I had the chance to interview the Indian-American comedian Tushar Singh after his show at the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai. I wanted to know from this witty-warped man how he envisions his role as a comedian in society:
Your parents emigrated from India to the US in 1977. You grew up as an Indian kid in Alabama. Was becoming a comedian a natural reaction to your upbringing?
Culturally my upbringing was quite strange as at home I had a deeply conservative Hindu father, and out in the world I was in Alabama, globally known as the home of the trailer park and backwards thinking. However, me becoming a comedian was a reaction to several factors – but being an Indian kid in Alabama was definitely one of them. I was not only one of the few Indians in my school but I was also fat, which outcasted me (at least mentally) from the few Indian kids that were there. Having a strict father who held on to many of the bullshit village values in the Western world didn’t help. It would have been nice to be able to go to the Hindu temple and actually believe without mentally thinking:
“Hey praying to a statue of a monkey or a lady with 8 arms feels a bit silly… right? Anyone?”
This silent mental dialogue in some ways was the foundation of my comedy. Also I got to witness racism from a few different angles. The way white people were different from black people. How black people were different from white people. How both of those groups were very different from Indians. Then there were the Indians themselves, who were broken down even further. These divisions are real and true, and are very important to a robust society. While these differences should be ideally celebrated or at least not fixated on for hatred, it is easy to see how it separates people.
You have worked as a comedian in both the US and in India. What are the cultural differences between the two countries and how do they reflect in the humor of the people?
The comedy worlds are worlds apart as the art of stand up comedy began and evolved in America. While storytelling is as old as time, the craft of putting a string of jokes together for the purposes of laughter evolved out of early vaudeville and cabaret theater – hosts helping prop up the audience between musical variety. It took over a hundred years to evolve, anchored by the legends of comedy from Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Richard Prypor, George Carlin – all the way to the current living legends Jerry Seinfeld, Louie CK, Chris Rock, etc. Comedy served as a cultural catalyst of self-reflection, enticing change in what is legal to say in public, what is civilized discourse. I believe it is an art form that is the cornerstone of an evolved society – the ability to laugh at yourself.
Indian stand up comedy, in the Western tradition, started in 2009 with a few open mics and the Comedy Store London opening the first club in the country. While the insights and topics discussed in India versus the US are inherently the same on a human level (relationships, work, death, etc.), there are issues specific to each country (arranged marriages, Hinduism, etc.). I would say language is the largest cultural difference between the two countries.
How would you describe the comedy scene in India?
When the Comedy Store Mumbai began in 2009 they featured two British comedians every week for a few years. The local opening acts were mandated to do their comedy in English. The act of going to watch comedy what a high-end, upper-crusty thing to do as less than 10% of the population can speak English well enough to be considered an audience for those shows. As history repeats itself, due primarily to financial issues – the Indian & British management decided to split ways after three years. The club was renamed the Canvas Laugh Club and entered the new phase of Indian stand up comedy.
The club now had to fill the vacuum of stage time. Indian comedians were allowed to perform in Hindi – allowing them to connect to audiences in a very guttural way. New comedians began emerging from cities all over the country. So I would say the scene here is fascinating in its newness. It is like watching a baby take its first steps. The AIB roast launched comedians into the public eye. There are still pending law suits with those involved due to indecency laws violated.
Apart from indecency laws, are you and your Indian colleagues fully enjoying the fool’s license or are there certain taboos?
A fool’s license is an interesting way to put it. Some comedians play that card and get away with it, but generally comedians are deep thinking, highly empathetic people who have something very important to say. I do not believe there are any taboos, but there is certainly bad taste. Once again, if the comedian has the audience laughing then the test is over – the taboo has been conquered.
Shouldn’t there be certain taboos e.g. Charlie Hebdo?
Laughter is an amazing thing. It can be used as a very positive force but also as a weapon. It can be a way to relieve tension on the one hand. On the other hand kids teasing and laughing at the fat kid in the corner leads to much pain. The Charlie Hebdo incident was based off of a comic strip, a close cousin of stand up comedy. I believe satire is one of the highest forms of comedy – and that being said it opens the door for harsh criticism, in some cases violence.
