‘Coffee Shop Names’: Finding authenticity in comedy with Deepak Sethi

Portrait of male airline pilot with bright blue sky behind

The ‘Family Guy’ writer makes his directorial debut at the Tribeca Film Festival with a short that turns culture clashing into comedy

By Landon Peoples

Want to hear a joke? Film-maker and animation writer Deepak Sethi walks into a coffee shop and orders a peppermint mocha (hold the cream). And when the barista asks for a name for the order, he replies: ‘Derek.’ The barista writes it on the cup, Sethi waits for his alias to be called, and then walks out.

If you didn’t laugh, or if you’ve been there yourself, then consider Sethi’s debut short film, Coffee Shop Names, a cleverer adaptation of a moment that Indian people – and minorities across the United States, in general – know all too well. In the short, three Indian people imagine their personas as their ‘coffee shop names’, the names they give baristas because their real ones are hard to pronounce. Sethi imagines what would happen if those aliases came to life: where Deepak turns into Derek, Sathya becomes Scott, and Rakhi transforms into Rachel.

As well as becoming a finalist at the Tribeca Film Festival for his project, the first-time director won Soho House’s Script House competition in 2019, and he’s featured in upwards of 40 film festivals over the past year. In the interview below, Sethi dives deeper into the idea for Coffee Shop Names, what representation in and outside of the writer’s room looks like, and whether or not humour can still act as a conduit for talking about race in the age of memes and beyond.

How did your idea for Coffee Shop Names come about?

‘I’ve always used a coffee shop name. I use Derek. There was a time when I started to wonder, “Why did I choose Derek?” It doesn’t sound very much like Deepak. And then I realised that everyone who I’ve grown up with, like my cousins and family members, all had a choice in their name. It was just funny – it’s just such a tiny moment when you choose the name, and it just sticks with you for such a long time. So I wanted to write something about that; the choice we make about our aliases.

‘My dad is from India, and when he moved here he had to change his name. He went by his first initial instead of his real name. And now everyone calls him by his [first] initial. I just thought it was interesting that we slowly slip into a new identity. And we do that because we don’t want to have even a modicum of uncomfortableness, or whatever that would be called. I thought it would be cool to write and just didn’t know if it would be longer than a short.

‘I used it a little bit in stand-up, then this competition appeared and I was like, “Oh, this is kind of a good idea for a short”, and that’s where it all came from.’
Two pictures together the top shows 3 office staff holding coffees the bottom image shows grow of people in a library

What was the Script House process like?

‘I worked in animation for 10 years, so I’ve been a writer for animated projects and TV for a long time. And I don’t want to fault anyone, but I get typecast ¬– even as an animation writer. So, when I saw this opportunity, I thought that if I do well here, then maybe I can show people something that isn’t animated.

I love animation, but Script House represented the chance to direct something that wasn’t animation, where I could learn my voice and show my voice through the process. It was like I was doing a mini version of a feature; I got to learn all of the mistakes that I’d make on a feature, but in a much less pressured environment. Script House was very supportive. I think people cared. It wasn’t like, “Here’s your money, go off and do whatever”.’

What was the Tribeca Film Festival like this year?

‘We lined up about 40 festivals. At the beginning of 2020, I planned to go to at least nine of them. Then the pandemic hit and everything went virtual. I attended more panels virtually than I would have in real life, like three to four per week. It was fun to connect with other film-makers. You can’t go to all of them, so the ability to participate in some online was really cool. You could watch the films in your own time, instead of going to a screening, so you got to see them all. In that sense, it was nice and I enjoyed it.’

How did representation play a part in your experience at TFF and the industry at large?
‘I’ve been in the business long enough to know that there’s been a change and I can feel it. I remember pitching all-Indian projects about seven or eight years ago and people asking, “Well, who’s the star of this?” And I remember replying, “They’re right here. They’re all Indian.” I think growing up and seeing very few Indian faces on TV was a little disheartening, because when you’re young you don’t think it’s a career option for you. You don’t hear about any family or friends going into the business, so when you do you’ve gone rogue.

‘Increasing representation allows us to show younger people that they can do it as well. I know it’s such a short film, but if a young person sees it and thinks they can do it and do better, that’s a great thing. We have a long way to go, but audiences are tired of the same narratives.’

And what about behind the scenes?

‘I think we have to change the paradigm and start looking at things differently. For a script to come in, and for it to maybe not be the best script I’ve ever read, it could just be that this person has a different point of view and we don’t have that – but we sorely need that. We have to have those important elements. We have to work harder to find more accurate, authentic representation. It’s a fun challenge – one that’s optimistic; that’s what’s good about it.’

For a comic, do you think after 2020 that humour can still be a conduit through which we can talk about race?

‘Hecklers today, for example… It’s a different conversation. Race was so different a while ago. I’m a different comic now. I used to be more about observation. Memes have totally replaced that; they’ve made observational comedy obsolete in a lot of ways. I’m much more about authentic stories from my life. They’re either funny or interesting, but at least they’re true and real. That’s kind of where I’d like to see where comedy goes, more into storytelling. I’m not interested in pushing the line and seeing how far I can go anymore. An actual point of view is much more important than anything else; that’s where comedy rests now.’

Watch the trailer for Coffee Shop Names here.
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