MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Call it diplomacy with a laugh. Today, three Indian-American comedians began a seven-city tour of India, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on the Make Chai, Not War Comedy Tour.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Three comedians, very different styles.

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RAJIV SATYAL: People always ask me if it was tough growing up with the name Rajiv Kumar Satyal in southwest Ohio. What do you think? Right?

BLAIR: Rajiv Satyal is waif thin, a former marketer for Proctor & Gamble, and the founder of Make Chai, Not War.

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SATYAL: Pretty much, I was the only kid in class whose name was never called during roll call, OK?

BLAIR: And there's Azhar Usman from Chicago, a big, burly guy with long hair and a full beard.

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AZHAR USMAN: I'm perfectly aware most of you have never seen somebody who looks like me smile before. ]

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BLAIR: And Hari Kondabolu, an edgy, cerebral comic from Queens, New York.

HARI KONDABOLU: I was doing a festival in Denmark in April, and I got heckled by a member of the audience who stood up and yelled, go back to America, - which is incredible because I have been told to go back to so many countries, and never to America.

BLAIR: The comedy tour Make Chai, Not War has been around since 2007. It's a little like Kings of Comedy, but with Indian Americans. Azhar Usman says so far, they've performed a handful of shows around the U.S.

USMAN: Whenever we've staged it, you know, we've always gotten a solid turnout by Indians of all stripes - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, you know, atheists - what have you.

BLAIR: On a separate solo tour in London, Usman caught the attention of Michael Macy who, at the time, was the cultural attache for the U.S. Embassy there.

MICHAEL MACY: He's hilarious.

BLAIR: When Michael Macy moved to the embassy in New Delhi, he brought Usman over for some solo shows of India. And that got the ball rolling to bring over three comedians for this seven-city tour. It's costing the State Department about $88,000. Macy says the embassy agreed to sponsor Make Chai, Not War because stand-up comedy is a unique part of American culture.

MACY: This commitment to free speech, this commitment to free discussion of what can be difficult or sensitive topics, it's very American.

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USMAN: Me walking into the airport - heads turn simultaneously. Security goes, like, we got a Mohammad at 4 o'clock; 10-4, Mohammad at 4. Over and out. You get the smelly one. I got the hairy one.

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BLAIR: Azhar Usman is the only one of the three who's performed in India before. And, since so much of comedy is about cultural references and language, Hari Kondabolu says he's excited - but also nervous because he's American.

KONDABOLU: Part of what we do as comedians - or at least, what I do - is to figure out where those boundaries are, and see what I want to push, because I'm trying to make a point. I don't really know where the boundaries are in a different country.

BLAIR: So he's been reading up on Indian news.

KONDABOLU: And then I've been chatting with my mom a lot.

BLAIR: She's originally from Hyderabad, India. One of the jokes Kondabolu says he might do is about an ex-girlfriend from London.

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KONDABOLU: When she's over at my place every night of the week eating my food, telling me what to do, hitting me - and that's when I knew this wasn't love. This English woman was trying to colonize me.

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BLAIR: With some minor tweaks, Kondabolu says his mom gave this one the green light.

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KONDABOLU: And after a month, she finally left, and she took most of my best stuff with her - food, art, self-esteem all gone. And she left a few things. She left some clothes and some books and, of course, an extensive railway system.

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BLAIR: There will be no State Department censorship on this tour, says Azhar Usman.

USMAN: We're invited over there as artists, and the whole premise of a tour like this is that we are comedians, and we enjoy freedom of speech and as Americans, we can say whatever we want to say.

BLAIR: All three comedians say it's a thrill to be able to perform in their parents' homeland. Rajiv Satyal says the goal of the Make Chai, Not War tour of India is simple - some great new jokes and, hopefully, a lot of laughs.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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