Caravan is a journal of politics and culture. This
article appeared in its November 2010 issue.
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.
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.
SUITCASE LEFT BEHIND
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . ”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.