In this episode, Shruti speaks with Aditi Mittal about how to build a comedy career, why she curses and makes jokes about sex, the logistical difficulties of being a woman in comedy, male vs. female spaces and much more. Mittal is a comedian, writer and actor. She has two Netflix specials, “Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say” and “Girl Meets Mic,” which is part of the Comedians of the World series. Her third show, “Mother of Invention,” is on Amazon Prime U.K. and AUS and on NextUp Comedy. She’s also the host and executive producer of the podcast Women in Labour.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Today my guest is Aditi Mittal, who is a comedian, writer, actor based in Mumbai, India. She made her debut on the global stage with her first stand-up special, “Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say,” on Netflix; her second special, “Girl Meets Mic,” also on Netflix. And recently released her third show, “Mother of Invention,” on Amazon Prime UK, AUS and Next Up Comedy. She’s also the host and executive producer of the podcast “Women in Labour.” Mittal can be seen in the upcoming series “The World According to Comedians” in Finland on YLE.
We spoke about her approach to comedy, her alter ego on stage, the logistical and creative constraints on female comics in India, insult comedy culture and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.
Hi, Aditi. Welcome to the show. This is such a pleasure, and I am just so thrilled to see you.
ADITI MITTAL: You know, this is so, so exciting, Shruti. I am in complete disbelief that you have decided to lower the standards of Ideas of India and have me on. [laughs] I am absolutely thrilled.
RAJAGOPALAN: I can’t believe you’re starting this off with fishing for compliments. If we must, let me give you some. This has been my funnest prep ever because I have a great excuse to watch and rewatch your videos. There’s a point at which my husband was saying, “You’re watching that again?” Because I rarely do that with most comics. I don’t go back again and again.
I’m like, “This is research. I am doing prep.” What I’m really doing is just bursting into giggles, and he can’t understand what’s happening because typically I have my headphones on, and it’s just a giggle festival. That’s what I’ve been doing. Let’s start with—this has been my all-time favorite prep. Thank you for that. Even before you say anything on the podcast, it’s been a joy.
MITTAL: My pleasure, darling. My pleasure.
Women, Sex and Alter Egos
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to start with one of my favorite sketches by you, OK? I’m going to try and do this without giggling, but it’s going to be hard. This is Dr. Lutchuke and the foot fetish. Now, I want to break this down in a few parts. First of all, it’s one of the funniest things I have ever seen. (For those who haven’t yet watched this bit, please go ahead and do it!)
Now, you’ve done stand-up comedy as Aditi Mittal, right? Very much your voice, your face, the way you normally dress. And you’ve also done sketch comedy solo and with others. But the Dr. Lutchuke sketch is something in the middle, right? Because it seems like a sketch. You show up in costume with a different accent, and you’re fully in character. The jokes, the way—the timing, the landing of the jokes: it’s all like stand-up. Except you never break character.
Where did this crossover come from? What was the reason for it? What was the experiment?
MITTAL: I’m quite a famous pervert in my family. When I started doing stand-up, I wanted to do sex jokes. I remember thinking that, “Oh my God, if I do sex jokes, then people will know I’ve had sex.” (Obviously, as we all know, I’m a virgin.) I was terrified to go up with my own face and my own clothes and my own body and be like, “So, what’s the deal with sex?” or whatever.
Then I saw this—actually, Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke: it’s an anagram of the word chutkule, which means “joke” in Hindi. It’s based on my best friend’s grandmother, who used to—after college, we used to go to her house. Then she would advise us on all the matters that young girls from college should be advised on. She was so funny and so ridiculous and so straight-faced.
I was thinking, “You know what? I have to do something as a tribute to her.” That’s where Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke came. I got the accent from there. I got the little posture from there, and I got the sari from Malad station, for 333 rupees at that point in time. Those are the origins of Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke.
RAJAGOPALAN: I have questions about—can female comics talk about sex without jeopardizing their marriage prospects?—and things like that. This is like a peek into that world that I didn’t anticipate.
Before that—the sketch itself actually is pretty clean, in the sense that you’re talking about a foot fetish, and you keep saying, “Oh my God, I wanted to sound like a pervert and make these sex jokes.” It’s a commentary more about Indian families! It’s a commentary about how people go to temples and the things they worship. You even have bootlicking jokes in there. You have every kind of pun that you can make with feet. There’s a critique of government and journalists!
Actually, initially, I was thinking, “Oh my God, Aditi called this ‘foot fetish’ so that it’s clickbait. Actually, this is social and political commentary. It has very little to do with the actual fetish.” [laughs]
MITTAL: Yes, I’ve had to specify sometimes on posters and on videos and stuff that this is not actual medical advice and this is not a real doctor. [laughs]
In fact, I remember when I first started doing Lutchuke—and I used to do Lutchuke back-to-back. I would do Lutchuke, then I would have a different act come on and do a five-minute act so I could go and change back into my clothes, right? Then I remember once after the show, the greenroom bathroom was broken. As soon as the show got over, I was running away for my postshow pee. As I’m washing my hands, I can hear somebody in the bathroom go, “That girl was nice. Aditi was nice, but that doctor was fantastic!” And I was like, “Now, how to explain to people that it was me only?”
