My life, growing up in Chicago, was the splitting of two worlds. My primary loyalties and earliest memories come from on the South Side, where I was born, and then I grew up in many ways on the Northwest Side of the city. I constantly felt in the middle of two worlds, and that was across the board—I was the middle child; I grew up half Polish, half Indian; and I grew up half my life on the South Side, half my life on the North Side. I always felt like nothing made sense.
On the South Side, in Brighton Park, my neighborhood was full of immigrants. It was very much a community. Very tight. It was wonderful growing up with that. I feel like it’s impacted me as a performer.
We were the first members of our family to come to America, so our home was like a landing pad. It was the first stop for many relatives coming over from Poland. One of the things that was exciting when we moved to the North Side was that we were closer to the airport. We were constantly driving to O’Hare from the South Side. I would be nauseous in the backseat. I couldn’t believe we had to drive that far to pick up another aunt or uncle—who may or may not have been my real aunt or uncle.
We all lived in a three-flat on 42nd Street. It was a community in one house, living with my grandparents and various relatives. My godmother was even next door. I remember multiple people yelling at me; it was community parenting.
My grandma came to this country, then my mom, then one by one my relatives would come over as part of the immigration wave. So we were constantly building this home, and my grandmother moved to the place because her best friend from Poland lived on the same street. My grandma and my mom eventually saved up enough money to buy the house, which was like three apartments in one house. It was really fun. As kids, with my brother, Adam, and sister, Kathy, we would freely roam or roller skate down the hallway. It felt like a community center. I would come home from school sometimes and see my grandparents—probably pickling something—having dinner with a priest from our parish. Meanwhile, we were upstairs glued to the TV, trying to juggle these two very different worlds, inside and outside.
I always felt like our house was this secret world where we have to do all these activities. You would see all these plants—my mom surrounded herself with as much nature as possible. You would hear Polish radio. Somebody would be cooking something. My grandma’s over there peeling potatoes into the garbage can. We’d be in the back room watching “T.J. Hooker,” or something mildly inappropriate.
Outside of that, we just played. We were encouraged to get out of the house as much as possible. We’d go to our neighbors’ house and yard or to Kelly Park right behind our house. We’d walk down to Butera, on the corner of Archer and California, to return bottles for my grandparents.
Some of my earliest memories are of baseball, following my brother and his friend Kenny, all of us on our bikes, down 42nd Street, up to 35th, to Comiskey Park to get autographs from players. Loyalties are so strong in Chicago, which I love about the city. It’s such a passionate town. One thing I can’t let go of is how the White Sox felt symbolic and such a part of growing up on the South Side.
My weekday existence on the South Side was watching sports and stuff, and then on the weekends, it was complete immersion in Polish cultural activities. On Saturdays, my grandparents would make us go to Polish dancing in the morning, from nine until noon, and then in the afternoon, from one to four, we had Polish language, history, and literature classes. So my friends were watching “Gummy Bears” and “Transformers” and pretending they were He-Man, and I was doing the polka at my local parish.
My friends were watching ‘Gummy Bears’ and ‘Transformers’ … and I was doing the polka at my local parish.
We always marched in the annual Polish parade with my grandparents. For some of my friends it was Cinco de Mayo or the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and for me, it was wearing a cape and marching for Polish independence downtown. Our parish was a big part of our life. We had to go to church every Sunday and usually after church we’d get Pączki, these delicious Polish doughnuts.
Eventually, my mom, who worked various jobs in computers and I.T., saved enough money for us to move out on our own to the Northwest Side. It was someplace new and different, and in some ways, safer, too. The neighborhood was a shock to our system, but it was a way to start new. Even though it was twenty minutes away from where we were, there was still a large Polish community. My mom liked that familiarity, too.
I was older then, eleven, starting to become a teenager. It just felt like a different world, even though it’s the same city. That’s where I started to learn to love the arts and fall in love with comedy. I don’t think I had realized how funny my life was on the South Side; I was speaking Polish and singing Christmas carols door-to-door with my dance troupe. I realized kids on the North Side weren’t Polish dancing every Saturday, and I wondered what other normal eleven- and twelve-year-old American kids were doing. And that started my journey into comedy.
