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Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011
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humour is their rubber sword


Nandini Nair


The Caravan is a journal of politics and culture. This article appeared in its November 2010 issue.

You couldn’t be blamed for missing it. In the evening gloom on East 24th street, letters that spell out New York Comedy Club flicker and fade. Inside, the drab red brick walls make the place look like a warehouse; only the smell of beer hints this is a club. Elvis Presley tacked to the wall provides the sole touch of glamour. A dozen men and three women sit glaring up at a man with a paunch and a microphone. The men perform, to applause and boos. Wives record the night on compact hand-held cameras. At the hapless performer’s feet lie customized papers balls tossed by the hard-to-please audience. This is the starting point for comics in New York. Before they have fans scrambling for their autographs, before they headline shows at glitzy clubs, the would-be comics must first hone their skill in such places. Most of them will never make it any further.

Vidur Kapur was born and raised in India, and is now a confirmed New Yorker, who drinks green juice and attends ‘hot yoga’ classes. A finalist for NBC’s Stand Up for Diversity, he has also performed as part of the New York Comedy Festival and uses this club as a ‘workout room.’ He stands out among the usual denizens in their faded work jeans and checked shirts, since he is dressed in a top hat, high boots and skinny leather pants (which he says make his testicles look like earrings). “You want to bathe after sitting in these chairs,” he whispers, gingerly draping his coat across the back of a seat. Kapur has earned his snobbery; a decade ago, he started out as “a complete unknown.” Today, he headlines shows at Caroline’s on Broadway, one of the most celebrated comedy clubs in this neon city. He belongs to a growing number of Indian comics who use the United States as their workshop, launch pad and stage.


The US enjoys a long and rich history of comedy. In the early 17th century, American pioneer humour carried a strong anti-intellectual bent. “Settlers found book learning would not save you from starvation. Out of their experiences and those of their descendants grew a strong feeling for ‘Yankee ingenuity’ and the ‘great American work ethic,’” writes Avner Ziv in National Styles of Humour. These attitudes continue today, making it fair game to make fun of the newcomer, the greenhorn, the poor fellow who arrived with book learning and no common sense.

But of late the Indian newcomers who arrive with book learning have started to carve out their own brand of humour. No longer are they only the passive subject of gags. They have coined phrases and tell stories that mock their own community, their adopted country and their original homeland. Welcome to the world of Indian-American stand-up comedy.

A decade ago, only a couple of comedians of Indian descent were performing in the US. Now, comedians from the Indian-American diaspora comprise a distinct category. The monthly show Crazy Desi Comedy at Laugh Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and shows like Indophile, featuring exclusively South Asian comedians at Caroline’s, testify to the availability of both talent and an audience in the US.

Indian immigration to the US soared in 1965, when the US Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, encouraging skilled labour to meet the country’s needs for more technical manpower. Seventy three percent of Indian-American males in the US over the age of 25 possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, in comparison to 28.5 percent of all other males over the age of 25.

This raw data helps to explain the rise of Indian-American stand-up comedy. As an immigrant group, the recent wave of Indian-Americans has largely bypassed the working class stage through which most other immigrant groups have had to pass. Desi comedy is neither dangerous nor threatening because Indian-Americans do not feel endangered or threatened. A steady flow of new immigrants from India helps to maintain the connection with home. The English language is familiar since the Indian elite study and work in English in India. They tend to settle at a comfortable mid-point between assimilation and the preservation of their native culture.

Through their humour, they help to create a positive ethnic identity. Jokes often acknowledge misrepresentation, but when an immigrant group chooses to tell their own stories their own way, they create a community through laughter. The present generation of Indian-American comics uses stand-up to create their own identity and to differentiate themselves from their parents or first generation immigrants.


Aman Ali, a 24-year-old New York-based comedian, blogger and journalist, says, “My parents were fresh off the boat. Actually, they never got off the boat, they just took it with them.” When comics are describing their parents, they adopt a barbed Indian accent, while they themselves speak like ‘Americans,’ proving both their ethnic insider status and their own Americanization. They make fun of their parents’ incorrect usage of English. Vijai Nathan recounts that once when her sister and she were fighting, their father barked, “Vijai, stop going down on your sister.” By identifying their parents’ language slips, these comedians create a feeling of fellowship with their audience, irrespective of whether they are immigrants or Americans, as both recognize the accents and the faulty usage.

Born to Indian parents who traditionally emphasize the importance of education, Indian-American comedians come well-armed with academic degrees and qualifications. And, universally, it seems, they chose comedy after spurning their original professions. Rajiv Satyal was an engineer and a marketer for P&G. Azhar Usman was a lawyer and human rights activist. Dan Nainan, also an engineer, worked with Intel. Viaji Nathan worked as a journalist. But comedy is serious business to these comedians, with most of them pursuing it as a full-time career.

