ABFD: American Born Funny Desi

Published: 28 December, 2011 15:46 IST | Lhendup G Bhutia |

The moniker ABCD is in need of correction. Desis, it appears, are also funny, with a fast-emerging crop of Indian standup comics, who are going beyond hackneyed jokes on accent, arranged marriages and conservative parents. Lhendup G Bhutia reports

The moniker ABCD is in need of correction. Desis, it appears, are also funny, with a fast-emerging crop of Indian standup comics, who are going beyond hackneyed jokes on accent, arranged marriages and conservative parents. Lhendup G Bhutia reports

In 1961, during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, Dick Gregory, an African American, got a chance to perform at the hugely popular and prestigious Chicago Playboy Club, after a regular's act fell through on that day. The club manager was anxious, and asked Gregory to reconsider taking the stage, as the audience comprised predominantly of Southerners.

Vidur Kapur is one among a crop of desi comics emerging in the US,
who have moved beyond stereotypical representations in their acts.
Kapur, for instance, routinely talks about being a gay immigrant.
"I fit in nowhere. The Indians go, 'He is gay'; the gays go, 'He is Indian';
and the Americans go, 'He is a terrorist'," he quips.

Until then most black comics were relegated to performing in black clubs and the few that did perform before white audiences stuck to the 'Sambo' stereotype of blacks as people who laughed unnecessarily, and were irresponsible and lazy.

Gregory not only took up the challenge, he delivered an act that is now considered legendary. Diving headlong into the issue of racism, his lines included: "Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, 'We don't serve coloured people here.' I said, "That's all right. I don't eat coloured people. Bring me a whole fried chicken. Then these three white boys came up to me and said, 'Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you'. So I put down my knife and fork, picked up that chicken and kissed it. Then I said, 'Line up, boys!'"

Azhar Usman, a lawyer by education, is part of a popular comedy troupe
called Allah Made Me Funny. His acts address Islamophobia in the US.
"It's bad at the airport. Some Arabs got picked up just because they had
a geometry textbook, some rulers and a stencil, on charges of possessing
weapons of mass instruction," goes a line in one of his acts.

Gregory proved to be a revolutionary role model, as more African American comics found their way into the mainstream, that was until then, predominantly white-centric.

Today, another ethnic community in the US is taking the comedy stage. The situation may not be as dire, but there is no denying that the idea of multi-culturalism is still suspect, and stereotypes and misinformation about communities persist. Armed with a bag full of jokes, Indian American comics are touring the country, performing at colleges and comedy clubs, in front of white and black audiences.

One such comic is New York-based Rajiv Satyal. Often called the Indian Woody Allen because of his resemblance to the Hollywood actor, he describes in one of his acts how his name has been a symbol � in school, every time his teacher took a roll call, there would be a pause and a frown, before his name was called out.

"South Asians are not only funny, they're also appealing: brown fits snugly between black and white," feels Satyal, when asked to explain the emergence of the new breed of Indian-origin American comedians. Clearly, ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) have had two more letters added to their moniker � E and F (Extremely Funny). So what changed? According to 35-year-old Satyal, it has to do with the Indians who first migrated to the US.

"Our parents are immigrants by choice, not necessity. Although the general perception is that all South Asians all smart, which they certainly are," he laughs, continuing, "It's the cream of the crop that emigrated. It stands to reason that if you place them in another free-thinking society, the material would be technical, smart, personable, honest...all elements that comprise quality standup. They're simply stronger than their other minority counterparts."

The Los Angeles-based comedian has a point. Ever since the US Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 in 1965, encouraging immigration of skilled labour from other countries, there has been an influx of H-1B visa holders from India. Because it was the cream that was provided immigration possibilities, the desi community has done remarkably well. According to the US 2000 census, almost 67 per cent of all Indians have a Bachelor's or higher degree (compared to 28 per cent Americans and the 44 per cent average for all Asian American groups).

Almost 40 per cent of all Indians in the US have a post graduate, doctorate or other professional degree, which is five times the national average. The census also states that Indian American men have 'the highest year-round, full-time median earnings (USD 51,094 or Rs 27.05 lakh)', while Indian American women have a median income of USD 35,173 (or Rs 18.62 lakh).

As Satyal puts it, "It's because South Asians are doing well that so many standup comedians have come up. It is only when a culture has spawned success that someone can make light of it. As long as a community is failing, there can be no jokes about it because no one would laugh -- it would simply be bleak. In comedy, you can only throw dirt uphill."

But it is not all about making "light of the community". A few years ago there were only a handful of desi standup comedians, and their tired jokes centred on the triangle of thick Indian accents, arranged marriages and conservative parents. Now, increasingly, their comic timing is in sync with new and original material. They deal with issues of gay rights, notions of how a lady should behave, misrepresentation of Islam, 9/11, etc.