— Doppelmeister (@JoelinhoMUC) 6. April 2016
Now that being said, if there was a KKK comedy show – where a white supremacist stand up comedian performed in front of a white supremacist audience and said all types of white supremacist jokes – and all of the jokes were met with crazy laughter. Would my position change? Yes.
You’re not talking about Donald Trump, are you?
Which role should comedians play in society according to your understanding of the profession? The show that you invited me to in Mumbai picked up delicate topics such as religion, untouchables, skin whitening cream, arranged marriages and sex.
There are may different types of comedians and their roles in society depend on who they are and what they want to accomplish. There is a place for safe comedians who work corporate rooms: they never cross the line, they can perform in front of children, they do not offend. That is not an easy task. Then on the other side of the spectrum are comedians who want to push the limit: they challenge the status quo, they are angry at the establishment, at government, at power, at the abuse of power. These comics take license to. Bottom line is if the audience is laughing, they are doing their job. If they are not laughing – you can feel free to pick apart their content, delivery, etc. It is irreverent. They are not laughing, which is typically punishment enough.
These topics you mentioned of religion, untouchables, etc. are all topics that are top of mind for the Indian public. In my point of view the stand up comedian does a great public service by acknowledging these topics, giving them some thought, putting them in the context of a joke, and attempting to create laughter. The laughter you heard from those jokes is the physical manifestation of the symbolic tension release. It represents something that is vital and why this art form is so powerful. The audience is the key here. Each comedian has ITS audience. And if that audience is in the room – the comedian can pretty much say anything and the people in the seats will go along with it.
What is the worst joke that you’ve ever heard (except from mine)?
I have heard HUNDREDS of bad jokes – but I honestly LOVE watching a comedian bomb in front of a live audience. It is such a real and vivid experience.
Why did you decide to move from the US to Mumbai?
I decided to live in between the two countries as I find it is a fascinating time to be in the Indian comedy scene. While the US literally has thousands of comedians in each of its great cities, India has literally under 200, with only approximately 50 that could do more than 20 minutes of material. It is so fun to just hang out with future legends of the art form, as they are still accessible and you can see their comedic brains churning and developing. It is like if you asked me “would you like to hang out with George Carlin when he was starting out?” Abso-fucking-lutely.
The interesting thing about these comedians is that with youtube and the internet they have the ability to watch hundreds of hours of past & current comedians. Their exposure to the art form is very high – thus they are quite sophisticated as to what is funny. Their sensibility is highly developed. Regardless – it takes time to develop your stage persona. I know comedians in LA who have been performing for 14 years and they are still struggling. Comedians in India who have been doing it for 5 years are considered veterans and get A LOT of work. The landscape is fascinating.
When did you first realize that you’re funny and how long did it take you to make a living from it?
I was never the class clown but always the guy in the back of the class making whoever was next to me laugh. Being funny is very common, it is the ability to diffuse the situation with one of the many channels of humor. But being funny on stage takes time unless you are some kind of anomaly. I first tried to be funny in front of people in 2002, however, it took years off in between due to apathy and fear. My first real open mic was in NYC in 2005. Until this year (2016) I have always had a daytime job to support me. Thus technically I have been doing comedy for over a decade. Even now I am making a living from it from the production side, not entirely as a stand up comedian. This is a very long and tedious road but the payoff to making a crowd laugh, or bringing a comedian to perform in front of a new audience is extremely fulfilling.
What are your plans for the next year?
I plan to produce more shows, bring US comedians to India to perform and then bring Indian comedians to the US to perform. I hope to help serve as a bridge between the two countries in this art form. Last year I did a 5 city tour in India – where i did 25 shows in 30 days. I brought a small film crew to film the experience as a documentary film which is currently in post production. The film is set to release at the end of this year. Full details here: www.americanhasi.com
Anything else you’d like the readers to know?
Keep supporting live stand up comedy – it is very important. Stand up comedy is a very vital part of society and new audience members are needed to spread its importance. Follow comedians as they develop their materials and personas – not just digitally but in clubs, bars, theaters. Once you watch them discuss their jokes, celebrate them as you do plays or musicians. A society without stand up comedy seems very dark to me, as a world without laughter seems quite boring and pointless.