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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.”

Mindy Kaling is a Role Model For Everyone, Not Just Women Of Color

This article originally appeared in PolicyMic.

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Mindy Kaling might just be the new role model for all of us. Notice, I do not say; Mindy Kaling is the new role model for Indian women. If we are going to say she is good, let’s give her credit for being more than just “good for a woman” or “good for an Indian” or “good for a woman of color.” The truth is Mindy Kaling is both witty and smart.

Mindy Kaling (whose name at birth was Vera Chokalingam) stars in The Mindy Project which premiered on FOX in September.The Mindy Project tells the story of the eternal search for career balance and a love life. While the show plays into some of the stereotypes of Indians in America (of course she is a doctor), it also expands on the Indian playing the token Indian. She is not a token at all. Let us rejoice, we have a women of color as the lead character! When was the last time we had that? Margaret Cho andUgly Betty’s America Ferrera are the only two names that come to mind.

Though success cannot be measured by Facebook likes, and Twitter followers alone, Kaling has accrued 111 thousand facebook likes, over 2 million twitter followers and has written her ownbook. She is both writer and star of The Mindy Project. As New York Magazine describes, “every detail of the set, has had to pass through Kaling’s brain and reflect her unique worldview as a self-described ‘chubby’ 33-year-old Indian-American female comic by way of Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dartmouth College; and eight years as both a writer and a cast member on NBC’s The Office.”

Kaling’s inspiration for her character comes in part from her mother, who was an OB/GYN. Though Kaling may seem like she is new in the TV scene, she has been a writer with The Office, since 2004. Over the course of her time at The Office, she wrote 24 episodes, directed two episodes, three webisodes and received an Emmy nomination for “Niagara,” which was co-written with The Office creator Greg Daniels.

What about the fact that she is Indian? Does her country of ancestry support or detract from her character? She managed to get through the first episode of The Mindy Project without any overt Indian references, which can be seen as a positive or as a negative depending on your perspective.

Kaling does add a dash of race humor, but not in a way that excludes her myriad of fans. When a car nearly runs her over as she is drunkenly riding a bike, she screams “Racist!” But, beyond that one line there is no mention of race. According to Kaling, she isn’t interested in having her skin color, or her gender define her. “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists,” she tells New York Magazine. “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”

So how is Kaling’s character portrayed beyond a woman who struggles with balancing love and life? New York Magazine describes Kaling as “disastrous but still hopeful at love.” In the show, she plays into the age-old metanarrative of a woman searching for a man. But at least she has a job (more than we can say for Hannah on Girls). Kaling goes beyond the preteen-esque youngster as portrayed by Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl. She’s found her life path, she has had sex with more than a couple of people, and she is confident.

The Mindy Project feels like a more honest version of Sex and the City. As New York Magazinewrites, “Both the mainstream and the marginalized can identify with her; by defying easy categorization, she’s become the contemporary Every-woman, both a Mary and a Rhoda.” A perpetual rom-com in sitcom form that provides the audience with something we can all almost relate to and a lead character we can all respect both on and off screen.

Kaling should perhaps be everyone’s role model. A successful person realizing her dreams. I look forward to seeing how the real Kaling, as well as her character in the Mindy Project end up.