There was a time when I was doing a chat show with Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke—so it says “sexologist” on top. The kind of calls that the club got during that time! Lots of people who were like, “Can we schedule an appointment with her? We just want to make sure—we are having these problems—” And the club was like, “No, no, she’s not an actual sexologist. This is just a character she’s playing.”
It also—ironically enough, yesterday I was listening to Nitin Pai’s episode of IOI. He was talking about how misinformation, or at least media literacy, is one of the biggest malaises of our time. It hit me: I was like, “Oh yeah, those posters.” It was so obvious that they’re gag posters, but also somebody assumed them to be real. It really drove the point home for me when I was listening to that episode.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, but you’ve touched on two things which are very unique to India. The first is the ability to reach out to someone you think is an expert, or someone who has at least had sex or may know something about it, in a way that you cannot easily ask your parents.
Now, you and I have grown up partly in the pre-internet age, and there were newspapers, sexologist columns and the agony aunt advice, right? There are a whole bunch of famous names there—usually men; not many women out there. For women, it would be in Grihshobha or Femina—there would be sex advice, right? A lot of them are basic questions which one would imagine you can ask other women in your cohort.
Middle-class India, there was a bit of a break, right? Urban middle-class India, the nucleus family begins; you don’t have the gaggle of aunties and grandmothers the way you have in the village. And now suddenly your source of information is gone, and it’s very awkward to ask your in-laws or male members of the family.
There’s something structurally weirder going on in India when it comes to a sexologist. You’ve just tapped into the funny of it. It’s funny that that’s not the thing that people latched onto. Like, it’s real for them.
MITTAL: [laughs] Yes. The second show I did of Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke, a friend of mine managed to get Dr. Mahinder Watsa, who is one of the columnists.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, fantastic. He’s the famous sexologist.
MITTAL: Yes. In fact, I did an interview bit in a documentary film about him. I was mildly obsessed with Dr. Mahinder Watsa as a kid. It’s so strange that something like this used to appear in the newspaper because it was right next to the news. I remember being so terrified that, while reading the newspaper, I would make sure that I turned that page sooner than the others just in case somebody somewhere was watching me read the newspaper and they would see me read sex advice.
Just the paranoia is crazy. I don’t understand what it is. You know what I realized? By the way, India is sexually very conservative—we are the biggest perverts on WhatsApp, OK? The kind of messages, the kind of jokes that go around on WhatsApp—let me tell you! Apparently we know everything that we’re talking about.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is something interesting about Indian society, which is not apparent when we go to the malls or even regular places: how segregated it is, just in terms of conversation. Women—the conversations they have with other women are completely different from the conversations they have with men.
The kinds of conversations you have within the family are completely different from the ones you have outside the family. In fact, forget conversations! You and I have gone, I think, to all-girls schools, and I think you’ve even been to an all-girls college. Girls will leave home in a particular outfit and reach college in a different outfit. They leave college in a particular outfit—the classroom—then the jacket will come off and they’re having coffee in the barista next to the college and on a date, and they look completely different. It’s like Dr. Lutchuke and Aditi Mittal: You can’t recognize them. We have some kind of multiple personalities that we need to inhabit.
Now, I can imagine that’s great fodder for you as a comic. How hard is it to be a comic in that world, where you have to segregate your content, where you can’t make certain jokes in front of certain people?
MITTAL: You know, I realized that especially if you are a short-heighted human woman in front of what are largely male audiences, you have to earn their attention in a completely different way than a guy with a microphone. You have to either—you have to show them that place, for the lack of a better word, by cursing more or roasting them more. I think that that dynamic, I wish . . .
And I think the number of women doing comedy now—there is a conversation among us where we’re like, “Oh my God, did you notice this? Did you notice that?” Lots of men who will come to us with advice. “Listen, you should do this show; you should tell this joke.”
In fact, I was recently discussing with somebody: Her partner’s dad, OK, does this jokey thing where he’s constantly like, “All right, this girl is a scam, yaar. She has never made me laugh. She has never made me laugh. So what comedy is she doing, yaar?”
You want to be kind to the person and you want to be nice, but I’m just thinking, like, “Buy a ticket—buy a fricking ticket. OK? Come to where I work for me to do my work.” I don’t come to your dinner table and ask you to do my taxes, chartered accountant uncle, but for whatever reason, I’m supposed to be on 24-7 entertainment? I have to prove myself—after a decade of doing the job—at your dinner table? Otherwise I’m a scam?
RAJAGOPALAN: There are two things here, right? One is you have to always be switched on as a comic. People are always expecting you to make them laugh, even when you’re not working.
The other part of it is the flexing. This is a typically male space. You have to show up, you have to make a couple of dick jokes or say some swear words, or at the very least throw out the PMS thing: “I know what all of you are thinking; let me just put it out there. Now the elephant in the room is just a little bit more visible; we’ve addressed it—now we can actually get to the real thing I want to talk about.” I’ve seen female comics do versions of this.
MITTAL: We have to do—and this is a pattern I’ve noticed myself following, which I’m really dying to break, clearly, is you walk into a room: The first two, three jokes have to be self-effacing. Your first two, three jokes have to be like, “Oh, no, neh neh neh.” I did it on this podcast. You know what I’m saying? I did it here when I walked in: I was like, “Oh, you’re lowering the standards.”
