I wrote this for an event called “Women at Work” organised by Senior Editor of Firstpost.com, Deepanjana Pal. It is a description of my experiences as a woman working in the English stand-up comedy market in India. It was probably the most warm, lovely environment to speak in and for someone who is supposed to talk to people for a living,  I was terrified of saying a lot of things I said below. (This is an edited version)

This is a mike, to indicate that this post is about stand-up comedy. Some deep symbolic imagery and stuff here.
This is a mike, to indicate that this post is about stand-up comedy. This is some deep, symbolic imagery and stuff here.

I am a woman. I am also a stand-up comedian. I go on stage, I tell what I think are jokes. On a good day people laugh, on a bad one they leave tut-tutting about the “gandi ladki who was saying all those dirty dirty things.” I was asked to choose if I identified with more, being a woman, or being a stand-up comedian. Being asked to choose implies that if I am one I cannot be the other. I’d like to borrow a quote from a report released by the detachable-genital dept of John Hopkin University, when I say “You can’t.” I end up carrying my womanliness when I am on stage every single time. Also, I’d love to hear the answer when a man is asked if he identifies more with being a MAN than whatever profession he’s in.

To me, comedy is truth. It’s terrifying to be all alone on stage with just a mic, no background dancers, no music, no flashy lights. It’s a vulnerable place to be in. And when vulnerable, just like always, honesty is the best policy. Being fake results in contrived jokes about Punjabis being loud, Gujratis being cheap and Parsi’s being…few. They’re hilarious sure, but they’re not very hard to come up with. When people ask me if I write my stand-up comedy from a female perspective I feel confounded. Who else’s perspective am I going to write from? My truth is that I am a woman, and my truth is comedy. I cannot deny one for the other. To be honest, when I started out, I did not know it was a big deal for a woman to do comedy. I just went along doing shows like any of the boys would. It was only when a journalist earnestly asked me after a show, “Women are not funny. Why?” did it hit home. I was being asked to justify what I was doing, WHILE I was doing it. It is after that, that I suddenly felt the need to justify my jokes on stage. I’d start my jokes on Vaginal tightening cream by saying “I’m not a pervert or anything,” when in reality I am a huge pervert. Today, I am done justifying myself. Now when I am asked why women are not funny, my answer is “Next question please.” Incidentally, the same journalist also posed the question “so you’re a funny woman, they’re either considered crazy or sluts. Which one are you?” I said “Both.” For some reason that question never made it to print.

I remember listening to an ad for a show I did in Delhi. In it, they described me as a fiery feminist. Coz apparently feminists who keep their cool don’t exist. But I remember wondering why. The men had their humor described as “political” “observational” “satirical” while everything that came out of my mouth was lumped into my gender. When a fellow comic announced me on stage as “India’s #1 female comedian” I had to gently remind him that I did not have an entire genre of comedy in my pants. And to clarify, in no way, am I ashamed of being called a feminist. In fact it breaks my heart when I hear well educated women go “Oh God ya, all this nari Shakti and all please I don’t do.”

Is stand-up comedy a boys club? Numerically, yes. It is. It’s easier to make people cry then make them laugh– comedy can be pretty daunting and risky. Personally, when I started doing stand-up comedy, I had nothing to lose. I had just been laid off from a job in New York and returned to Mumbai, the prodigal black sheep of the family was back to bleating on familiar pastures. If I didn’t spend my evenings at open mics (where comics try out new material and jokes), I would have spent them drinking massive glasses of Horlicks and crying myself to sleep. The nature of laughter is such, you can never 100% of the time tell when people are laughing with you or at you. That can be discomforting. As a woman, we are taught to take ourselves 100% seriously. A well meaning gentleman came up to me after a show once and said “Beta lovely comedy, but….do you parents know that you are saying all these things on stage? Accha ladka kaise milega?” His concern for my love life was heart -warming. As to why there are few women in stand-up comedy today, I say, give it time. Even nurses and secretaries and teachers were “boys clubs” at one time. We are on our way there.

I am lucky that my ultimate boss is the audience. If they like you, you will get work. But getting booked for gigs can be tricky. I have been included in stand-up comedy shows because sometimes, they just need a woman to “sexy up” things a bit. And then I have had shows denied to me because “yaar tum ladies ho, ye boys college hai, tujhe maar dalenge.” Often it’s not economically viable to book me for travelling gigs in groups because I cannot share a room with the guys, and so one room has to be specifically reserved for me which raises costs.

But stand-up comedy, as we know, is still a very nascent industry. With the English language barrier we only cater to the upper middle class, a market that has the disposable income to enjoy the indulgences of a comedy club. As mentioned, I was not aware, when I started out that a woman doing comedy was supposed to be as rare as a monkey being able to quote Shakespeare.

Except this guy. Or wait. It's quoting Romeo and Juliet, it's a girl monkey obviously.
Except this guy. Or wait. It’s quoting Romeo and Juliet, it’s a girl monkey obviously.

