[Lilly Singh, Aziz Ansari, Hari Kondabolu, Jusmeet Singh| Photo Source: Pinterest 1, 2, 3, 4]
Back in the day, the second generation Asian Americans were seldom seen is a comedy and were typically the punchline, not the actual comedian. Times are changing! Desi comedians are taking to the stage, to YouTube, or television and using comedy as a way to reflect on issues such as their hyphenated identities, racism, and navigating generational and cultural differences between them and their parents.
We offer you a quick glimpse into the careers of some of the most notable South Asian comedians!
Lilly Singh, better known on YouTube as Superwoman, stars in comedy sketches with Buzzfeed-worthy titles that often satirize her family relationships.
When pretending to be her parents, Singh extensively uses accents and hand motions that portray exactly how emotive and specifically desi her relatives are.
Often, her jokes are reliant on a young audience, because she emphasizes an age and culture gap between her traditional roots and the modern, emoji-filled world that the West is accustomed to. This type of viral comedy provides exposure to culturally-unaware social media users, while also comforting other desi youth—especially young girls facing issues of both racism and sexism. In “The Difference Between Brown and White Girls” for instance, the Canadian YouTuber highlights several of these intersectional issues, like censoring Facebook photos in fear of showing too much skin.
Another Canadian viral star is the Sikh YouTuber and Vine-god known as Jus Reign aka Jasmeet Singh (no relation to Lilly). He illustrates his family trying to comprehend American society in many of his YouTube videos.
Spoofs of his Punjabi parents are accompanied with subtitles, unlike Superwoman’s parents who argue only in English. Jus Reign also tends to speak more about controversy than people like Superwoman, one point portraying a suburban white dad in the “Desi Parents and Halloween” video who draws the (wrong) conclusion that this family is operating a secret terrorist organization in his own neighborhood.
Then there’s Aziz Ansari who rose to fame after starring in “Parks and Recreation” as the lovable, pampered government employee Tom Haverford.
He cemented his mass appeal with his comedy tours and more recently, his Netflix series “Master of None.” On the award-winning Netflix show, he addresses issues of navigating love, career choices, and other not only “brown” themes along with directly addressing the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
In his “Live at Madison Square Garden” special, Ansari expresses gratitude to his parents and simply ends the bit by saying “kill some racist motherfuckers if you need to.” Ansari’s approach to Indian-themed comedy is much less individualized, and his words can be true of any immigrant family. Still, the level of media exposure to his work, Netflix specials and such, has given comedians of color a bold face.
Hari Kondabolu gained popularity after being featured on Comedy Central, a place where liberal political satire thrives. Comedy Central has seen a recent spike in performers of color as featured actors, such as Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Hannibal Buress, and Jessica Williams. For quite some time, Comedy Central has been focusing on the same brand of thinly-veiled satire that The Onion employs, and that kind of comedy is exactly what helps destroy stereotypical barriers. Hari Kondabolu represents the next logical step in that plan.
Kondabolu’s anti-establishment routines are more than an act. He speaks generally of racism in America, less so of desi people specifically, when he states, “saying I’m obsessed with race and racism in America is like saying I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning.”
The desi experience is much more than quirky cultural differences, stereotypical accents, and laughable issues between generations. These South Asian comics have to deal with all sorts of xenophobia on a daily basis, and comedy is their creative outlet of choice for processing these messages, hoping to build a better and safer future for other desi people and people of color as a whole.