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The Audacity of a Joke

By Geetika Pathania Jain Email By Geetika Pathania Jain
March 2018
The Audacity of a Joke



It’s funny how making light of tough issues is helping these South Asian comics find a voice and a niche in America’s messy socio-political scene. Pushing our boundaries, making us laugh, cry, and think, this crop of satirists is no joke.

Comedians, like clowns, have a special license to help us enter a threshold where the boundary between reality and imagination is blurred. We can think of them as the “no man’s land” of political critique. While satire can occasionally cut too deep, with unfortunate consequences, as Salman Rushdie found after Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa from the Khomeini of Iran, the wise “fool” is to be let off for his witty upending of his social superiors.

It is within the context of entertainment that dissent can be most effective. A striking example of this is the boldness and genius with which Hasan Minhaj roasted President Trump last year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Following are just some of the gems from his brutal monologue at that storied event.


(Right) Hasan Minhaj.
(Photo: Facebook.com/hasanminhaj)

“Who would have thought, with everything going on in the country, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage—for the ninth year in a row, baby. We had eight years of Barack. What’s another year?” “I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be alternative fact. It is not. Uh, no one wanted to do this. So, of course, it lands in the hands of an immigrant.”

“This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy, from college campuses to the White House. Only in America can a first-generation, Indian American Muslim kid get on the stage and make fun of the president. The orange man behind the Muslim ban. And it’s a sign to the rest of the world. It’s this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.”

“Keeping up with politics is easy now. But the president didn’t show up. Because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it. Think about it. It’s almost— what is it? It’s 11? It’s 11 p.m. right now. In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minhaj bombed at this dinner. And he’ll be doing that completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”

Hasan’s willingness to push the boundaries has served him well, where a lessor comedian could easily bomb. “We Muslims hate cartoons,” he let out while prancing around the stage in Davis, California performing to a live audience for his Netflix original Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King (2017). Gasp. Did he really say that? The audience is shocked into silence, and then breaks into, what I fervently hope, is cathartic laughter. A joke about the infamous “clash of civilizations,” the Danish cartoons, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, is risky indeed. But the laughter is rolling in, and we have witnessed that moment when a difficult topic has been pulled out from under the carpet into the spo light.

The narrative in Homecoming King starts with Minhaj being jilted on prom night by his “white princess,” whose parents were as worried about log kya kahenge (what will people say?) as his own. It is a story that can cause an unexpected lump in your throat. It then moves to a critique of world events, as the personal becomes political. “I am the cure for racism,” he offers simply.



(Right) Kumail Nanjiani.
(Photo: Facebook.com/kumailnanjaini)

Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani-American comedian, also weaves between the personal and the political in his 2017 film The Big Sick. His character, responding to a question by his movie in-laws about how he felt about 9-11, deadpans, “It was terrible. We lost 19 of our best guys. (Just kidding!)” Gasp. The audience is shocked into silence, and then there is laughter. A joke about 9/11?

Get used to it. Desi comedians are having a moment. But at whose expense is the joke being made? There is an implied power inequality in all humor, and it is worth exploring this question. Clearly, Minhaj is roasting religious intolerance. Bigotry and racism seem like other favorite targets. “Be a better racist,” urges Nanjiani, looking impish. “Get your facts straight.”



(Left) Hari Kondabolu. (Photo: Facebook.com/hari.k.kondabolu)

The problem with Apu
To express dissent, some people go on fasts (think Gandhi). Others organize protest marches. Kondabolu, a former immigrant rights organizer, and now a stand-up comic, has made a documentary film, The Problem with Apu (2017).

We are talking here not about the Apu from Satyajit Ray’s realist trilogy, but animated cartoon character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons (1989-present). Apu was created by Matt Groening and voiced by Hank Azaria. Apu has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from CalTech (Calcutta Technical Institute).

Kondabolu claims that Apu’s trademark “thank you, come again,” delivered in a singsong accent was repeated by schoolyard bullies and ruined many a childhood of South Asian kids. In the film, he discusses his ambivalence about Apu’s caricature with Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Hasan Minhaj, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Aparna Nancherla. There is some discussion withWhoopi Goldberg about whether Apu can be called a minstrel character.

Despite The Simpsons' equal opportunity offensiveness, Kondabolu has called the Apu caricature stereotypical and hurtful. Hank Azaria as Apu, he said, was like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”

Elaborating further on why he stopped doing accents in his comedic acts, he says, “It’s hard having an accent in this country, and you are judged based on it. I can imagine that it must be hard for my folks to work twice as hard to communicate, and also the idea that when maybe my father says something and he walks away, the idea that people are laughing because what he said is funny to them because of how he sounds crushed me when I thought about it. And the idea that I was contributing to that was hard.” The comic in him kicks in when he adds, “I’ve been saying this onstage, but my father should be judged based on the content of his words and not the accent that comes with it, because he does a lot of ridiculous things that have nothing to do with his accent.”

While Russell Peters built his career on jokes such as his Dad’s accented promise of punishment: “Somebody gonna get hurt a real bad,” some comics resist the easy laugh about stereotypes. Aziz Ansari dedicated a whole episode to this subject on Master of None (2015).