500 shows later, I can confidently say that to most audiences, if you’re funny, you’re funny. It barely matters what is in your pants. Even the few times that I am reminded of it by a heckler, I know the audience is on my side. At a New Year’s Eve Show of 2013, a drunk heckler kept yelling about the BIG BLACK MIKE in hand and how I should suck on it and lick the tip, the audience roared with approval when I said “Since you know such great penis sucking techniques, why don’t you do it yourself? My mouth is busy with telling jokes right now.” After all, the audience didn’t pay 500 bucks for a comedy show to watch the performer tank simply because she has a vagina. After shows, in the guise of taking photographs, many a penis has been rubbed against my groin and my boob has been grabbed so many times, I fear I’m losing sensation in the area.

I’ve answered questions about my relationship with event organizers who book me too often “You’re sleeping with him na? That’s why he keeps booking you,” someone postulates. It is unimaginable to some that I might be booking gigs because I am actually funny. “You’re only getting this much work because you’re a woman,” others have stated. Again, not because I’m funny, but because I am a woman. In the past I’ve spent so much time crying in the St. Andrews auditorium’s ladies bathroom, that now, even when I go there to pee, tears spring to my eyes.

What scares me right now, is the knee jerk feminism that our country has adopted in the past year and what it really says about our attitudes towards women. Everyone’s talking about it, panels are being organized and media outlets cannot wait to get their pixelated paws into the “WOMAN” market with non saas bahu programming. While on a panel with 4 other, feisty, intelligent women, where I was obviously tacked on as the “funny” element of the event, the subject of the Mallika Sherawat video from Vanity Fair came up. Where she said that India was regressive and hypocritical when it came to women. I was shocked to hear one of the panelists respond with “What a bitch, she can’t even talk properly because her lips are so fake and she’s talking nonsense about my country,” I jumped in to defend her. “Well, she didn’t lie. We have rapes, dowry deaths, female infanticide…” and before I could finish my sentence the producer jumped in. “Arre comedy-waali, why are you getting so serious? You can’t say “rape” and all on this platform.” Apparently the word bitch was ok, but rape—that’s a No No.

I’ve said no to several interviews when they begin their story with “Well, you know, with all the horrible stories about women coming out of India today, yours will be a positive one.” It horrifies me that the fact that I’ve not been left dead in a ditch with my head copped off in spite of speaking my mind, is a reason to celebrate.

In the last season of Kaun Banega Crorepati, Amitabh Bacchan waxed eloquent about EVERY woman that broke through the fastest finger first round. “Dekhiye” he declared, “Naari Shakti. Ek naari humare saath iss kursi par baithgi aur questions answer karegi.” We are being exulted for being alive. And that’s scary too. The higher the pedestal on which we place women, the more vehemently we will react when women divert from it. We don’t want to be your Madonna and we don’t want to be your whore, we don’t want to be your ghar ki izzat and we don’t want to be your office ki shaan. We want to be us.

50 thoughts on “Woman at Work

  1. Yaar, I would always think one way to change perspectives on women is to celebrate the ones who are successfully living life on their own terms. If celebrate = pedestal, it’d backfire, based on what you say.
    Still feel though, that publicising women who go ahead without giving a fuck (emphasis on the notgivingafuckness) will desensitize attitudes about women. Gradually and lastingly.

    1. I agree about the celebrating bold smart women bit. But celebrate the work they’re doing na? Instead of their “woman”-ness!

  2. Thanks for this heartfelt post Aditi. Having seen you on JH I had great respect for your skill, which has now been complemented with great respect for you as a person. Kudos for speaking your mind candidly (and still adding a Horlicks joke in the text :)). Hope this encourages more people to come join the stand-up comedy profession.

    Cheers,
    -A

  3. To put it as plainly as possible, the person who asked you to make a choice between being a female and a stand up comic is a certified chut.
    On the point of being either a slut or funny, it is no one’s business whom you sleep with as long as you are personally ok about it.
    On women not being funny, I’d say that there are enough funny women out there but very few with whom you laugh as compared to laughing at them. Needless to say, you are amongst the minority.
    Excellent comeback with the drunken dude. Brilliant presence of mind but that is just a testament to how good a comic you are.
    Consider yourself to be a golden standard for comics and keep rocking.
    P.S. You are a rare breed of woman who can also give a man an intellectual boner if I may call it that. 😉

    1. Great piece Aditi.

      To Perseus: Sadly personal experience taught me that a man who can cause intellectual arousal in a woman is also a very rare breed. Furthermore, the majority of men I meet do not make me laugh with them but at them and most cannot differentiate being funny and being uncouth. By the way, I think you may have missed out that ‘pedestal’ point.

  4. Great post! I love how you brought up that a woman with a strong sense of humour still makes people uncomfortable. The bias turns into polarization in places like Delhi. You’re either a Miranda or a JNU. Slut or a bore. The only thing that still sadly matters is looking pretty. God forbid if you let any other aspect of you define you.

