How Indian Americans have Risen in Comedy

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Russell Peters perform Stand-Up Comedy. It was 2008, I was 13 years old, and my Dad was using his now archaic Blackberry to show me a bit that Peters did for Comedy Central. It was a joke about why Chinese people and Indian people could never do business together. Why you might ask? According to Peters it’s because: “Indian people can’t live without a bargain and Chinese people can’t give you a bargain!”

Indian Comedian
Grantland / Ben Cohen

When he first found his comedy, my dad loved Russell Peters. Immigrating to Canada in the 1970’s, he would often tell me that it was scarce to see other Indians. Anecdotally he once told me that there were probably only 300 Indian people in our whole city, and since the population was small and people need a sense of connection, he knew almost all of them. Today you could never do that, as Canada is sprawling with immigrants like never before.

Four decades have passed since my dad’s arrival, and life has changed drastically. The once English colony of Canada is now a mosaic of contrasting races, religions and culture. But as much as life has changed since, there did exist a place where Indians didn’t pack the stage. The Entertainment Industry.

// Then Came Russell

Born in 1970, Russell Peters grew up in the multicultural hub of Toronto. As the son of Indian immigrants, he made a plethora of different friends and his comedy flourished with stories of people from all walks of life. Primarily focusing on race relations and the minuscule trivialities that divide people, Peters works the crowd like a connoisseur of communication. With his interactive and witty style of comedy, Russell Peters slices through ethnic divisions without so much as even breaking a sweat. I believe this is because he has the life experience to understand the cultural and financial stresses of immigration while simultaneously realizing just how comedic immigrating to a new country really is.

Since the days of his come up, Russell Peters has gained universal appeal. I like him, my uncles understand him, my Chinese friends show me his jokes and even my white friends rejoice in saying: “Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad.

“I’m Indian, I’m Canadian, it doesn’t bother me to be identified that way.” — Russell Peters

As a crusader of comedy, I believe that Russell Peters helped pave the way for Indian comics. After his emergence, South Asian comedians thrived, all having their own unique sense of humor. There are many of such comedians in North America today and I plan on giving you just some of the highlights from this ethnic comedic renaissance.

// The YouTube Comedians

Lilly Singh

Indian Comedian
Lilly Singh & Jimmy Fallon

With over 2 billion total views and 12 million subscribers on YouTube, it’s safe to say that Lily Singh is not a niche comedian. As the 72nd most subscribed channel on the platform, Lilly Singh has covered all types of topics in her 7 years shooting videos.

She appeals to second generation Indians with videos like Sh*t Punjabi Mothers SayIndian Parents Explain How Babies Are Born and If YouTube Were Bollywood, however by no means is her comedy placed in a box.

Beyond speaking about having immigrant parents, Singh’s loud and amplified comedy spans the experiences of people from all backgrounds. She is an expert at exaggeration as her comedic edge comes from exasperating the trivial hum drum of everyday living. Her wide repertoire content includes discussions on how to deal with life problems, relationships, school, food and many other subjects. She is a frequent vlogger and can even lay down some fire raps from time to time.

“The themes I’m talking about are so universal. Everyone has problems with parents, everyone has relationship issues. All girls with long hair go through the same struggle. It’s just relatability because I talk about things that everyone experiences, and not some unique experience that only Indians face.” — Lilly Singh

With over 1,500 videos split between her two channels, (IISuperwomanII and SuperwomanVlogs), the YouTuber is always working on something new and interesting. Her comedic reach is hugely expansive as she has collaborative videos with celebrities such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jay Sean, Selena Gomez, Amber Rose, Priyanka Cophra, Madhuri Dixit and many others icons at forefront of global entertainment.

There’s a sense of comfort behind Superwoman’s comedy in that it comes from a genuine and true place. These days she is taking the world by storm as she recently unveiled her best selling book: How to be a Bawse.

If you’re further curious about Lily Singh’s come up in the world, it is beautifully explained here in her “Draw My Life” video.

