing his own thing on stage.
Lucky Lefty is his second self-produced special following Jokes to Get You Through Quarantine and Thank You China. In 2017, Patel was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live. In addition to SNL, he wrote for Hasan Minhaj’s The White House Correspondents Dinner and the Chris Rock-hosted Academy Awards.
Patel is on the road at the moment, and at the beginning of September, he’ll kick off his Fast & Loose Tour. If you haven’t seen Patel perform yet, start live or go with his Lucky Lefty special, which is 40-minutes of both comforting and cringe-inducing comedy.
Recently, Patel talked to us about his latest special, his experiences on the road, and how cannabis helps his writing.
High Times: When did you know the material was ready for a special?
Nimesh Patel: Well, I feel that way the instant I start to hate it already, so I just want to get it out. But I knew that the material I was working on was gonna be something special, so I decided I would give it about a year as the calendar amount of time I wanted to spend on something. And that’s how I worked on that one. Usually, though, as a comic, it’s like the instant you’ve said something more than once, it’s like, “Alright, I need to retire this immediately.”
Your story, though, it’s not a story you’ve heard in every special. You must have known this could be a comedy gold mine, sadly…
Yes. You know, as it was happening, I was taking notes every day. I recapped every day what was going on. It just so happened that every day of the five days that the whole situation was happening, something stupid happened. I was like, “I can’t wait to hit the stage.” I hit the stage at the Cellar about a week after surgery. Once I hit the stage and I knew I said the things I had experienced and everyone laughed, I was like, “Okay, this is gonna be something.”
Congratulations on being cancer-free, by the way.
[Laughs] Oh, thank you, man.
People are typically very uncomfortable talking about cancer, as you pointed out in the special. When you first performed some of this material, though, did you get the sense that talking about testicular cancer is different for a crowd?
I think when I started, I was a little coy and kind of cognizant of the fact that cancer’s the other C word and people are like, “Oh shit. Is this what it’s gonna be?” People get solemn. But the instant I ripped the bandaid off and made it aware that everyone could laugh at it, then people were like, “Alright, well he’s laughing at himself. We might as well.”
Strangely made me feel better when you’d just casually acknowledge we’re all going to die.
Yeah, yeah. Sorry, sorry for that bleak outlook.
[Laughs] I didn’t think it was that bleak, just honest. It wasn’t like a five-minute monologue about this is meaningless. It was just casually being like, “Hey, just a reminder, we’re all going.”
Yes, thank you for saying that. You know, it was me, I think when I talk to people who have had actual cancer [Laughs], I think they get a little annoyed that it’s treated so casually. But people who haven’t experienced it are kind of relieved that there’s someone who can talk about it without the “woe is me” attitude. I’m not saying all cancer patients are like that. I think many people have a better version of my attitude. They’re just not comedians.
Was the reaction to the material positive right from the start?
Yeah. I mean, I started by talking about the fact that my balls were shaved while I was awake, and that was the funniest part of the whole thing, outside of the grand irony. Once that unbelievable thing was out and people were laughing at it, it was easy to realize that it was the climax of the set. As long as I happily built towards that, it would be a fun rollercoaster ride for everybody.
Is there also something comforting about controlling the conversation about your experience by being on stage and talking about it?
Yes, I think you nailed it. Now I never have to talk about it outside of the stage. I mentioned at one point in the set the biggest fear that people who survived cancer or went through cancer had is social isolation. It’s one of those studies that I read. People who aren’t comedians don’t have the outlet to go on stage and talk about it as freely as I do. So, they talk about it at places like Chipotle with their friends, and that can be burdensome. Luckily for me, I don’t have to bring it up over guacamole. I can just say it on stage, and when we’re out watching the Knicks, we can talk about how shitty the Knicks are instead of how shitty it is that one of my balls is gone. It kind of leaves things compartmentalized, which is great.
[Laughs] How much material did you find yourself having? Like, was it just a treasure trove of jokes?
Yes, it was. I was incredulous at the amount of ridiculous things that were happening every day. When reality is stranger than fiction, that’s what it felt like. The only thing I had to be cautious of was not overdoing it with the ball puns. They were flowing out easily, and I had to stop myself because I realized it was getting excessive. At one point, I remember being on stage and doing like 20 ball puns in a row just to get it out of my system [Laughs]. Around the fourth one, the crowd was quiet, like, “Alright, man, come on.” But I was like, “Nope, I gotta do all 16 more of these.”
There’s a nice push and pull in the special. You can say an uncomfortable joke, but then a minute later, you’re like, I feel for this guy.
Thank you. Yeah, that was a challenge. I think a lot of the challenge was not becoming the sympathetic character in the story. In the one I told, it’s easy to be that sympathetic person, like, “Oh man, this guy…” So, how do I make you not like me but still like the joke? That was a deliberate choice. I wanted to veer away from the “woe is me” comedy, where it’s like, “Oh my God, can you believe this shit happened? I felt so bad about this shit happening to me.” I made sure to avoid that. The best way to do that is to have hard jokes that are unexpected.
I wanted to design the set like that because it’s easy to root for me, and then suddenly you don’t want to root for me because I said this stupid thing, but it’s too funny to not laugh at, you know?
Like, the women’s rights jokes.