    But, but you do, hence.. More power to you, crazy ass slut 😀

  5. The parting lines were spot on, Aditi. The obsessive need to ‘celebrate’ women who have done something of note basically brings forth our own implicit acceptance of the fact that we consider it an anomaly, an aberration in our parampara-pararapara-heavy samaaj. Women are half of all humanity for Laddusakes!

    Also, this female-being-funny-or-not stuff reminded me of Hitchens’ essay titled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. hahahaha

  6. “We don’t want to be your Madonna and we don’t want to be your whore, we don’t want to be your ghar ki izzat and we don’t want to be your office ki shaan. We want to be us.”

    Exactly.

  7. Although I believe gender stereotyping is a joint venture of both males and females and you may expect equal number of male and female fans and detractors, your words definitely hit. Dignity of work should be sacrosanct. Following you.

  8. As a child my mom rebuked me for laugh too loudly in public. I was told to gently smile as a girl who laughs too hard is miscontrued by general public to be a characterless woman. As a grownup, i make sure to laugh loud enough at jokes that the people sitting beside ne in a restaurant or cinema halls often pass the ‘will-you-make-less-noise-&-act-like-civilised-person’ glances. I got the ‘omg-she’s-such-a-slut’ glances often too. Mostly by other women. The right to be funny or to laugh like noone’s watching for women is being subjugated subconsciously all the time. Women are supposed to be graceful, quiet & uncharacteristically sweet to everyone to be considered ‘a good woman’. All others are crazy or sluts.
    I have cracked jokes around male friends on one night stands & friends with benefits & in return have received the picture of their genitals on whatsapp. The last time this happened, i flipped out on the boy who did it . poor guy, he had to bear the wrath of a funny woman scorned. Trust me, it wasn’t pretty. Anyway, the point being, women are being stereotyped to fit the required desirable characteristics, otherwise “achha ladka kaise milega?” As if wearing traditional dresses, not looking in any eyes boys’s wasn’t enough. you genuinely got to behave a certain way. Frankly, instead of doing exactly what is told to us, women would like to do what suits them best, be themselves.
    -another funnily fiery feminist
    By the way, loved thy piece. I thought i was the only ‘chilled out’ feminist (or so i’d like to believe). I connected to it Maybe the reason being that i am an engineering student. My college has 1 girl over 20 boys).

  9. it’s easier to make one cry than make one laugh… true… doesn’t matter what you got in your pants… sums it up… good read.. keep them coming….

  10. Waow so it’s true the genitals aren’t detachable! Hilarious piece throughout. Feminists are too little in number, we need more. But it’s inspiring to read such honest and quality writing about the state of women from someone who can reach out to so many through comedy. I’ve only watched you perform once in Pune, you’re hilarious! More power to you.

  11. So it’s true genitals aren’t detachable! Hilarious post throughout. Feminists are too little in number but it’s inspiring to read such honest and quality writing from someone who can reach out to so many through comedy. Helps that you’re a sexy woman too, no? I’ve only watched you perform once and you were so refreshing and funny! More power to you.

  12. I’ve just recently discovered you, and your comedy is wonderful!! I wasn’t really expecting anything else, but to see that you are a feminist and are responding to sexist comments and haters without becoming a hater yourself, it made me feel so much better, especially since I just read this judgmental, biased excuse of an article http://parthasadhukhan.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/why-india-needs-feminism-bullshit/comment-page-1/#comment-2905
    So I was. just trawling through WordPress and I found you did blogs too. After reading it, I felt so relieved. I’m definitely going to follow this now.
    I love horlicks too!
    And remember, for every sexist asshole, there are people, men and women alike who come to watch you and do not judge you on anything but your comedy.
    Xx

  13. Wow!! That was an amazing article. direct and strongly worded. I am looking forward to your performances. Are there any in vadodara?

  14. Wow!! That was an amazing article.direct and strongly worded .I recently started watching your videos on YouTube. I really liked them. . I am looking forward to your performances. Are there any in vadodara?

  15. What a brilliant piece! I can’t believe it took me more than two years to find this. I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing you in person (after of course having devoured every single youtube video multiple times over), and you are easily one of my favourite stand-up comedians. Ever. Your humour is honest without being self-deprecating, your perspective so sharp and original, and your ability to discuss important political issues in the most lighthearted of ways is absolutely incredible. When we saw your performance, my friend and I spent the entire two hours in absolute splits. We agreed that we had never laughed this hard for this long! And afterwards, he and I spent another three hours in deep discussion about everything from feminism and comedy to pads, condoms, sex and Bollywood. Pushing the boundaries of our thinking by calling out the absurdities in our life and society is the reason that I love comedy so very much, and you do that really well while making us all clutch at our stomachs in pain.

    To you, for being a woman and a comedian. But mainly, for just being fucking awesome!

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