Jasmeet Singh

Indian Comedian
That One Guy with a Turban In The Rain

“I think we should embrace our differences. It’s all about your intentions.” — Jasmeet Singh

Jasmeet Singh a.k.a. JusReign on YouTube was at one point in life studying to be a doctor. Venturing down a path that many young people succumb to, he was making a career choice that would make his parents proud.

Singh’s true passions however lied in comedy and one July day in 2009, he made his first YouTube video as a means to avoid studying for summer school. Now with over 800,000 YouTube subscribers and 1.4 million Vine followers, it’s clear that Singh made a smart decision. From performing roles in Bollywood movies, to doing a commercial for Sprite, the young comedian is making a name for himself worldwide.

“Within South Asian culture, it’s still frowned upon to be in the arts. It’s either a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer — that’s all they want you to be.” — Jasmeet Singh

JusReign shines in his ability to perform observational comedy. He has a purposefully awkward and jovial form of expression that translates into comedic masterpieces behind the camera. The young comic is also able to win his audience over with his trademark forced laughter and surreal stare-down; the end product just leaves you addicted to his videos. In my opinion, one of Singh’s greatest skills is being able to comfortably dissect social situations and highlight the comedic aspects.

Indian Comedian
Jatinder: Tinder for brown people

Singh often jokes about Indian culture and its integration in Western society, he mocks the questions that Indians get asked and parodies the ways that Indians use Tinder.

A staple in Singh’s comedic arsenal these days is taking popular American songs and turning them into mock Punjabi-hits. It’s an absolutely hilarious process that blends culture beautifully and I highly recommend you observe the results.

All things considered, the young comedian has had great success in the world as alongside acting in Bollywood films, he currently works with Toronto based company Much as a content creator and video host. He can be seen hosting the MMVMA’s with hip hop’s young star Desiigner in this classic vine.

// Television and Film

Aziz Ansari

Indian Comedian
Aziz Ansari / TV Guide

“When Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The “everyman” is everybody.” — Aziz Ansari

Despite his massive success in the entertainment industry, Aziz Ansari still finds himself turning down one-dimensional movie roles that just need a brown guy with an accent. An excellent writer, Ansari details here how it wasn’t long ago when minority roles were played by white actors in costume.

Indian Comedian
Parks & Rec’s Tom Haverford

Ansari first taste of critical acclaim came when he played Tom Haverford, an aspiring entrepreneur working in Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation Department on NBC’s hit series Parks and Rec. Tom, much like Ansari, is a man obsessed with becoming a total baller. He’s always pitching new ideas and trying to turn his next start up into a hit success. Haverford actually has a short blurb in the show about having to change his name. Tom (once named Darwish) states that he needed to have a American appeal otherwise he would struggle in politics and business. What I find fascinating is that the clip seems to mirror many of the issues that Aziz Ansari himself views in society.

Taking matters into his own hands, Ansari tackles the awkward issues that come with race and racial representation in his Netflix show “Master of None”. Described by critics as a fresh perspective on the new cultural ethos of living, the show takes no shortcuts and deals with contemporary topics like race and religion in an intelligent and insightful manner.

“ ‘Friends’ looks like a totally different era now. It’s a great show, but you watch it and you’re like, this is a very white show. But that’s just how things were then.” — Alan YangCo-Creator of Master of None

From teaming up with a sociologist to write a book about romance, to making the Times “The 100 Most Influential People”, Ansari’s career is in a great place. His up-beat observational comedy and win-your-heart demeanor have allowed him to create bubbly projects with immense replay value. Ansari has great pizzazz when he performs and his monstrous enthusiasm for telling jokes is something I’ve always admired.

Mindy Kaling

Indian Comedian
Mindy Kaling / Elle Magazine

“Sometimes you just have to put on lip gloss and pretend to be psyched.” — Mindy Kaling

It’s amazing to think that Mindy Kaling not only acted in NBC’s “The Office” but she also had a large role in writing the Emmy award-winning hit series. At the young age of 24, Kaling was the youngest and the only female writer on the show. Writing for a full 8 years, Kaling put her writing and comedy expertise to good use as in 2012 she pitched and received her own show “The Mindy Project” from the Fox Network; all the while still writing for The Office.