Right. And by the end, when my wife says the ultrasound joke and calls it back when I’m getting my ball shaved, it always gets an applause break. It’s always from the women whose arms were folded up front when I said the women’s rights thing. I can track it. It’s a hundred percent conversion rate [Laughs]. That’s my favorite type of comedy, where you don’t want to like me, but that joke is too good. And now I brought it all back, and you can feel good about how you feel about me being an asshole.
Given the experience you’re talking about, did you also think you’d get more free passes for those jokes?
I’m sure subconsciously that was going on in my head. There were moments throughout the development of the set where if something didn’t work, I would be like, “Guys, remember I had cancer, remember?” [Laughs] But at the same time, I didn’t want to play that card too hard. I didn’t want to be a victim or play victim comedy. This is just something that happened to me, and I didn’t want to use it excessively. I don’t think I did.
Before you even first told your wife’s joke, did you know it’d win back some of the audience?
When I wrote that joke, I knew it would be the save, and once I said it on stage, it became the save. I knew it could clear up the earlier tension and mess that I made with the inappropriate comment directed toward women. Once I discovered it would be the perfect place for the callback, I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. It solves everything for this particular problem set.”
How have your experiences in writers’ rooms shaped how you structure your act and material?
My first writing job was with the Oscars and Chris Rock. Being in that writers’ room with about 20 people, and I was relatively new in comedy, it was intimidating. But what I learned from that experience was that there was no need to be timid. You’re in the room for a reason, so throw a bunch of stuff out and see what happens. I had a similar approach when I was at SNL.
As for how it impacted my writing on stage or for myself, it taught me that it’s a numbers game. Just keep throwing stuff out there, and even if I bombed in front of Chris Rock and other funny people, bombing in front of non-comedians shouldn’t bother me as much. It’s about being comfortable with throwing things out there and experimenting.
Working with Chris Rock, I remember we were working on a joke about acting [being] brave during the Oscars when there were no black nominees. I pitched a joke about acting not being brave and instead said drinking a glass of water in Flint, Michigan is brave, considering their water crisis. Chris tweaked it to say drinking a glass of Kool-Aid in Flint, Michigan, and it hit even harder. He came up to me afterward and emphasized the importance of specificity. That lesson stuck with me, and I try to apply it to my writing whenever possible. The more specific you can be with a reference that people still get, the better it’s going to be.
As you said, don’t be timid, so when did you start feeling comfortable on stage as a comic?
I think almost immediately [Laughs]. I either faked it or never had stage fright. But about two years into comedy, my friend Mike Denny approached Michael Che to start a show called Broken Comedy. We did the show for a total of five to six years. Every Monday night, we would go up on stage and develop as comics. We started with only a few people in a room meant for a hundred, constantly bombing and trying out new material. But we learned to be okay with the silence and the small laughs from three people, and that took years of consistent shows. It helped me become comfortable with any situation.
Doing spots at Stand Up New York and Caroline’s in front of small and sometimes rowdy crowds also contributed to my comfort on stage. Those experiences built up over time and prepared me for any stage perspective. Now, after being on the road for two and a half years, I’ve seen almost everything you can throw at a comic, which further solidifies my comfort on stage.
What’s been thrown at you on stage?
In Phoenix, the fire alarm went off about 10 or 15 minutes into my set. It wasn’t a typical fire alarm; it was the mall’s fire alarm, loud as hell. For about seven minutes, I had to navigate the situation with uncertainty. I didn’t know if it was a real fire, and no one from the club was communicating with me. Eventually, someone said it was a false alarm, but those seven or eight minutes were completely unexpected. I had never experienced anything like that before. I had to hold the audience’s attention and keep them engaged. Fortunately, everyone had a great time, and no one was hurt. It was a unique learning experience.
Bombing nights are often talked about because they teach you a lot, but killing it on stage can be just as informative. When you’re in the zone and everything is clicking, it gives you a surge of confidence. You learn how to capture that momentum and use it to your advantage, like throwing in new tags or tweaking jokes on the spot. It’s about harnessing that energy and being able to replicate it even on nights when you’re not killing. Having the confidence to try new things and explore different angles comes from those successful moments on stage. So, there are valuable lessons to be learned from both bombing and killing.
Does cannabis play a role in your creative process?
It’s something I’ve incorporated a lot, and I’m constantly experimenting with how to utilize it. In the past few years, I’ve honed in on how I use it. Typically, after a set, I’ll go back to my hotel room and either smoke a little or smoke a lot. Then I’ll pace around, think of new material, or revisit the set I just performed. Most of the time, the ideas that come up are garbage, just scattered thoughts. But that one time out of ten, I’ll have an interesting angle I hadn’t considered before or a funnier way to say something.
Do you usually smoke or enjoy edibles?
Now, I’m trying to cut back on smoking because I’m 37 and my lungs hurt. So, I’ve been using edibles more. I’m still figuring out the right dosage because I’ve taken 25-milligram edibles and ended up barely being able to talk. But just last night, for example, I took a 12-milligram edible, waited for it to kick in, and then sat at my desk. Suddenly, ideas started flowing, and I could see what was unlocked in my brain as I stared at my outline.
It’s like a tool that helps me access a different part of my personality and allows me to be more playful and goofy. It’s been a valuable addition to my writing process. It’s all about finding what works for you and experimenting with different techniques. I’m always learning and adapting, and incorporating cannabis into my writing process has been a positive and transformative experience.