I was for a very long time, and I am still, trying to wean myself off that habit. I walk in, I want to lower my status immediately so that I don’t seem threatening to you. In that moment, “Yeh toh jhalli hai; she’s just being silly.” If I say something after that that might be scandalous to you or controversial to you, you’re like, “Oh, no no no, but actually, jhalli hai.” [She’s silly.] You’ve got that context on me.
Playing to a Male Audience
RAJAGOPALAN: The “jhalli hai” part—so that’s the nonthreatening part, right? You want to immediately make yourself feel less threatening because you’re like, “Oh, that’s going to make me less of a target.” Now, is that because the audience is largely male, or is it because the audience might be mixed, but they’re largely used to male comics and they’re not used to female comics, and that’s the real difference?
MITTAL: Yeah. I also think that women laugh at the things that their husbands laugh at a lot more easily than the things that they would privately—in India, women vote for the parties that their husbands and fathers vote for.
RAJAGOPALAN: Or so they say.
MITTAL: So they say.
Hey, wait, I’ve read that—you’re saying it’s not true, or what?
RAJAGOPALAN: Women inside a nucleus and joint family situation have to be nonconfrontational, right? And it seems like politics is the least-benefit part in the confrontation. You might as well confront them about your public safety or your curfew hours or how many meals you have to cook. If you have to really get in a fight with your family and push back, why would you do it about politics, where it really doesn’t matter and no one can find out the way you voted?
My sense is women are a lot more independent in their political thinking, but I don’t know if they reveal it even to their own families. It’s not clear to me. Like, women overwhelmingly support prohibition, in a way that men don’t want prohibition, in places like Bihar. There do seem to be at least some specific margins on which women might vote differently and not tell the men that they’re voting differently.
I haven’t run the data on this. I’m not an expert on this at all; I should ask some political scientists. I think Neelanjan Sircar is the absolute expert on this question, so I should ask him at some point (and maybe I’ll link to something he’s written [with Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, Deepaboli Chatterjee])—but that’s my hunch.
MITTAL: In fact, ironically enough, I’m trying to do something about single women right now. One of the things that struck me—I was like, “Oh my God, by 2025, along with being the largest of every group, right, in India—largest number of diabetics, largest number of heart patients—we’re also going to have the largest number of single women in the history of India.”
What does that mean for us politically? Will there ever be a party, and—especially considering current conditions—will there ever be any movement towards women voting for their own interests over the interests of what they think their family wants them to do? I think that’s—I’m so interested to know.
RAJAGOPALAN: Even though women are the largest group, they’re sort of spread across all the constituencies, right? So it’s not like they form a critical mass. The sex ratio is getting better, but you’re typically, whatever, 980 to 1,000 in each district. It’s fairly well spread out. Unless we have certain areas where there are a lot more single women, like certain cities, certain urban constituencies, I don’t know if we will see that outsize effect.
But I do think as young women, especially, move to cities, problems like, I don’t know, typical issues like cleaner streets, better public transport, better law and order, less molestation—those sorts of things are probably going to be at least talked about a little bit more, even if they are not the deal-breaker when it comes to voting. Hopefully just more part of the conversation.
People talk about women in Delhi and their safety in a way that is not happening in so many rural districts that women are getting raped inside their homes. There’s still a women’s safety issue there, but it’s not on top of anyone’s list of things to talk about. In urban areas, because of the single women, it is. I think that’s sort of where this—that’s my hunch.
Logistical Constraints for Female Comics in India
RAJAGOPALAN: Tell me one thing about women’s safety and single women. Is that a constraint for female comics, in the sense that all the shows tend to be later in the evening? Comedy is very much a late-night, after-sunset affair. It’s not like a bright, middle-of-the-day, ladies-who-lunch kind of affair. There are so many more restrictions on women after a certain time of day.
There is a question of transportation if they are women who live with their families. Who’s going to drop them; who’s going to pick them up? I am almost 40 years old, and when I go back to India, my parents and the driver and someone or other is chaperoning me everywhere in a very bizarre way.
Is this one of the logistical constraints for female comics? Or it’s just it’s there everywhere, but there are other problems female comics have, and that’s why we don’t have them in large number?
MITTAL: Actually, except for Bombay, which I think is a largely safe city—in Bombay, we had shows that—like we have midnight shows. You can still do a spot at a midnight show; it gets over at one o’clock and then you take a rickshaw and you come home. That’s not as much of a problem.
I think this also speaks to the kind of people that are doing stand-up comedy right now, is that a lot of the people doing stand-up comedy belong to—I say “upper middle class,” but what I mean is the 1%.
MITTAL: [laughs] And so we have the money to be able to spend on a cab, we have the money to call an Uber, we have the money to take private transport—as opposed to, “Oh my God, now I’m going to have to wait for the train at one in the night.” I think that that is one thing that comes into play when we talk about this.
In fact, about six years ago I organized the first women’s stand-up open mic, and we called it “Bras before Bros.” We were desperately looking for sponsors at that point in time, and not because—you know this thing that we wanted? Actually, we wanted to partner with Uber. I think Uber had just entered the market during that time. We were reaching out to them desperately, saying, “Hey, would you like to partner with us? We can have our contestants go back home with this.”