Asked why Indian-American comedy is coming to the fore only now, Russell Peters, the phenomenally successful Canadian stand-up comic and actor of Anglo-Indian descent, replies by email, “Going into show business, especially stand-up where there’s an uncertain future, runs against everything that our parents want or wanted for us when they immigrated here. We’ve been pushed into more secure professions. But a lot of people realized that they didn’t want to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc. and wanted to express themselves in another way -- acting, directing, stand-up.”

While each of these comedians has his individual voice and perspective, common themes run through all their work, highlighting the homogeneity of the group. Jokes about ‘cheap’ parents, rebirth, recycling, computers, mispronounced names, Indian male ugliness, Indian female beauty and traffic jams at home appear with dogged frequency.

Hari Kondabalu, an Indian New Yorker, laments the variant distortions of his name from ‘Harry’ to ‘Hairy’ to “post 9/11 motherfucker” Mispronounced names symbolize not only phonetic deficiencies but also reveal how immigrant culture is understood or misunderstood by the adopted country. It is significant that very few of the comics have chosen to exchange their distinctly Indian names for easily pronounceable performance names. They are secure in their ethnic identity and know that they can co-exist without morphing into an everyday American.

Sexuality provides considerable fodder for humour. The comedian Satyal begins, “So, I am single. Then pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket, “Have you guys heard of this article? Condoms too big for Indian men. A survey of more than 1000 men from India has concluded that condoms made according to international sizes are too large for a majority of Indian men. The study found that more than half the men measured had penises that were shorter than those of international standards.” The heterosexual Indian male comic undresses his physicality with brutal honesty. Educational degrees and high incomes define the Indian male. He can afford to make fun of his ‘manhood’ because he is confident about his mental capabilities, his status and contribution to society.

While these jokes clearly capitalize on Indian habits and features, the comedians make a conscious effort to include the international and the diverse. Kondabolu discusses the Iraq war, Satyal campaigned for Obama (before the election) in his shows and Kapur reveals the discrimination he faces as a homosexual man in India and as an immigrant in the interiors of the United States. They don’t restrict their content to Indian idiosyncrasies or Non-Resident-Indian preoccupations. Covering a range of topics ensures that their appeal spreads beyond South Asians.

Last year Toronto born Russell Peters, whose humour is inseparable from his Indian ethnicity, was named by Forbes magazine as one of the ten top-earning comedians in the United States, and he is one of the few comedians in the world able to sell out huge venues such as the Apollo Theatre and Madison Square Garden. What does performing at Radio City Music Hall mean to him? In an email, Peters replies, “Playing at Radio City and having two sold-out shows -- there is something that I never could have imagined -- well, I could have imagined it, but would never have said it out loud, it just sounds crazy. The whole experience is actually really humbling . . . ”

“Where are the white people in the hall?” Peters asks, looking quizzically around Radio City. “I am concerned,” he sighs, “you don’t see white people any longer.” Laughter ricochets off the walls. “When I see them now, it takes me back to a different time. It’s like when I suddenly find an old cassette.” In a routine replete with racial slurs, scatological observation and sexual revelations, white people are far from Peters’ only targets. His sold-out show offers equal laughs at the expense of hirsute Armenians who clap with ‘mittens’ instead of hands, Arab body odour, and Filipinos running late for their nursing shift.

His forté rests on insightful observation rather than rigorous analysis. He brings out the spirit of India’s poor without actually critiquing the systems that are responsible for it. How crucial is social criticism to his routine? Peters replies, “Stand-up is really just someone standing on-stage, talking about their experiences and how they see the world -- but in a funny way. Sometimes it’s social criticism, sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s just plain silly and fun. It’s entirely subjective and up to the performers to express themselves as they see fit. For me, the most important thing is that it’s honest and true to the person I’m watching. Hopefully, most people will find it funny and find the humour in what we’re saying.”

The absence of searing social criticism in Peter’s routine reflects the general demographics of Indian comedians who come from mostly comfortable middle and upper class backgrounds. The way these comedians describe their experience and the world is not as victims but as agents who can control their own fate.

Peters occasionally allows himself a political joke -- on the subject of India’s pacifist attitude to terrorism, for example. He stays clear of anything to do with God. Religion runs like a major artery through India, but Peters never taps it. Why? “People are willing to die for their religion. There are other comics who deal with religion and that’s cool with me,” he replies, perhaps a bit evasively. This evasion is convenient but also a tad insincere as in recent years, the most significant element of ‘national culture’ among Indian-Americans has been the turn to religion.

Most Indian-American comedians don’t talk about religion, choosing precaution over confrontation. Those compelled to talk about it are those who are most often misunderstood and misrepresented. A small and committed number of South Asian stand-up comedians of the Islamic faith, however, have been busy battling stereotypes. Anchored by purpose and buoyed by humour, they use comedy to attack stereotypes and universalize their personal stories. They perform in clubs and community halls, universities and mosques.

