In this interview, the 42-year-old comic talks about what prompted the book, why she took to comedy and why funny women don’t find takers.
What prompted the memoir? Was it the success of Unladylike, your show, was it your family or did it just happen?
No one who knows me well would ever suggest I write a book, I think they had quite enough of me with the show. It was my idea coach in New York, Marina Romashko, and my editor in India, Simar Puneet, who mooted the idea and then forced me to write it respectively.
It’s been a great couple of years for women comics in America: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham (not a comic, though) and Mindy Kaling. Apart from their shows, they’ve also written their memoirs. What do you think makes women’s comedy, if there is such a thing, stand out from men’s comedy?
I like to believe there is a good comedy and a weak comedy and men and women are equally represented in both. That said, with reference to the writers you mention, I think the reason their books and shows have been a success is because they take a really honest look at the female condition. They don’t pretend or protect — they just go there without really giving a s*&t about what anyone thinks, especially Dunham. She has opened doors that we never knew existed.
An article in The Atlantic published a week ago talks about how it’s hard for a single, funny woman to find a partner. What do you make of this, given how you throw some light upon your own efforts to land a suitable boy, the expectations from single women to put out, or to dumb one’s intelligence down so that men don’t feel threatened?
I think men don’t like funny women because funny women will make fun of you. I am going to generalise a bit here, but I find that men like being put on a pedestal. They want their egos pumped, they are not interested in anything else. Also they want to be the big dog in the relationship — the one with a more successful career, the one with more money, the one who gets all the attention. And there are loads of women who are happy to pander to it. It’s depressing, frankly, but there are some guys out there who do not take themselves seriously and enjoy women who can make them laugh. We just have to smoke them out!
Your memoir is quite detailed and full of anecdotes. But it stops right after your wedding, around the time you’re 33, and doesn’t delve into why you became a comic, how you discovered the world of improv, your experiences while performing, except for a mention in the Epilogue. What led you to choose to end your memoir before you could talk about your career as a comic?
Because there is a part two, and hopefully, a part three! I am the Stephen Fry of India — I will just keep writing memoirs until I drop. Also, I wanted to see how this would do; if people like it, I will write more stories, if they hate it, I will cease and desist immediately. Also, personally as a writer, I need a fair amount of distance from the subject matter. So I think I needed more time to really look at the last few years and how the whole comedy game changed me.
When you began your career in comedy and improv, who were your influences? What was the scene like in New York for a brown woman in post-9/11 America?
I started precisely because if one was a brown girl in America, all you ever got to read for (in auditions) was ‘wife of suspected terrorist’, ‘mother of convicted jihadi’. If these roles were at least well-written, I wouldn’t have minded, but they were essentially one-note characters and that was getting me down. So I started writing funny monologues for female characters. Basically, I started writing stuff for myself to perform. I had no choice, no one else was going to do it. My influences keep changing and we would need a special memoir just for those names. But the major ones are the comedy film 9 to 5, Joan Rivers for being hilarious and relevant until she died at the age of 81, David Sedaris for his writing, the show Little Britain…I could go on for days.
How do you go about writing your set? What are the kind of ideas that appeal to you, as subjects for your set?
I don’t really have a method but I tend to look for the story before the joke. I have faith that I will find the ‘ha ha’, but it’s the story and why I want to tell it that matters more. Typically, I keep writing all kinds of things and eventually, something rises to the top of the pile, the thing that bugs me the most usually. Then I grab on to that and expand on it. I like writing about the politics of gender as well as how annoying the Indian censor board is for cutting kissing scenes in the new James Bond movie. I am all over the place as far as what entertains me.
What was the toughest part about writing this book? Did you have to battle with self-censorship? Did you, at any point, worry about putting yourself out there in print?
The hardest part was the discipline. Nothing gets done without that, but it is so hard to sit there for hours each day when there are so many other more interesting things to do, like watching re-runs of Keeping up with the Kardashians. I had moments when I thought, ‘hang on a second, it’s ok to say this from a stage but to have it in writing? Maybe not.’ Eventually, I would force myself to choose what was best for the book, what would make it funny as opposed to safe. Of course I worried, I am still worried! But my shows are all about putting myself out there, so, overall, I have some practice with that. It makes things a little easier.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a new show?
I am in New York right now to attend the Gotham Awards — my web-series Shugs & Fats has been nominated for Breakthrough Series Short Form. My creative partner here and I have been working very hard on it so this is a big deal, and we are so excited. I will be working on this project quite a bit next year. I will also start working on a new live show that I would like to have ready sometime in 2016 — I want to write about relationships and how dishonest most of us are in them. Let’s see how that goes.
You devote more than one chapter to the pressure you faced to procreate. Why do you think women are so hard on each other about this? Do you think there’s a way one can extricate the idea of womanhood out of motherhood, and vice versa?
Because it’s how we always did things — and because the majority of women still make the choice to have babies, we have to justify it as the best choice. It’s not, especially not today. I have close friends who wish they could hit ‘delete’ on their decision to have had a child. Sure they love their kids, I love them too, but it’s ok to go through life without them. I think if more women stand up and say, ‘Yep, I choose this and look, I am fine’, then it will stop being a big deal. Not all of us need to want the same things. I feel exactly the same way about marriage, but I am married, so now I look like a total hypocrite when I tell people not to.
What do you think about the rising comedy scene on TV in India, with AIB, The Viral Fever etc? And how do you think the stand up scene has grown here?
I think what’s happening on TV and the internet is great. Anything to move the craft of comedy forward gets my support. I hope this inspires more women to join the fray as well, because so far the whole thing is very male-centric. The stand-up scene is popping too and again, my only complaint is ‘where are the ladies’ But I know that is changing. I have the good fortune of attending a regular open mike night for women comedians in Mumbai at a great place called The Hive. It’s run by Kaneez Surka, a wonderful comedian, and the women who show up are amazing. They are irreverent, funny and talk about everything from vaginas to religion. I can’t wait for more of these girls to join the mainstream. I hope India can handle us!