I’m half Indian, but I didn’t realize people looked at me differently until these years. I saw that on Devon Avenue there was a whole Indian neighborhood that exists. It opened my eyes to this other world in the city. It’s a wonderful characteristic of Chicago that there are these really tight-knit neighborhoods where the memory of your ancestors and cultural heritage can exist, and exist strongly.
But we were the only family like us at the school. I stuck out more than ever. On the South Side, my family did an amazing job making us feel included and safe. I feel fortunate. I was also exposed to the arts from my mom and grandma at an early age. They were always pushing performance. I loved entertaining and creating stories. When I got to the North Side, I started to miss that. So for a while, I was trying to figure out my teenage years and how I was going to navigate acne and being the kid who stood out.
There’s a series of bumpy times where we’re all trying to figure out how to handle those years. I even tried playing football once—I broke my collarbone almost immediately. Looking at me, you don’t think I should be playing football. My body is not made for impact sporting. At the time, though, I said, “Let’s give it a shot.” I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
There was not a huge performing arts path in my high school, Notre Dame College Prep in Niles. I started to realize, however, that I loved comedy. I acted out for laughs. One of the ways I found a way to connect with friends and fit in was being the funny guy who did goofy things. I made some poor choices. One time I was hiding behind some music stands during a music class trying to see if I could camouflage with the stands, because, again, with my body type, I do look like a music stand. The teacher caught me in the middle of class. And my friends were laughing, and it was awesome. That felt really good, being able to fit in. But also there were repercussions. Another time, I was doing something goofy for class—I think it was sucking on my toes in the back of class—and the teacher called in my mom for a conference, and I had to explain to her what I was doing. Sister Carol, who became my favorite teacher, set me straight. She told me, “You can make people laugh, but you have to find the right places to do it and you can’t be inappropriate and you got to keep your shoes on.” She was so right.
I started to take these opportunities Sister Carol and our principal presented. They said, “You are spending too much time in detention. Let’s harness this energy and put it to good use.” They gave me these opportunities to lead pep rallies and do these comedy bits for the school. And that’s when I thought that this was something I wanted to do. In high school, my friends and I started to stay up late and watch “Saturday Night Live.” All these things started to come together, and I wanted to go on this comedy journey.
My parents were pushing jobs that were stable, but they started to realize that I had this itch that wasn’t going away. So they figured as long as my grades were okay and I was going to college to get a degree, then I can try some things. I eventually started taking acting classes and taking comedy seriously. It wasn’t direct. There were a lot of people encouraging me through a lot of mistakes. But eventually it fell into place.
I knew I was going to pursue theatre in some capacity. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I auditioned for a musical right away at Marquette. I got a role as a lead in “Godspell” the musical. It was the first time I took something seriously. I felt uncomfortable in many ways, but it was exciting. And the theatre instructor, Phyllis Ravel, truly inspired me to believe that this was possible. I loved entertaining and being on stage but didn’t know how to put it together, and I remember her saying to me, “This is all possible for you. I believe you will be in a sitcom one day. I think you should start taking some acting classes.”
That kind of sums up my life: I’ve always had people around me that believe in me more than I believe in myself.
I then tried to figure out what I had to do to get there. I won a scholarship that was established in Chris Farley’s name—and he was always an idol of mine—for using humor in a positive manner. And that led me to Second City, where I studied after college. That really started to put everything together for me. I was able to get opportunities through Second City to perform with this group called Stir-Friday Night, an Asian-American theatre troupe. It gave me access to being on stage a ton.
I was working a full-time job as an actuarial recruiter and performing on the side. After I wrote a solo show for Second City, which was scary because it was about my life and how I felt I never fit in to any one group, I felt it was time to go for it, and New York or Los Angeles was where I had to be. I was talking to my wife about maybe moving, and I can’t believe to this day that she believed in me so much to go for that ride. That kind of sums up my life: I’ve always had people around me that believe in me more than I believe in myself.