This was specifically for Delhi. It wasn’t even for Mumbai, because in Mumbai we understood that people will come and go, but it was for Delhi. Delhi I think is still one of those places where—we do shows in Gurgaon and stuff like that—where I rent a car in Delhi. I rent a car in Delhi because I want to make sure that it’s not me out on the road waiting for an Uber or looking for a rickshaw, even at 10:30 in the night. And that has been advised to me by everybody. I think that Delhi, even Bangalore to a very large extent—you just want to make sure that your transportation is with you at all times.
Now it’s a back-of-the-mind thing. In fact, when I first started out, I remember I didn’t have a manager or anything, and I used to do private gigs. (God bless private gigs.) I got called to perform at someone’s birthday party in Kolkata. Then I jumped into a—and they sent me the ticket, and I had no concept of like, “Oh, you take advance payment.” No, it’s like, “Oh, my God, you want me to come? He’s giving me money! Show up immediately.”
I get to Kolkata airport, and this person’s phone is off, and then their phone is off the entire night. I had no idea, because I assumed that they would come to the airport to pick me up, or at least they’d informed me that they would. So I get to Kolkata airport—I’m sitting at Kolkata airport, and I’m wondering if I should call my mother. Because I said, if I call my mother and I say, “Mummy, this has happened,” she will never allow me to leave the city again.
I spent the night at Kolkata airport, and they were very, very nice to me. I think that is one incident that always comes to mind, and since that time—I got a manager, I think within a year of that, so that was good. It always comes to mind whenever I think about the ability to travel, the ability to be present in places where the men won’t have to think twice.
Lots of times if we produce our own shows—if I’m putting up my special, sometimes you are a 50% partner on the production of the show. You end up spending more money for yourself in the hotel because you know that you can’t stay at a two-star hotel in Nagpur because you want to make sure that—
RAJAGOPALAN: The latch won’t latch properly. [laughter] These are things we learn when we do fieldwork, which is that the fact that a door locks perfectly—that’s a privilege. It’s not a given in a lot of the lower-end places. I’m not even talking about, oh, clean bathrooms and there was a spider or something. I’m just talking about the basics. I’m not 100% sure if I have to jam the door with furniture.
MITTAL: They usually put single women in room 101 because it’s the one closest to the reception. In case anything goes wrong, you are the closest to the reception, I guess. Also, if something goes wrong, “Oh my God, you’re closest to the reception.”
The things that come into play are really strange. I remember that—I think this was in maybe Delhi is the first time—it blew my mind. Somebody was coming to pick up—I was in a hotel room. I had a gig that night. Somebody was coming to pick up my costume, and I was doing Lutchuke, so somebody was coming to pick up my costume and my props. I told them, “Hey, listen, why don’t you—” I was on another phone call. I said, “Why don’t you come up to my room, take the stuff and then go?”
The agents did not allow this person to walk up to my room, and then they said, “Oh, no, because there are brothel laws that a single woman cannot have a male person—” I said, “But there’s no female on my team. I need someone to pick up these props.” But that was that. Can I drag the suitcase down and with this thing. It is really amazing—in the randomest places where this pops up again.
Does Marriage End the Laughs?
RAJAGOPALAN: One is the late-night stuff, which is obviously disadvantageous for women unless they can privately ensure their security. The other part of it is just, so much of the stand-up comic’s life is just traveling. It’s very hard to do if you’re married, if you have children, if you live in a joint family, you have in-laws. You have weird hours; you’re never home for dinner.
Is this another layer that prevents women from coming in, or—even if they come in—is it a layer that prevents women from rising up once they are married? They literally need to check out of that system in some way or have an extremely supportive family that can provide the infrastructure for this to work.
MITTAL: You’re absolutely right about that. In fact, there are currently comics on the scene: One of them, she has a blanket rule that she is not allowed to talk about her husband. Her husband has just put that rule out there that “you cannot bring up anything about me, anything about your mother-in-law, anything about the family.” And she is still doing stand-up, but this is a blanket rule for her.
I used to wonder—actually, she’s been performing for a couple of years, and I just turned to her and I said, “Hey, man, how come you don’t talk about your husband at all?” She’s like, “Oh, he doesn’t like it very much.” I was like, “Oh, OK. That’s fair.”
There’s another one that I know of where she did a joke about her mother-in-law onstage, and her mother-in-law’s friend somehow saw it. Now that girl doesn’t do stand-up anymore, because they said that this was not appropriate to go around making jokes about your mother-in-law onstage.
There is that—the natural censor comes one layer of that. Then I think also the second layer is that spaces are so hostile, sometimes, that you actively start distancing yourself from some of the spaces because you’re like, “I mentally cannot handle this. I cannot mentally—”
It’s more stressful to be in the greenroom than it is to be onstage sometimes. Because the dynamics are so dripping with testosterone, or sometimes just actively hostile, and especially with something like stand-up.
It’s not a—I’ll say this: It’s not a meritocracy, you know what I’m saying? Someone completely hilarious, but who is a woman, who’s in a room full of men who are like, “arrey bandi nahi mili” [we couldn’t get that girl], or “engineering college mein, my friend is called Muthu.” We’ll obviously not kill as much as these men. Then, at some point, the woman will just turn to herself and say, “You know what? I’m not good enough, and I should stop coming to these rooms.” That becomes a natural thing, that you hinder yourself or you cut yourself off from spaces.
