Humour is their Rubber Sword

Welcome to the world of Indian American stand-up comedy

The Comic Strip, a Manhattan comedy club. ROBERT HOLMES / CORBIS
01 November, 2010

YOU COULDN’T BE BLAMED for missing it. In the evening gloom on East 24th Street, a sign reading ‘New York Comedy Club’ flickers and fades. Inside, the drab red brick walls make the place look like a warehouse; only the smell of beer hints this is a club. A picture of 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, and wives record the night on hand-held cameras. At the hapless performer’s feet lie paper balls-- tossed by the hard-to-please audience. Clubs like this are the starting points for comics in New York. Before they can have fans scrambling for their autographs, before they can 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 arrives at the 2008 NewNowNext Awards at the MTV studios on 19 May 2008 in New York City. BRYAN BEDDER / GETTY IMAGES

Vidur Kapur was born and raised in India, and is now a confirmed New Yorker, who drinks vegetable 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 in such venues. Today, he headlines shows at Carolines 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 Humor. 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, 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 NYC 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 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, encouraging skilled labour to meet the country’s needs for more technical manpower. The influx of H-1B visa holders and their families was a key factor that accounted for the rising numbers, according to the Indian American Center for Political Awareness. They came not to flee war and oppression, but to look for greater financial and professional opportunities. Since the H-1B visa is for speciality occupations, these immigrants tended to have disposable incomes to spend on extras like entertainment. The success of Indians in America, however, is not caused by natural or cultural selection, as author Vijay Prashad noted in The Karma of Brown Folk. Rather, it has to do with state selections, whereby the US State reconfigured the demography of “South Asian America” through the special-skills provision. According to the 2005 American Community Survey of the Asian Indian community in the US, 73.4 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 American males over the age of 25.  Among Indian-American females, 62.1 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 26 percent of females in the total US population. In addition, 61.8 percent of Indian-Americans are involved in managerial, professional and related occupations as compared to 34.1 percent of the total population. The median household income for Indian-Americans in 2005 was 73,575 dollars as compared to 46,242 dollars for the total population.

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 strict preservation of ethnic identity.

Through their humour, they help to create a positive sense of self. Jokes often acknowledge misrepresentation, but when an immigrant group chooses to tell its own stories its own way, it creates a community through laughter. The present generation of Indian-American comics use 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 describing their parents, these comedians adopt a barbed Indian accent. Their parents speak like ‘Indians,’ they themselves speak like ‘Americans,’ proving both their ethnic insider status and their Americanisation. They make fun of their parents’ incorrect usage of English. Vijai Nathan, a journalist-turned-comedian based in Washington, DC,  recounts that once, when her sister and she were fighting, her father, who has a habit of confusing phrases, barked, “Vijai, stop going down on your sister.” By identifying their parents’ slips with the language, these comedians create a feeling of fellowship with their audience, irrespective of whether they are immigrants or Americans, as both recognise the accents and the faulty usage.

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

Azhar Usman poses for a portrait on the rooftop of the Muslim Aid office as he launches the ‘Allah Made Me Funny’ comedy tour on 5 April 2007 in London. CHRIS JACKSON / GETTY IMAGES

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, replied 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 realised 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 their individual flourishes, 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 at home appear with dogged frequency.

Hari Kondabolu, an ethnically Indian New Yorker, laments the variant distortions of his name from Harry to Hairy to “post-9/11...motherfucker.” The same theme comes up in the routine of comedian Rajiv Satyal who opened for Peters back in 2005. “I didn’t have a name, I had only a symbol—a pause and frown,” recounts Satyal in his opening. Mispronounced names symbolise 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 everyday Americans.

The sexual identity of the males among them proves fraught, however. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, a bespectacled, stern faced Kondabolu walks on stage and rattles off, “I was very nervous before this show. My stomach was acting up. I thought, maybe, I was pregnant. But then I realised that wasn’t possible. Because obviously, you know…I am a virgin.” In a similar vein, Satyal says, “So, I am single (pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket). Have you guys heard of this article? ‘Condoms too big for Indian men.’” He reads, “A survey of more than 1,000 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. But for this comic greenhorn, virility arises from book learning and not from conventional maleness. 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 capitalise 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 President Obama 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.

ON AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS in New York, shining letters that spell out ‘Radio City Music Hall’ shoot into the night with skyscraper glory, seizing your attention. The theatre’s dazzling dome-like interior resembles a modern-day Colosseum. The sea of seats, constellation of lights and altar-like stage reveal this as a sacred performance space. Six thousand expectant viewers stay riveted upon Russell Peters, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary in comedy this year.