While a slew of Bollywood movies use the fall of the towers as their defining moment, South Asian stand-ups claim to underplay the 9/11 association. Comedian Azhar Usman, who has been in the business for nearly a decade, categorically states, “People ask if my content has changed post 9/11. But really there is nothing that different. Notions of Muslims being backward, violent, bloodthirsty have always been there. The only difference is that post 9/11, people suddenly care about it.” Comedian Asif Ali adds, “I think if 9/11 had never happened there’d still be the same number of Muslim comedians that there are now.” He says they feel it is “gimmicky” to understand their comedy as a backlash against discrimination and profiling. But considering how much material of Usman’s, for example, is drawn from such post-9/11 experiences, the distancing seems artificial. Their claims of disassociation arise from a desire to define themselves as a positive rather than a negative force. The depth of popular misconceptions about Islam, however, compels them first to address who they are not, rather than who they are.

Azhar Usman from Chicago is an Indian Muslim comedian. By 2004, he had given up his law job and had taken to stand-up full time. He soon joined Preacher Moss, an American Muslim comedian, on Allah Made Me Funny (AMMF), an international comedy tour, which showcases America’s top Muslim comedians. Azhar explains, “Lots of our content is very deliberately about Muslim identity. That is a constant. But at the same time it is just supposed to be funny. There is no agenda behind that.”

With a burly build and bushy beard, Usman’s appearance panders to stereotypes. He talks about discrimination at airports, where his visage inevitably triggers alarm. He points to his wayward beard and exclaims dramatically, “If I was a crazy Muslim fundamentalist hijacker, this is probably not the disguise I would go with.” He adds, “It doesn’t keep me under the radar.”

The comedians of the AMMF tour are working to integrate humour and Islam, two words not often assumed to have any relation, as ancient ascetics of Islam are said never to have laughed. These comedians, however, believe in laughter and the need to spread mirth. AMMF has toured with different Muslim comedians to over 20 countries. Being Muslim determines both the content and the context of the performance. AMMF strongly prefers not to have pork or alcohol served at its events.


Indian-American female comedians are also defining themselves in unique and different ways -- one in particular. To look at her, she could be any Indian girl. But her speech transforms her into Monrok -- a frank, to some even crass, Indian-American stand-up comedienne. She is part of the Indophile show at Caroline’s along with Anu Kalra, Shazia Mirza and Hari Kondabolu.

Belonging to the Indian diaspora and based in Los Angeles, Monrok performs in traditional attire at clubs all over California. From her appearance, she could be well taken for Maneka Madan (her original name). Her content, however, has little to do with her ethnic identity. In her routine, she is clearly Monrok, voted California’s Funniest Female in 2009. In flat tones and with an unfailingly placid demeanour she spews out all that she hates. The list starts with “baggage claim,” because “it is like waiting for a prize but then it just ends up being your own shit.” Poised on the stool, and with a steady gaze, she declares, “I wish I was Black. I could then get away with being lazy.” Spoonfuls of food en route to hungry mouths freeze mid-air, glasses abruptly stop clinking. A whoop of disapproval envelops the club. “Oh alright, blacks aren’t lazy . . . anymore. Not after Obama,” she adds.

Monrok’s act lasted only 15 minutes. Why had the audience been so discomfited by her? Male comedians offend, insult and mock. Do we treat them as honest and women comedians as malicious? Women are supposed to be passive and receptive. Are women not allowed to be humorous?

During the last few years, a bunch of brave and outspoken female comedians of Indian origin have been challenging audiences and forcing them to face their own prejudices. Besides Monrok, who in her early 20s is the youngest and newest of these women, the clique includes Los Angeles-based Rasika Mathur, who has moved from stand-up to character-driven work and Vijai Nathan, based in Washington, DC, who uses narrative and tells stories instead of merely stringing together setups and punch lines.

If Mathur’s comedy plays with personas, that of Nathan draws from the personal. Having grown up in Maryland in the 1970s, Nathan always felt confused and, worse still, excluded. She tried out for every school play at her largely Jewish elementary school; in fourth grade she got her first break. “I was cast as Martin Luther King,” she says, pokerfaced. When she first started in comedy in 1997, her appearance and content were cautiously all-American. Two years later, New York showed her that authenticity could work. “I could talk about stuff that was Indian and American, because that is who I am.”

Do audiences accept Mathur and Nathan more willingly because they use more ‘female’ forms of acting and storytelling? Explaining the hazards of performing, Nathan says, “There is a huge difference between an Indian male comedian and an Indian female comic. They face totally different pressures. A South Asian audience looks at me like I could be their sister, daughter, girlfriend, and that makes them very uncomfortable.”

Indian-American comedians prove that stand-up can be honest without being self-lacerating, it can be critical without being subversive. This makes for interesting but not thrilling work. They have succeeded in creating a unique form of ethnic stand-up that appeals to both groups, and reflects their own identity as a cultural blend. Their comedy illustrates that the Indian-American community has adjusted and habituated itself to the US, without being fully assimilated or deprived of its identity. There is no need for subversion in their world. It is a world that looks inward rather than outward and doesn’t acknowledge the artificiality of this community where most people have an advanced degree, and share a certain economic comfort. Humour is their rubber sword with which they can stab without drawing blood.


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