It is the question of being understood onstage. If you crack a sex joke, means you love sex. If you crack a sex joke, means you want to have sex with them. Then there is also a complete lack of—when you’re doing comedy, a lot of it is also confessional; you’re vulnerable; there’s a lot of boundaries that you breach—of your own, not even somebody else’s. You breach a lot of your own boundaries.
The assumption is that if you are willing to do this onstage, then surely it’ll be funny if I put my hand on your boob for a fan picture. That becomes—and then if you make a fuss, “But this is a joke.” “Oh, you’re OK with talking about sex all the time, but you can’t take this as a joke?” The dynamics of it are very—I don’t want to indulge in them.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, this is actually so interesting that you said this because my perception was that when women talk about sex onstage, it’s that they’ll be judged more. People will think, “Oh, she’s a slut. Of course she’s had sex. And she seems like she’s experienced. She’s had sex with many people, and she’s cool talking about it.” But I didn’t realize that it’s not the judgment or perception alone: The moment you open that door, they think you’re available to them in that moment.
It’s not a judgment thing. It is now—you have switched yourself from the role of a good, decent person to someone who’s available. In fact, it’s the same thing that happens to dancers onstage. They do all these very raunchy moves. They’re obviously playing a part of a dancer onstage, and people will grope them because they’re like, “Oh, if she’s willing to do this, then she’s obviously opened up that door. She’s showing her midriff. She’s shaking her hips, and she must be available, and I should be allowed to grope her.”
I had no sense that that happens to comics. Do fans—do they grope female comics when they come for pictures, even in Bombay or Delhi, or maybe even in Gurgaon, which is anyway like Dalrymple’s “Anarchy”?
MITTAL: Not in the cities.
RAJAGOPALAN: Not in the cities.
MITTAL: Not in the cities. Not in the cities and not—the incident that I spoke about actually happened in 2015 in Lucknow. I don’t think it happens as much anymore. I do think that there is a sort of—even when you do a roast, the kind of stuff that people think is OK to say to you suddenly blows your mind, and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is my fault for opening that door.”
Lots of comics abroad—I was talking to—I hung out with Whitney Cummings. You know, just a day in my life, I hung out with Whitney Cummings and—
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re funnier. I’m sorry.
MITTAL: She was like, “I don’t do roasts anymore.” It’s a global problem, is where once you put yourself out there in that way, that people think that the door is permanently open, and they have the right to turn around and treat you in that way as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to talk to you about the roast. This is in particular the AIB roast that you did, which is, I think, the most salient in my memory. But also, more generally in India, even outside of roast, why is insult comedy so big in India?
I mean, the “Kapil Sharma Show,” which is supposed to be this family-friendly thing—it’s actually playing on a general network television channel—it’s full of insults. And it’s everyone! It’s fat people jokes and the third gender. It’s every—men who are effeminate, women who are unmarried. Insult comedy just seems to be the way people do comedy, some kind of lowest common denominator in comedy. What is going on in India and insult comedy?
MITTAL: Life in India is cruel. If you turn around and look at—you get some distance from the life that you’re leading here, you realize the state has seemingly abandoned you. You’re doing this stressful commute to work every day. You’re working for a boss that doesn’t really care for you a whole lot. You come back home, and the world around you has told you that your wife is either a gold digger or that you are not being served as a man enough.
Your kids now require a much more expensive education than you required when you were younger. Your grandparents are aging, and you have to pay for their private hospitalization. Life is difficult. I think that the cruelty of life is very much—
Let me frame this better. I think when you live in a cruel world, you laugh at crueler things. I think that’s what it really is. The colorist jokes, the misogynist jokes on “Kapil Sharma”—in fact, somebody is telling me, “Oh my God, why don’t they have more women on ‘Kapil Sharma Show’?”
Thank God they don’t have too many women on “Kapil Sharma Show,” because they will have these dudes dressed as women. Thank God. Because if they were treating women the way they treat these dudes dressed as women, where a kick in the ass is a punchline—you laugh because it’s a dude in a dress getting kicked in the ass. If it was actually happening to a woman, it would not be funny at all.
RAJAGOPALAN: I hope so.
MITTAL: Though I don’t know from the way we are going currently. I think it’s a function of just our daily lives being cruel. I think—
RAJAGOPALAN: So we’re just desensitized, basically? Just lack empathy for that reason?
MITTAL: Yes, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: Why are so many groups targets? Why aren’t we making the jokes against the municipal commissioner or dysfunctional government or bad politicians? I find Kapil Sharma himself very funny. I think he’s got great humor, great timing. But the rest of the show, most of the jokes—for me, they’re just not something that I find funny. Why is it that it’s always certain groups and certain targets? Especially unmarried women or women who are considered shrewish?
MITTAL: It’s threatening.
MITTAL: It’s threatening. It’s threatening because here’s a woman who doesn’t have anywhere to be. You can’t shame her into any hole. You can’t shame her into, “Why aren’t you at home right now cooking for your husband? Why aren’t you taking care of your mother-in-law? Why aren’t you—” Here’s a human single woman who cannot be shamed. That is a threat. That is an open threat.