Russell Peters performs at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada on 30 May 2010. CODY BOOR / RETNA LTD. / CORBIS

Although Peters was born in Toronto, he must nevertheless be listed among the comedians of South Asian origin, even if he is not technically Indian-American. He lives in Los Angeles, and has had a trailblazing influence on South Asian comics. Moreover, his enormous success is inseparable from the distinctly Indian ethnicity of his humour.

Last year he 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 giant metropolitan venues from the Apollo Theatre to Madison Square Garden. What does performing at Radio City Music Hall mean to him? 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.

Peters withholds most of his Indian jokes until he is an hour and a half into the show. His segue was traffic in the Philippines. “In India we have our own system of traffic. It is called ‘create your own lane.’”  A wave of cheers, starting from the front row, proves that he has reached home turf. Launching into his Indian material with the usual stereotypes of chaos and disorder, he soon conjures the infamously skinny Indian cow. Basking in the crowd’s response, Peters knows that stereotypes are part of the story, not all of it.

He addresses those who share his immigrant experience, his bi-nationality. He calls out to Mexicans, Jamaicans, Arabs, Hungarians and Guyanese, and is greeted by a roaring cheer from proud members of each group. In 2005, nearly 190 million people, three percent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of birth. His audience draws from this three percent, but he enjoys a popularity that goes beyond immigrants. Peters is a phenomenon in both Canada and India. The police were summoned to control the crowds outside his performance at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium in October 2008. A few years ago, he performed to over 30,000 fans at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

His forté is 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 says,

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 performer 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.

His lack of searing social criticism takes us back to the demographics of this group of comedians, who hail from lives of comfort and plenitude. These comedians describe their experiences not as victims, but as agents who can control their own fates.

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 and 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 Muslim stand-up comedians has been battling stereotypes. Anchored by purpose and buoyed by humour, they use comedy to attack stereotypes and universalise their personal stories. They perform in clubs and community halls, universities and mosques.

Comedian Azhar Usman from Chicago, 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.” But considering how much material of Usman’s, for example, is drawn from such post-9/11 experiences, the distancing seems artificial. The Muslim stand-ups’ 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 is an ethnically 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 showcased 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, since the 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 a performance. AMMF strongly prefers not to have pork or alcohol served at its events.

Created in 2006, The Muslim Funnymentalists try to remove themselves from the AMMF brand of humour. Aman Ali, one of the members, says he never swears or uses ‘dirty’ language. “I don’t mock religion. I try to celebrate it,” he says, adding, “we need people to build us up. You see a lot of comics, they’ll largely do Muslim terrorist jokes. I don’t do that.” Aman and the other Muslim Funnymentalists, Iranian-born Baba Ali and Indian-American Asif Ali, have a simple rule for their comedy: “No jokes about profiling or airports.” They want to move forward, not dwell in the past. The Funny Mentalists in comparison with the AMMF comics clearly define themselves in terms of family rather than world affairs. They move beyond post-9/11 anti-Muslim rhetoric by portraying who they are rather than who they are not.

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 Carolines 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 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 lasts only 15 minutes. Why is the audience 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 humourous?

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. 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 set-ups and punch lines.

Finding stand-up too “tight,” Mathur has added her own embellishments, like playing different roles or choosing a new form. What is her definition of alt-comedy? “I think it’s people who get playful with an audience. They allow themselves to come with notepads of new material every time they get up. It could be unpolished. And that may be the only night they ever do that bit again. There’s no tight anything.” Her personae thrive not by standing on stage and making jokes but through “musical stand-ups.” She uses colourful props (like a sari), music (guitar and flute), rap and dance to tell her different stories.

If Mathur’s comedy plays with personae, 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.”

Women often use humour more for communication, writes Nancy Walker  in A Very Serious Thing: Women’s Humor and American Culture.  This rings true especially in the case of Nathan. Her narratives spin loose from her own life and resemble journal entries. In a ten-minute sequence, she chronologically recounts her life, from abandoning a career in journalism, to breaking off her engagement, to choosing stand-up as a career.

Monrok, Mathur and Nathan interpret stand-up differently. Monrok rattles the audience, Mathur plays different roles and sensitises them to various experiences and Nathan shares her own stories, thereby creating a comfort space. 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 and that 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 various cultural 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 its world. It is a world that looks inward rather than outward and doesn’t acknowledge the artificiality of this community, in which most people have an advanced degree and share a certain economic comfort. Humour is the rubber sword, with which they can stab without drawing blood.