For instance, Radhika Vaz (you can follow her acts and blog at http://www.radvaz.com/), in an attire that can only be termed ladylike � a prim white dress with large black polka dots, a red scarf tied daintily across her neck � sipping a cup of tea placed on a saucer, performs a show called Unladylike: The pitfalls of propriety. Calling it a "love child of a dirty affair between stand-up and sketch comedy", this New York resident who also writes her own script, explores the countless absurdities that women have to put up with.

One tale talks about how a woman's fart is the female equivalent of an engagement ring from a man (showing just how committed and serious she is in the relationship) and yet another discussing how women cannot like b***jobs. In the act, she says, "As far as I am concerned, a b*** job is like cooking, I have no natural flair for it and on top of that I am operating from a recipe that was handed down to me years ago by another woman who didn't know what the f**k she was doing either".

A former ad executive, Vaz, whose parents live in Bengaluru, has successfully broken into New York's tough-as-nails, male-dominated comedy circuit. She says about her show, "It is a very in-your-face, funny exploration of what it is like to be a woman. It discusses what women have to put up with in the world, not as an angry tirade, but in a funny manner. You don't have to be Indian to appreciate the show because the themes are universal." After performing to sold-out shows in New York, 39-year-old Vaz completed a tour of India earlier this year.

The story of 38 year-old Vidur Kapur, an openly gay comic, who moved to New York in his 20s is equally interesting. "I underwent major depression in my youth and adolescence. I was unsure of my sexuality and teased by school friends. Even my family did not understand my predicament. Later I moved to London, where I got a degree from the London School of Economics, and then moved to the US for a job.

My parents were thrilled with these developments, but I had never been unhappier," he says. Standup comedy affords him a freedom he has never experienced before, he says. Considered one of the most popular desi comics, Kapur's material deals directly with being an Indian immigrant who is gay.

Perhaps one of the biggest stereotypes these comics are breaking is their choice of career. Instead of becoming IT engineers, software developers or scientists, they're choosing an unusual line. Azhar Usman, a lawyer by education, who once ran an Internet startup company, is now part of a popular comedy troupe called Allah Made Me Funny. The burly 35 year-old sports a thick beard and directly deals with what he calls "the beast" � Islamophobia in the US. Jokes about racial profiling at airports and all Muslims being branded 'terrorists' run through the show. But there is also a blend of philosophical reflections, political commentary and absurdist observational comedy. According to Usman, when he takes the stage, most people are genuinely curious. "And if they find me funny, then they are pleasantly surprised and relieved," he says.

"There has been a high level of interest in my work since 9/11. While my act grabbed media attention, I hate to be associated with that event and to be cognitively framed by reference to it (and terrorism generally)," says Usman.

Another popular Muslim standup comedian is Ohio-born Aman Ali, whose parents hail from Hyderabad. Also a journalist and storywriter, he is part of The Muslim Funnymentalists, a group that comprises American Muslims. The group, however, refrains from making jokes on terrorism, religion, and topics like racial profiling. "We want to move beyond this, to tell stories about people from the community, about what is happening here. We want to move beyond post-9/11 anti-Muslim rhetoric by portraying who we really are," says the 26 year-old comic. Ali has also been part of a project called 30 Mosques 30 States earlier this year, where he, along with a friend, went on a road trip across 30 US states to tell stories about people from these parts.

As Usman puts it, standup is a protest art. "Comedians are truth-tellers who draw attention to how the world around them is incongruent, unjust, or just plain ridiculous. Throughout American history, every ethnic minority group has produced its own crop of standup voices. South Asian communities in the US were bound to produce their own comic voices at some point, and that point happens to be now."

Recently Ali wrote for CNN where he claimed he was sick of being asked how he felt about 9/11.

"What do you want me to say? Do you want me to say, 'It was a great plan, mwahahaha!' before I fly off on a magic carpet? �I didn't do it. Neither did 99.999999999 per cent of the roughly 1.5 billion people in the world who also call themselves Muslims. So why should I or any other Muslim apologise for what happened?"

Among other reactions to that article, one accused Ali on Twitter of having sex with goats. Ali's response, via Twitter, was not infuriated or accusive. He replied with a joke instead, "I'm a goat humper? Dude, I'm single. I'm not getting any action from anyone, let alone goats."

Azhar Usman, Rajiv Satyal and Hari Kondabolu are coming to India for a seven-city tour of their show, Make Chai, Not War, starting January 4. For details visit www.facebook.com/americancenternewdelhi.

Your guide to the history of standup comedy in the US

American standup comedy has its roots in various traditions of popular entertainment of the late 19th century, including Vaudeville, English Music Hall, Minstrel shows, humourist monologues by personalities like Mark Twain, and circus clown antics.

Comedians of this era often donned an ethnic persona and built a routine based on popular stereotypes. It was only in the 1950s that comedians added an element of social satire and expanded both the language and boundaries of standup, venturing into politics, race relations, and sexual humor.

In fact, it was only in 1964 when Lenny Bruce became the first comic to be arrested for using 'obscene' language.

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