That is a straight-up offense to people, where they’re like, nai nahi shaadi kar lo [no no, get married], because they know that that’s—it’ll basically give them premises to punch down on you once you are bound in the various ways that society binds women.
I’m so glad you said that, because I love Kapil Sharma. I do love Kapil Sharma. Individually, he is an absolute delight. Even his story is so fantastic, and it’s so heartfelt. I watched his special on Netflix, which I loved. It was so heartfelt and so lovely.
Those jokes about the fat women and unmarried women and the desperate women, it works. It’s conventionally what works. If you make a joke about a 55-year-old uncle whose sweat patches are his entire shirt, it will offend people. It will offend people. Everyone will be like, “How can you talk about your father like that? How can you talk about your mother like that?”
And we have a weird fetish with power—I have realized, other people—and that comes from our also-inherent need to keep the hegemony of—or just to bow down to the hegemony at all times. How come “Mein Kampf” is the bestselling book in India? Explain to me, if we don’t have a fetish for unfettered power irrespective of the morality around it, how is “Mein Kampf” the bestselling book in India?
RAJAGOPALAN: Yeah, not just in English—in so many languages. It’s been translated into so many languages. It’s a little bit freaky.
Power in the Comedy Industry
RAJAGOPALAN: Coming to the insult comedy part: So for instance, when you did the roast, you were a target because all the unmarried women jokes—that was going on. Then there were all the jokes about Tanmay Bhat about being fat. By the time the third person came on, it’s like, “I can’t handle one more fat joke about this guy because this is now embarrassing. You’ve got to give me something of higher quality.”
The first time, you might chuckle if you hadn’t noticed that a person was on the larger side—maybe a chuckle burst out of you. Past that point, it’s not even about being woke or politically correct. It’s just not something that’s going to make me laugh.
Tanmay Bhat has talked about how much he has been trolled for his weight, which is just—it’s just depressing, because he’s so funny. Ashish Shakya, everyone was just talking about how he’s dark. That was the theme. Of course, all the gay jokes about Karan Johar, who was there.
Even in that group, it is not “Khamba is so tall.” It’s not about the tall person; it’s not about the single men. Even in the men, there are these very particular people where they are targets. Is that because comedy makes them more of a target and more vulnerable, or is it just, we are like this as a society? We say mota [fat], takla [bald]. We just call people by body parts, literally.
MITTAL: Oh, we do. You know what, actually, to be very honest with you and to give you what I think: This was about—nearly 10 years ago. I would like to say that our humor—at least my personal humor—has evolved from that time.
We were also leaning into the roast part of it. I think it was also very inspired by the American format of roasts, where it’s just like, “Oh fat, ugly, stupid, too many people you’ve slept with.” We leaned into that. I did not anticipate that would become the thing that people would identify me with for a very long time.
RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t identify you with that, honestly, at all.
MITTAL: Thank God.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, no, and that makes sense, because the insult comedy which is happening onstage—it’s not like that’s not going to continue to the greenroom or in the workshops when you’re actually discussing what tone to take or what jokes are going to be made. If you’re part of that group or that particular set on that particular day, you can’t exactly say, “You know what? I’m just going to go do my thing and leave and keep myself away from the rest of it.”
You are part of it, and if you do keep yourself away from the rest of it, then you’re not professional. Right? You don’t come to the workshop. You are not helping people bounce their ideas. I can see how this starts getting into the actual, like, what’s your network? Who are you hanging with? Who are you bouncing your ideas with? Who are you writing with?
MITTAL: Comedy’s not exactly a meritocracy, right? It is a lot of power play. It is a lot of—one day suddenly somebody will get famous, and those dynamics come into play in greenrooms when you are out there being pitched to people. Suddenly it’s like, “Oh no, you know this person said they don’t want to work with that person because now they’re insecure of that person.” That happens a lot.
That’s why I can see more and more women who are either like, “We’ll go do our own thing.” A lot of women have gone and done their own thing and done it really, really well. I do think that the mainstream spaces shut down to women, or women start excluding themselves from the mainstream spaces after a while.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to refer to one of the first bits that I saw of yours on YouTube, and I started subscribing and following that day. That was the moment for me. I knew about you before that, but this is the bra bit, right? This is Biju in that little shop.
First of all, you and I grew up, again, mostly pre-liberalized India, where all the shops—they’re not bra stores or lingerie stores. They are hosiery stores that sell anything from men’s underwear and women’s petticoats to all sorts of things, right? Now, this is also the place where you go to buy your first bra. It’s always run by a man, and the stock boy is a boy not that much older than you. This is the Biju character in the bit.
MITTAL: Can I tell you, by the way? Somebody—as I asked around while I was doing my research for that, I asked and I said, “Hey, why is it always a guy at the shop?” And now, I don’t know how far to believe this, but they said to me, “Oh, it’s because women are really impatient with each other. So that’s why we have men.” I’m like, “Or is it just that you guys are a bunch of pervy-assed pervs who just want to hang around and scope out women’s tits?” You’ll never know.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s the same thing you were telling me about the boundary issue. If a woman is talking about the mechanics of a bra, then men are going to come and line up and stare at her and ask her to do the bit and all that stuff, right? And pretend they’re buying it for their girlfriend or their wife. Whereas all they want to do is just stand and stare at a woman talking about boobs.