Cultural introspection through comedy
On the one hand, such humor targeting one’s own culture offers opportunities for critique within the community, much like Meet the Patels (2015), which lampooned desi dismay at nonarranged and interracial marriage. The art of the mischievous dig at the conservative relatives is perfected by Nanjiani, who looks quite pleased on Saturday Night Live at the scorecard so far: “Nanjianis: 0; White Women: 2.” His wife Emily is the second gori (white) woman married to a Nanjiani, forty years after an uncle moved to Scotland and married a white woman.

But it’s clear that these are in-jokes, like gently roasting your beloved mamaji (uncle) at his birthday party that you helped arrange. There is affection even through the rolling eyes.



(Left) Maria Qamar of Trust No Aunty.


On her sassy cartoons, full of Roy Lichtenstein style desi tropes of jhumka- and bindi-wearing women, Maria Qamar, in Trust No Aunty offers, “It’s all for brown people. I don’t care to speak to anybody else because this is a conversation between us,” she says. “Lord knows if I see a person who isn’t desi trying to say, ‘Oh, aunties, aren’t they crazy?’ I’ll be like, ‘Shut the hell up.’” The desi words remain untranslated in badtameez (bad manners) gems like “Your daughter’s getting a little moti in the arms, no?” (fat-shaming) and “Pitaji don’t know shit!” (um, patriarchy?)

Qamar, a Pakistani-Canadian comic, offers plentiful millennial sass in Trust No Aunty: “What does your roti shape say about you? Match your rolling skills below and find out just how disappointed your in-laws will be”; “How to dodge the chappal (sandal)”; “What would society say?” There are helpful tidbits for young desi girls as well: “Recipes for the desi campus girl on a budget,” and “How to stay focused in school when all of your friends are getting married,” and “How to ignore bakwaas (crap) criticism.” In response to the question “When was the last time you waxed?” for instance, Qamar’s advice is “Reply with ‘Never!’ And then run out the door, with the wind caressing your silky soft mustache strands. Facial hair is nothing to be embarrassed of. We all have it. Its natural … facial hair is a beautiful characteristic of our people and it looks adorable.”

I shared Maria Qamar’s book with my daughter Sagaree, who was delighted at all the irreverence. “In comedy, it’s ok to punch up but not down.” Pointing out the times that I have praised the sanskaari (culturally proper) kids in our neighborhood, she challenged me. “Mom, are you identifying with the desi girl or the aunty?” My response was one that sounded Qamaresque: “Eventually, beti, we all become aunties.”



(Left) Even a light and entertaining children’s book can play—effectively—into themes of immigration woes.

How Rudy the zebra had to wait for a green card
Beyond comedy there are other creative works that merit attention when it comes to art-forms tackling tough issues. In Arjun Rihan’s animated children’s book, The Wrong Stripes, Rudy, the zebra, has, well…the wrong stripes—they zag instead of zig.

Much like the comics who talk about existing in American immigrant third cultures (or in Qamar’s case, a fifth culture in Canada in a home of “half Gujarat and half Bihari, by way of Bangladesh but located in Pakistan”), Rudy feels all alone in a roomful of zebras. He sets off on an adventure, leaving his home much like an immigrant, and discovers a world full of animals with vibrant spots, dazzling points, and other mesmerizing patterns.

Rihan, a layout artist at Pixar Animation Studios, left home in Pune at sixteen to attend school in Singapore and later moved to the United States. He spent years exploring what it means to fit in and be yourself. He drew on these experiences to write and illustrate his children’s book The Wrong Stripes. Rihan shared his familiar story of waiting for legal status in America. “I got a book contract many years ago, and I was very excited about that. Sadly, at the time, I was on an H-1 visa and the rules did not allow me to accept this offer. That was really disappointing, and also ironic because you’re writing a book about being an outsider, and your own outsider status has prevented the story from being told.”

Rihan’s previous works have also touched on similar themes. His 2014 collage piece “Passport-size Portraits” was featured in the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project for the H-1B visa, where artists depicted “the anxiety, dignity, isolation, and opportunity associated with the H-1B visa.” The exhibit consists of twenty-three photographs taken in the process of applying for various required immigration documents such as passports, visas, and work authorization. They span school, college, graduate school, jobs, and travel. “These photos are tiny windows into one immigrant’s journey.”

Rihan’s 2009 student film Topi, about a young boy’s experience during the turbulent days of the Partition of India, is based on true events. Yes, it can be referred to as a cartoon film, but it can make you cry.

I met a filmmaker at a friend’s house some years ago, and he had handed me a copy of his film, Loins of Punjab Presents (2007). In the film, a New Jersey town catches Bollywood fever when five Indian-Americans and one Jewish Indophile compete in an amateur Indian Idol-style singing contest. Loins of Punjab Presents satirizes nonresident Indians and Bollywood fans as they vie for the title of “Desi Idol.” Ajay Naidu had been in the film, and so had Anuvab Pal. A few years later, I learned that the filmmaker, the late Manish Acharya, had died in a tragic accident.

A rewatching of the film Loins of Punjab Presents lit up my brain with dopamine and filled my eyes with tears. Watching Manish Acharya in the film, I marveled at yet another comic who had managed to make me laugh, think, and cry.

A version of this article was first published in India Currents (www.indiacurrents.com).




Weapons of comic construction at the White House: Hari Kondabolu, Kal Penn, Former Vice President Joe Biden, Aasif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj. (Photo: Facebook/hasanminhaj)

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