How Donald Trump Helped a ‘Brown Wave’ of South Asian Comics to Crash Stand-Up

By Naveen Kumar
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Comedian Aparna Nancherla tells a gag about getting trapped behind a pack of finance bros on a Manhattan sidewalk—white, good-looking, and moving at what she coins “the speed of privilege.”

“That is just to say, they were not creating any gaps for anyone to join them or advance past them,” she said in a stand-up appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden last year. “Yeah, I know,” she added. “Sometimes you’re like, Is it a joke? Is it a thinkpiece? I’m sad, but I smiled.”

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It’s an apt metaphor for the world of stand-up, historically flush with the same demographic.

But over the past decade, a growing number of South Asian Americans have broken through to become household names in comedy. Hasan Minhaj returned to Netflix with new episodes of Patriot Act earlier this month. Mindy Kaling wrote and produced Late Night, in which she stars with Emma Thompson, in theaters June 7.

Following the success of The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani will star in a rom-com opposite Issa Rae slated for release next year. Despite recent controversy, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None remains among the most acclaimed original series on Netflix.

All of these stars got their start behind a stand-up mic. Look around at club rosters and monthly shows in New York and L.A., and you’ll notice an emerging class of South Asian American comedians coming of age.

They’re finding strength in numbers that have swelled in the wake of new role models, mounting recurring group shows with names like Kutti Gang and Brown Privilege in New York, and Desi Comedy Festival, which organizes and promotes stand-up nights in L.A. and the Bay Area.

A loose affiliation of artists of varying ethnicities and religions, brown comedians assembling at the grass-roots level finally have a visible roster of talent to aspire to. (It’s also no small thing to have people like Kaling and Minhaj to point to when arguing with immigrant parents who may disapprove of even their adult offspring pursuing stand-up.)

“I do look up to those guys,” says Zahra Ali, one of three South Asian women who produce and perform in Facial Recognition Comedy, a popular touring show based in L.A. “What I call ‘the big kids’ are getting their shot, so this is our time to really push forward,” she said. “South Asians didn’t have our own rooms until essentially now; we started creating them in the past couple of years.”

“With this [Trump] administration, I would say I've gotten so many opportunities because people on the other end want to see diversity and understand and showcase that perspective,” Ali said. “As much as times are tough, there's a saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy. Part of the tragic times that we're in is that it’s fueling the fire to all of our comedy.”

Bassam Shawl, who organizes a free monthly show called Brown Mirror at Von Bar in New York calls the recent surge a “brown wave.”

“There's a demand at so many levels for this, and the community really shows up,” he said. “Now that we're in the media and we're creating a lot of culture, it's definitely going to come in a big wave.”

Shawl was among those behind the mic on a recent Wednesday at Brooklyn’s EastVille Comedy Club, a modest venue tucked behind a bar on Atlantic Avenue.

The crowd was young and primarily South Asian; many of them had learned about the show, called Crazy Funny South Asians, on Instagram. Alingon Mitra, a semi-finalist on Last Comic Standing who’s performed on Conan and written for Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, hosts the recurring showcase featuring a range of experienced performers and relative newcomers.

Abby Govindan (real first name, Abhinaya), a college senior with over 40K Twitter followers and dozens of New York gigs under her belt, was a highlight who seemed to fall into both camps.

“I wanted there to be a platform for South Asian comedians, be it stand-up or sketch or video, to be able to showcase their talents,” Mitra said of his initial pitch for Crazy Funny South Asians to Upright Citizens Brigade.

“The South Asian community in our generation doesn’t necessarily have coherence in the way that some other communities do,” added Mitra, who also accredits the recent influx of brown comics to an American-born generation growing up and daring to pursue the arts over fields advocated by our parents, like medicine or engineering. “Getting people out to shows and having something that we can claim” has been a fun, motivating impulse behind organizing diaspora-specific shows, even as appetite for such comedy extends beyond South Asian audiences alone.

“I think people are now familiar with seeing our faces,” Ali said. “Our experience is not unlike that of other first generation immigrants; people have realized we have a lot more in common with them.”

While every comedian may subtly tailor their material depending on the crowd, specificity is the key to any successful bit.

At Crazy Funny South Asians, the crowd erupted over punchlines about controlling parents, mispronounced names, and ethnic profiling.

“One of the things comedy does well is it gets these stories across in a way that's funny and relatable,” Mitra said. “So people can understand your experience if you do it the right way. The tagline [for Crazy Funny South Asians] is it's a show made by brown people but for everyone, just like the shirt you're wearing.”

In an ideally diverse crowd, Mitra finds that when South Asians appreciate jokes specific to them, it gives other people permission to laugh, too. “There's something to people breaking down barriers when we're laughing that just happens kind of organically,” he said, regardless of whether a comedian has high-minded intentions or is simply going for the laugh.

Ali said that some of her best shows have been while touring the Deep South with Facial Recognition Comedy, which features a rotating roster of 20 female comedians of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab descent (the group and its name name grew out of a joke that even people they’d worked with often confused one brown comic for another).

“I have so much fun when I do the conservative, staunch Republican rooms; those crowds tend to take a liking to me,” she said. “We may not vote the same way, but I think they're surprised that they're having such a good time.” Mitra has had similar experiences touring the South with another group he started with friends, American Born Desi Comics, which regularly performs at Carolines on Broadway.

The want for distraction from distressing headlines and a desire to hear from marginalized voices since the 2016 election seems to have contributed momentum.

On whether or not their work makes a difference in the Trump era, Mitra is circumspect. “At the end of the day, it's still jokes,” he said, while admitting that bringing people together in the same room isn’t nothing—that’s what organizing these shows is all about. Ali seems more hopeful. “If comedy and laughs is a way to bridge the gap, I'm all for it,” she said. “I've seen it happen.”

Facial Recognition Comedy performs at New York Comedy Club on May 31 (promo code: FRC). Brown Mirror performs monthly at Von Bar. American Born Desi Comics performs quarterly at Carolines on Broadway. Follow Crazy Funny South Asians on Instagram for updates.

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