You can’t be unprofessional and not be selling things well. The only women I’ve ever seen in these stores is the lady, typically the wife or the mother of the proprietor, who’s sitting at the billing counter making sure that the stock boys are not being pervy or something. Does that make sense?
MITTAL: That makes so much sense. The other day Kajol [Srinivasan] said something hilarious. OK? As usual, she made some tweet, and then 40 uncles lined up underneath the—“Excuse me, you female comedians: only boobs, bras and panties.” Then Kajol is just like, “Yes, yes.” Kajol’s like, “I’m convinced that uncles only line up to lecture female comedians about what to talk about because they want the thrill that somebody is reading their words of ‘sex’ and ‘bra’ and ‘boobs’ and all.” That is the—
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s the titillation.
MITTAL: I was like, “Oh my God, that’s 200% it!” They want sex, boobs and bras. She read it.
RAJAGOPALAN: For me, the most incredible thing was—I sent it to all my friends. I went to an all-girls school, so all my close friends from childhood are all women. They all saw it; they’re like, “Oh my God, we’ve had the identical experience buying our first trainer bra or whatever.” Right? All of us have had this uniform experience.
Now, I’m thinking about it: This was pretty early in your career. Now, if you try and workshop this or try and land some of this in a greenroom with a bunch of men, no one’s going to find it funny. Basically, you’re going to think it’s not funny, whereas it is hilarious. And it is the lived reality and experience of so many of us. That seems to be another problem, right?
MITTAL: You know, that particular set in fact was—I remember writing it, and then I remember I was backstage. I was hosting that day and I was backstage, and somebody else was recording their set that day. I said, “Hey, can I jump in on that recording, so I’ll split the cost with you? Let me do this set.” And I remember sitting there—I was practicing it, and there was Deep Chhabria.
He’s an advertising guy, and he was listening to me do it, and he said, “Oh, don’t worry. You don’t know—I get that. I see that.” I was like, “Oh yes, only an advertising person would be able to see it.” Because he’s worked on lingerie accounts before. He was like, “Oh, yes, yes, no, no—” I was like, “Well, maybe that’s what we have in common: somebody trying to sell bras and somebody talking about bras.”
Secret Life of Women
RAJAGOPALAN: No, but it’s also like the male-female spaces, right? Even if it’s a particularly sensitive man, in the teenage years, I don’t think most families take the brother along with the sister when the sister’s going to buy a training bra. There is just a segregation within families. There’s a segregation on everything. It’s not the American way, where you go to the mall and the boys are doing something on the side, and the mother and the daughter will probably go into one of the lingerie stores and get fitted for a bra.
Everything in India, culturally, is designed in a particular way. Now we have this expectation that suddenly because we’re in a comedy theater or in a stand-up gig, all of this has to suddenly crumble and disappear. And it just doesn’t happen. Right? Then that becomes visible in the structure of comedy.
At least that’s what I’ve been trying to make sense of it. Otherwise, it makes no sense to me. Women are so funny in India. Our mothers and grandmothers are hilarious, right? No one knows they’re hilarious. They don’t even tell these jokes in front of the men. They don’t tell these jokes in front of their sons, their brothers. That to me is so interesting.
MITTAL: You know, the secret life of women, to me it is the most exciting thing, I think. Why do you think we are running off into restrooms together at dinners, to powder our noses together? Because we’re discussing what’s happening at the table. I’m passing snarky comments while refreshing our lipsticks.
Even in the great Indian kitchen where you see the mother, the daughter, the aunt, the grandmother, everybody gathers in the kitchen to pass comments at how chachaji [uncle] has had too much to drink. And “Oh God, they’re laughing at anything now. Oh my God, one of them is going to start singing. Oh, I hope they don’t bring up Kishore Kumar and ruin his legacy.”
I think that those private spaces are of endless fascination to me, including, say, a girls’ school or a girls’ college, both of which I went to. I was telling somebody this: I realized I would not be doing comedy if I had not gone to a girls’ school, because the natural shut-ups that come to you when you’re in a coed space, when you’ve got men as well, where they’re like, “That’s not cute.”
You stop wanting to be cute because you’re not catering to that gaze. You are just a straight-up joker. I once threw up in my own face, and it was one of those things where I was the head girl at school, and we were—
RAJAGOPALAN: I love it.
MITTAL: —in the school bus, and I’m shouting at everybody. I’m having this whole scene where I’m asserting my power at these young, helpless ninth- and eighth-standard kids. I’m like, “I’ll punish you.”
Suddenly bus jerks. I was feeling nauseous anyway. I raise my hands to my mouth to stop myself from throwing up, but I don’t get there in time. I’m at this much of a distance, but due to the force of the throw-up, it hits my palm and then bounces back on my face, and the whole bus is laughing hysterically. I am head girl, utterly humiliated. After that, I got called Neville Longbottom for the rest of the year.
RAJAGOPALAN: He grows into the hero, so you’re not—yeah, book seven is his moment. He’s playing the long game. And he grows up hot.
MITTAL: I realized it would be a lot crueler if I was being judged in a mixed-gender environment. I know that it would be a lot crueler.