In The Mindy Project, now hosted on Hulu, Kaling plays the lead of Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a self-involved OB/GYN in New York City who struggles to find romance and balance in her work life. Kaling’s character is loosely based on her mother, Swati Roysircar who actually works as a OB/GYN herself. As a fan of the Mindy Project, let me tell you just how incredible I think the show is. The comedy is light and sprightly, all the while being just a scene away from hilarious drama.

Kaling’s comedy is exuberant with satirical whips and witty expressions; its as unique as it is comical and it offers a entertaining take on the life of adults who can’t quite get their life together.

These days Kaling has taken her talents back to writing as she recently published her second book “Why Not Me” which debuted as #1 on The New York Times Best Seller List.

// Politics

Hasan Minhaj

Indian Comedian

“Only in America can a first generation Indian American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president” — Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondence Dinner

If you didn’t see this years White House Correspondence Dinner, you’re missing out. I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Hasan Minhaj before his near half-hour roast of the president, the media and congress, but since then I’ve played every stand-up clip I can get my hand on.

As a senior correspondent for the daily show and as a political science major in college, Minhaj is no outsider when it comes to understanding the complexities of immigration and the American political system. His comedy, much like Aziz Asanri, is riddled with the swag of a baller, but underneath the crisp exterior is the frame of an intelligent young man who is always questioning the world that he lives in.

Minhaj’s new Netflix special “Homecoming King” is a ballad for his experiences. In the broad-way type special, with intimate visuals constantly changing in the backdrop, the young comedian put together one of the most innovative and unique events I have ever seen in comedy.

The comedian discusses growing up in America while his mother was studying in India, he jokes about what getting slapped as a kid does to you, and he puts forwards a tightly written set that only builds visually and technically as it moves forward. I was all out impressed with the level of confidence and candor that Minhaj displayed. He’s a great comedian to watch moving forward as he seems to have an endless stream of good material.

Minhaj is also an extremely smart human being, and I urge anybody who is interested in global affairs to watch this brief interview he did with Complex.

// What’s Next?

Indian Comedian
Left to Right: Mindy Kailing, Riz Ahmed, Aziz Ansar and Hasan Minhaj

We’ve come along way since when I first heard Russell Peters, and despite the unprecedented growth, the ethnic comedy scene does not seem to show any signs of stopping. Actually what I find to be really interesting now is that stand-up comedy and the concept of a single individual drawing a whole room’s attention is making its way into the entertainment industry in India.

Indian Comedian
Left to Right: Bharti Singh and Kapil Sharma

Typically known for drama focused sketch comedy, the model of humor in the world’s second biggest nation is changing radically. A simple YouTube search of “Stand Up Comedy India” shows a ridiculous amount of hits, as young comedians all over India are discussing the thousands of local intricacies that only living among cows can offer. Topics such as castes, poverty, relationships and religion are now eloquently covered in the once hyper-conservative nation.

Monolithic comedians such as Kapil Sharma and Bharti Singh are taking the comedy scene to a completely different direction as the two rely on stand-up routines and well-thought monologues to compete for the attention of viewers. Comedy in India routinely mixes the English language with languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Punjbi, to appeal to a larger Indian audience that takes a greater interest in the world and life in Western society. The end result in my opinion is a bridging of the cultural gaps that exist between the Eastern and Western parts of the world.

I’ve heard of the growth in comedy in India and I think it’s good. I’ve been doing this for 26 years and I see that now people’s understanding of comedy is really growing. — Russell Peters

It’s hard to say if this shift in style in India is related at all to the emergence of comics in North America, though it is very interesting to watch the landscape change and evolve.

Ultimately comedy is always changing, it’s a tree that can grow around any situation and make the best out of what’s going on. As a second generation Indian and a fan of comedy myself, I will say that it’s pretty cool to see a lot of Indian people doing well. More than anything though, I’m just glad that great comedy is being created. I personally believe that the greatest strength a comedian can have is bringing people together, regardless of their background.