Debunking the Model Minority Myth with Humor: The Rise of the South Asian Comedian

This article originally appeared in Aerogram.

One of Hari Kondabolu’s jokes begins with his observations while sitting on a bus in New York City. He describes a woman who is teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. She says, “Asians are so well-behaved.” Kondabolu jokingly comments, “I don’t know if you know this lady, but Asians aren’t puppies.” He says that her remark is coded model minority bull-shit. “I was going to say something, but I didn’t have to, because the very next stop on the bus, Genghis Khan got on the bus, took out his sword and chopped her head off.” He ends the joke by saying this proves “not all Asians are well-behaved.”

Humor and comedy are malleable. The timing and build-up of a joke are important. The joke itself cannot be “too soon” nor the punch line be too late. Subject matter is, of course, important as well as who is in the audience and who is telling the joke. There is nothing inherently funny about a brown comedian, but there seems to be an increasing number of South Asians choosing this path. Funny? Perhaps. Demolishing stereotypes? Definitely. Speaking to six comedians: two in Los Angeles, two in the Bay Area and two in New York, the mission is clear. It’s about the laughter.

South Asians are supposed to be doctors or lawyers. In lieu of doctors or lawyers, a good job working in computer science is acceptable. If not, a well-paying management job is will do. The stereotypical “American Dream” for South Asians includes children equipped with an above average education. As the model minority, 64 percent of Indian-Americans had a Bachelor’s degree or higher according to the US Census of 2004. In addition, 60 percent of Indian-Americans had management or professional jobs, compared with a national average of 33 percent.

Against the backdrop of the model minority stereotype, some South Asian comedians have already pleased their parents with a “good job” or “good school.” All of the comedians I spoke to for this article agreed that the number of South Asian comedians is growing, though there was no consensus as to why.

South Asian comics as a whole do not have much in common, aside from a few common comedy tropes. Many discuss the everyday, the mundane and the experience of being brown in America. Russell Peters and Aziz Ansari may have paved the way for South Asian comedians, but we now seem to be entering an era in which there are more than a token two. Why is there a growing number of South Asians in comedy circles? How do they talk about their identity?

I interviewed comedians with backgrounds in engineering, finance, computer software, and human rights. What do they think about the increasing presence of South Asians in comedy?Rajiv Satyal who is a standup comedian from Cincinnati, Ohio (now based in Los Angeles), and has toured with the likes of Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters, says it is “the natural progression of things.” He notes that, “Initially we saw immigrants going in less risk averse professions such as medicine or engineering.” Now that the children of the doctors and lawyers are growing up, it is only natural that they begin to explore other careeres. Satyal also had a unique view of his South Asian cohorts saying, “South Asian American comedians are some of the strongest ones. I think it is because we are a product of the two most important democracies. Free speech is a really big thing.”

The concept of comedy as interwoven into free speech is also echoed by Samson Koletkar, a first generation immigrant in American who was born in Mumbai and raised Jewish (he is the only Jewish-Indian comedian, as far as we know). Koletkar does not shy away from talking about serious issues or religion, “Even when I am making fun of my religion or your religion I am not mocking you and telling you you’re stupid.” Instead, he uses logic. Koletkar, sees that it is increasingly acceptable for South Asians to explore professions other than doctors and engineers. In addition to performing at clubs, colleges and corporations in the US and India, Koletkar’s comedy has been featured on NBC Bay Area, CBS and NPR.

Brooklyn-based Hari Kondabolu says, “The mainstream has accepted more South Asians because there is a generation of Americans who grew up with South Asians.” Kondabolu’s debut comedy album called Waiting for 2042 came out March 11, 2014. “There is a generation that has gone to school with us,” he says.

Despite what feels like a rise in South Asian performers, San Francisco based comedian and storyteller Dhaya Lakshminarayan still sees audiences with few South Asians, “There can always be more,” she say. She believes it is important to increase the demand for supporting the arts. “Go watch live comedy, go watch live theatre.” Lakshminarayan was named Best Comedian 2013 in the SF Bay Guardian’s Best of the Bay Readers Poll.

Like all comedians, South Asian comedians must decide whether or not to make jokes about their own race and culture. For the first two years of his comedy, Rajiv Satyal avoided making jokes about being Indian. “You do more to break down stereotypes by not addressing it [race],” Satyal says. While some comedians try to tailor their show to the audience, Satyal says, “My act is pretty much my act… for Indian audiences it’s going to be more ‘you guys know what I am talking about,’” otherwise, he describes it as more explanatory.

Nimesh Patel, from New York, made a similar choice when he first started in comedy, he avoided discussing his identity. These days he sees race as a “rich field of material.” He talks about it because “it’s something that effects my life.” Patel described being at lunch with a friend, and noticing that he and his friend were the only non-white people at the restaurant. He added that comedians talk about race because it is “so obvious, and so hidden at the same time.”

South Asians are seen as “The whitest minority,” Patel says. As more names such as Aziz and Mindy come into play, Patel says that people forget they are Indian, “which is really cool and weird at the same time.” When I probed further into what he meant by this, he said, “You don’t think of Aziz as that funny Indian.” He is funny, regardless of race.

For others, identity is just part of the show. Rajan Dharni, a Los Angeles-based comedian sees stand up as a very personal thing, “I like to share who I am.” While he may discuss his identity, it is usually not the focus of the joke, “I don’t see anything funny about being Indian.”

Kondabolu observes that mostly white audiences are uncomfortable with race. “People say the best comedy is funny because it is true. Truth is not a singular thing,” he says.

For Lakshminarayan, growing up in the South meant she was seen as Black. “Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of self identifying,” she says, “Brown is what people see.” Lakshminarayan tries to elucidate what it is like to be her, in all of the various identities, as a San Franciscan, a brown person and a small person.

“On stage you just have one rule — you just have to be funny.” She adds, “Your goal is to be yourself.”

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