This month I was able to travel to Mumbai, India and perform at Canvas Laugh Club - one of the few bonafide comedy clubs in India. I was able to meet some other great local comics and talk to them about what its like being a comedian in India. It was crazy to learn that many of them are able to be full time comics despite only being in the game for just a few years (between 3-6 years). One comedian I spoke with had already quit his full time job as a programmer to become a full time comedian and he had only been in comedy for a little under three years. The demand for comics in India is that high and the supply is endemically low.
Most comics from the United States have to work extremely hard for many many years in order to become full time comedians, or national headliners. Not to mention that most require TV credits in addition to having strong fan bases, which takes years to build. They say you don't really even 'find your voice' in the states until the 5 to 10 year mark. But here in India, you can easily build up your time and start working full time as a comedian because there is a lot more stage time and stand up comedy is still a relatively new art form here in this country.
Being a comic in the United States is not easy. It takes years of struggle and you are treated like shit for many many years. Now here I am speaking with comics from India who are treated much much better than the way comedians in the US are treated and in a fraction of the time and thinking about how fucking ironic the whole thing is. My Indian-born parents immigrated from India in order to have a better life in America for themselves and their family. How odd now that one may need to move to India in order to have a better life as a comedian because life as a comic in America is so hard and shitty!!
Last month I had the honor of recording a fun podcast with a few other fellow comedians/fabulous women. We talk about diabetes and Oprah!
Performed a set a few months back at a bar in Hayward that really got me thinking about a lot of things. Let me set the scene for you.
The audience was fairly mixed in a typical Bay Area way- an Indian family seated to the right, some Chinese exchange students sitting up front and a smattering of Black and White folks sitting at the bar in the back. I started to do my set which was going so-so. It was one of those nights where I was doing my routine jokes as well as trying a few new ones, but honestly I was just going through the motions. What I mean is I wasn't present with the audience the way most comedians should be every time they perform. I actually scolded my self out loud on stage for not being present after one my jokes bombed and then I continued onwards with the material. But internally, I thought to my self, "its OK, you're doing fine, just keep going, try and be more present, but you're fine!"
So there I was doing my thang but before I realized it the mood changed real fast for me. Because as soon I began my jokes involving my dad, the dad from said Indian family on the right started immediately aggressively heckling me. What was interesting about his heckling was that he kept yelling out very specific questions during my set. Now I'm always down to deal with a little heckle or two, but this dad was heckling me in the most intense way I've ever seen. Intense to the point that I couldn't even get through saying my material. Things like "Oh yeah, what does your father think about that joke?" or during one Lasik eye surgery joke, "Well, how much did you father pay for that Lasik eye surgery?" It was the oddest most intense question-style heckling I've ever experienced.
Well let me tell you I became real present real fast after that. Again let me emphasize that I usually don't give a flying fuck about hecklers. In fact, I actually kind of enjoy the occasional heckle because it allows me to mix up my set a little bit and I enjoy the variety from time to time. But this guy wouldn't even let me speak! And the idea of an Indian male trying to silence his female counterpart was so unbelievably triggering for me. ESPECIALLY in the context of the jokes that I was doing about my dad. So finally I stopped and said to the audience, “Guys, can we just give an applause break to this asshole already because he clearly needs attention and love right now that he never got from his wife who is sitting right next to him.” The audience loved it, cheered, applauded and then the man STFU for the rest of my set. I finished my set, sat back down and quietly enjoyed the rest of the show. But I could feel this man's irritation with me from the opposite end of the room. And I knew something was going to go down later.
At the end of the show, the Indian dad walked up to me and said “I want you to know that I am a comedian my self and I understand how comedy works." He paused to make sure I understood the gravity of this sentence. I stared back as blankly as possible. He continued, "But I did not appreciate you calling me an asshole tonight. That was not OK at all for you to call me an asshole.”
I knew I had a choice to either (1) blow up in his face and tell him to STFU/get lost since he was the one that heckled me in the first place or (2) handle this with quiet grace and de-escalate the situation. For reasons that I still do not completely understand I decided on Option (2). I think I chose Option (2) because I was so shocked that he would come up to me after the show to scold me more about putting him in his place after HE heckled ME. Sometimes I choose peace over anger in the moment when I am actively in shock/overwhelmed. I don't know if this is a good thing or not because then what happens is that I bottle the anger in, spend way too much $$$ on therapy and end up writing blog posts about it months later.
Anyway, I said “I’m sorry I called you an asshole on stage and I’m sorry if it hurt your feelings…I was just trying to do my set…” He seemed pretty content with this response and started to turn around and walk away. But before he started to walk away, I said “Wait, you said you’re a comedian? Whats your name?” (I figured if he was a comedian in the Bay Area I would know who he is).
“Vikram Pradesh.” (I did not recognize that name at all meaning if he was a comedian he was not at all active within the Bay Area community).
“Oh, ok, nice to meet you…I haven’t seen you around the scene yet… where do you usually perform?”
And then he walked away.
Closing thoughts: To be honest, I can’t help but wonder if I had been a man or a woman of any other ethnicity, would he have had the guts to say what he said to me after the show? In hindsight, what I assume is that HE was deeply triggered by ME, my material, by the idea of an Indian woman speaking so openly and aggressively about her life and her frustrations. I wonder if it went against everything he has been indoctrinated to believe as an Indian male? I don't know. All I know is that it is unfortunate that the fact that any woman of color would have to deal with these sorts of discriminations ever. I know if I had been a white man or even a white woman, there is no way in hell this Indian dad would have even thought of heckling me the way he did. Some people who I've talked to about this have said, "oh that's just the way the culture is". And to that I say...what the fuck? The culture? As if I'm just supposed to be like "oh, ok! Culture it is!" and bottle up all of my feelings like a proper person. Like that is some how supposed to make me feel better about what happened? If that's the way the culture is, we need to change it. I have more thoughts about this which I will write about in the next blog post.