People at work always knew acting was my primary passion. They were allowing me to audition and book gigs. After an NBC diversity showcase went very well and I met a producer from L.A, I went to my boss, a mentor to me in many ways, and asked if he would consider letting me work from home in L.A. He said yes immediately. My wife and I packed, and we journeyed out there in August 2005.
I hooked up with that producer and did a showcase in L.A. The first thing I got from that showcase was one line on “The West Wing,” my first TV credit. It was terrifying. It was my first time on a set. I wouldn’t say it was something I enjoyed. I was panicked and hoping I wouldn’t single-handily end “The West Wing.”
My first feeling of really being on a show was “Gilmore Girls,” for which I was one of Rory’s classmates at Yale. That, by the way, was exciting for my family, because I was finally at Yale, even though it was fictitious. For them, it was very real. I was on five episodes, and it gave me a chance to feel what it was like to work regularly on a show and get into a rhythm. It gave me a chance to learn how to act on screen, which I hadn’t really done yet.
I was learning a lot in a short period of time. I was fully in it. Busy pursuing my passion. In 2009, I booked an audition for “Community.” It was just like any other audition except my agent said, “This is the role you were meant to play.” That was terrifying, but as soon as I read the script, I knew what she meant. I loved how nuanced Abed was, and how funny and heartbreaking he could be within the same show. It felt so wonderful and different. Eventually, I landed the job on my birthday, and stopped working from home.
“Community” felt so overwhelming, but so exciting. And number one, I was so excited to share it with my family. This was something where I knew I was going to be on screen and I couldn’t wait to hear what my family thought of the show. Early on, I had a screening with family and friends at Schuba’s in Chicago. It was incredible to share it with all the people who supported me. I still feel so lucky to have done something so strange and funny and honest and different.
I’ve been fortunate to work on lots of different things. Recently, I’ve also been working on voiceover projects. I was Brainy Smurf in the new “Smurfs” piece and Huey Duck for the “Ducktales” reboot, which premiered August 12th, and September 23rd the series starts. There’s a lot of nostalgia in my career; these are things I used to watch and now I get to watch with my kids. When I was starting out, I couldn’t even imagine that. It feels amazing to have that type of opportunity.
I was also able to lead my first film, “The Tiger Hunter,” which comes out September 22nd in New York and L.A. I would not have had that opportunity without “Community.” I couldn’t believe this script—an Indian immigrant who comes to America in the seventies and rides a moped in the first scene. I said, “This is too much. I don’t know if you guys have been secretly following my family or what.” It felt very personal. It was too good to be true. It is a chance for me to grow in ways I was super excited about.
My art and life are coming together in a more natural way than ever before. Growing up, I never really saw characters I could relate to. I’ve been getting some chances to work in roles and on projects that have depth and layers that wouldn’t have been possible twenty or thirty years ago. I’m excited for what’s next out here.
I still get back to Chicago quite a bit. We go back around every Christmas, and at least once every summer. My heart is still here in so many ways. It’s fun now going back and showing these places to my kids. We make sure to give them White Sox hats and take pictures so they always remember they are White Sox fans.
My Chicago journeys are all over the place now—I spent some time with my dad in Lakeview, went to the Northwest Side at the Taste of Park Ridge, took my kids to Maggie Daley Park, had some Moretti’s pizza. I’m constantly having flashbacks when I go back to Chicago—from my first kiss behind a garage on the South Side to watching Michael Jordan at the United Center to running along the lakefront path with my wife in our first marathon. It’s where a lot of moments that mean a lot to me happened. It means a lot to me, the city. And I love it.
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin
Danny Pudi played fan-favorite character Abed Nadir for six seasons on NBC’s “Community.” He’s also had roles in hit shows “Gilmore Girls,” “E.R.,” and “Greek.” His new show “DuckTales” and movie “Tiger Hunter” come out the fall of 2017.