‘Gurus of Comedy’ : Indian Comedians Today

Lisa Tsering writes an interesting article about Indian Comedians and Indian themes in their monologues.

It is a sign that they’ve arrived: as South Asians are making progress in the unexplored field of standup comedy, many are falling into the same artistic potholes as their mainstream counterparts.

As the next generation of comics grooms themselves for the big time,should we be glad to hear that they’re creating such a comfortable niche for themselves, or frustrated that so many of them have settled into the routine of jokes about the same topics — Indian roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothes and shelter)? The Gurus of Comedy, a touring show that touched down in the San Francisco Bay Area for a show at the San Jose Improv April 26, starred one comic that boldly broke that mold: Raj Sharma, a burly Texan who pounced on a heckler with the speed of a scorpion, launching into a hilarious, impromptu tirade that electrified the audience.

Less impressive were the show’s other names: headliner Paul Varghese; software exec-turned comic Dan Nainan; and opening act and emcee Tapan Trivedi. Trivedi used his thick Gujarati accent to humorous effect, though his shrill voice tended to grate and his material veered from sophomoric to shocking. Mistaking foul language for edgy humor (“Everybody’s trying to be Indian. Starbucks has a drink called chai. It’s not f—— chai!”), Trivedi let loose on abortion, the N-word and other inflammatory topics without an understanding of context or boundaries.

The crowd was certainly grown-up enough to appreciate R-rated language and ideas, but unless it’s part of a funny act, what’s the point? Dan Nainan smirked his way through a set that touched on his own Indian-Japanese descent (“My dad is Indian and my mom is Japanese. I get my sushi at the 7-Eleven … My mom is so Japanese that when I was born, I came out cordless.”).

His strongest bit centered on the omnipresent singers on Bollywood soundtracks. “To me, all the movies have the same woman singing. She sounds like a billion cats in heat. On helium,” he said, launching into a high-pitched wail and capping the joke with a reference to Indian porn films – and what they might sound like with this same vocalist.

Another well-written bit focused on outsourcing and the likelihood that rich India would someday start outsourcing its tech support call center jobs to poor Americans, who would then be required to cultivate Indian accents. But Nainan’s act consisted largely of long setups with lukewarm punch lines — though Nainan’s delivery is so confident that you might not notice its shortcomings right away. And he committed the comic’s one supremely annoying sin: when a joke bombed, he assumed that we didn’t laugh because we didn’t get it.

Paul Varghese, a laconic fellow whose material ranges from Indian-influenced to mainstream clean, played the crowd with a low-energy 45-minute set that zeroed in on Malayalee, Indian and nonresident Indian culture. “I went back to the motherland: Kerala,” he said.

“They have monkeys, elephants and cobras out in the open. But they still have a zoo.”

There were jokes about returning NRIs (“We don’t bring the stuff other tourists bring, like maps and cameras. We bring Rice Krispies and toilet paper”) and Indian traffic (“the cows are arrogant.”).

Varghese meandered from topic to topic with little in the way of themes or segues, as he talked about his father, a comically devout Christian, and desi topics such as love marriages and the long list of ingredients in the typical Indian meal.

At times, Varghese would simply go silent, one hand on his chin as he contemplated the audience for a few moments. At other times, his comedy got physical, as in a funny bit about driving a convertible up to a stoplight and trying to avoid making eye contact with a homeless guy on the side of the road (impossible, as it turns out).

Varghese is the best known of the four acts on the tour, in part because he made it to the finals of “Last Comic Standing,” a 2004 reality series on NBC. On his blog, Varghese writes, “Just because I may talk about being Indian and my experiences with it, it’s all stories and views that are completely unique to me. I’m not conveying stereotypes.” But what was frustrating about his act was the way some jokes started out with a strong premise (such as the way non-Indians try to imitate Indian accents) and then petered out. Not so with Raj Sharma, a powerhouse whose first lines onstage were cut short by a drunken, overweight heckler with the unfortunate name of Junior.

“Junior!?! Have you seen yourself?” he mocked from the stage. “The last ‘junior’ you had was a junior cheeseburger … Uh-oh, Junior’s either gonna kick my a–, or barbecue it.” Cheap fat jokes aside (in all fairness, Junior had it coming), Sharma’s material embraced all the usual desi topics (their skill at running hotels and motels as it plays out in cutthroat Monopoly games; a Zee TV crime show in search of an Indian suspect “of medium build, black hair, brown eyes”) but framed them in well-crafted setups and payoffs.

“Do you know what a sari is, Junior?” he said. “It’s six yards of fabric. I learned that it takes 20 minutes just to put one on. That’s when I realized why there are no strip clubs in India.” Sharma toyed with a couple of inebriated uncles in the front row, and seamlessly worked the crowd. Of all the acts on the Gurus of Comedy bill, he was a standout, and it will be interesting to track his career to see what’s next.

By LISA TSERING India-West Staff Reporter May 5, 2006 issue