Are the Women Laughing?
RAJAGOPALAN: When you start doing this as a career, how do you figure out that segregated space? Can it happen through Instagram? Because now women can watch it in private and laugh and then hopefully come to your show or get you a very outsize platform so that corporates and sponsors come to you, and they’re willing to collaborate with you on various things?
At the end of the day, you have to make money. And if women are only laughing in private and segregated spaces, and they’re not going to pay for the ticket and put the bum on the seat, what is the way out?
MITTAL: Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that women are only laughing in segregated spaces.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, sure. Sorry, that’s my bad.
MITTAL: No, no, no. I do think that women are laughing. More than ever women are laughing now. I do think we still have a very, very long way to go, but I do know that women are laughing more than ever. In fact, I think 80% of my career—March is my hot month for work because it’s Women’s Day, and that’s when everyone wakes up and realizes women exist or whatever, and so then I’ll get a bunch of work.
My favorite story about this was, the first lady of the Indian Army was visiting the Colaba camp, so I got called in to do a show for the ladies of the Indian Army, all stationed in Colaba. I was very excited, and I go do the show, and everyone is dressed to the nines. This is a show at 11 in the evening—I’m sorry, 11 in the afternoon.
I go inside; I start doing the show. The show goes OK to the point that I don’t hear too many laughs, and the audience is in the dark. I don’t hear too many laughs, but I do hear a lot of tinkling of people’s jewelry and stuff like that. I’m like, “Oh.” I walk out of the show, and I’m like, “I need to beeline out of here.”
As I’m beelining out of here, suddenly Mrs. Singh, the then-first lady of the Indian Army, she calls me—she’s like, “Mittal, come here. You must have lunch with us.” I was like, “Really?” She’s like, “Oh my God, that was so funny.” I noticed that she has a line of black mascara running down her face. I was like, “Really?” I was like, “I was so worried that you were not enjoying it.” She said, “Of course we were enjoying it.”
Then I realized they were all laughing silently, but their jewelry was shaking, and that was the tinkling that I was hearing through the show. A lot of the stuff they were like, “Oh my God, we can’t laugh at this. We can’t laugh at this. It’s inappropriate to laugh out loud.” That’s my favorite story. Then I had lunch with them and got a bunch of pictures. It was very cool.
Building a Comedy Career
RAJAGOPALAN: What is the way out of this in terms of a career path? You can’t just, obviously, work in the month of March, and I know you’re way busier than that. It’s hard to find time with you, is how busy you are in the month of May and June. It’s not like, “Oh, this is summer, and that’s mango month.” You’re just busy, other than March.
It’s one thing to say, yes, maybe you get booked in certain spaces because you’re the female comic. But more generally, what is the career forward? Is it to do a lot more stuff online? Is it to gather a very large audience that doesn’t necessarily have to laugh out loud in public, but they have money backing them and they have eyeballs and they have a phone? How do you think about that audience—your own audience?
MITTAL: I fancy myself an intellectual. I believe that I have too much to say, and it is not confined anymore, I think. I think for a very long time I was figuring out my space as a woman, and my every experience was filtered through that, and that’s a function of growing up. I think that’s a function of growing up.
For the longest time, I think I filtered a lot of my life experiences through only the lens of being a woman. I think it is actually necessary, and I hope to God for the next 10 generations of stand-up comedy and stand-up comics, they will continue to filter their life experiences through the lens of solely being a woman. Because there are so many millions of experiences that we are having as women that are unspoken and unsaid and that need to be said out loud in the world, just to confirm that I’m not crazy and we’re all having this universal experience of being a woman in India today.
I try to educate myself on a daily basis. I try to challenge myself personally a lot, and I think that is what has served me in the longer run, is to constantly challenge myself on a personal level. I think that’s why now people—I’m doing something—I don’t know if I should say this yet, but it’s not—I work with Financial Times a lot, for the UK newspaper. I’m doing a piece for them right now. I write columns on the side. I’m really excited. I write columns on the side where we’re constantly writing scripts for something, writing ad campaigns for something.
The idea is that there is also the angle of the understanding of group psychology or having an audience when you’re talking to a group of people, when you sometimes either say exactly what they want to hear or you say something that delights them so much that they laugh collectively. That, I think, is a very valuable skill that can be transferred to various spaces and places. That is currently where I’m making a bit of an earning as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, that’s awesome.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s so hard to write and to write well. Comedic writing is a whole other level of difficult, but just to write anything well is difficult. The ability to be able to do that without that audience feedback—I think it’s incredible that you can do both.
MITTAL: Yes. You know, I also don’t know how to do anything else. I was at a corporate job for like 20 minutes. I got fired because I got caught making an Excel sheet for every time that I took a poop in office—because then I would calculate how much time I had spent in the week for taking a poop in the office and then be like, “Oh my God, I got paid for taking a poop.”
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] What was the job?
MITTAL: I was with a New York-based company. That’s all I would like to say. [chuckles]
RAJAGOPALAN: I love this. I love the potty jokes and the foot fetish and the—
RAJAGOPALAN: The door is now opening. This is thrilling me no end.
MITTAL: I find it absolutely ridiculous when people are like, “Oh, don’t be sexual. Don’t talk about shit. Don’t talk about piss.” What are you ignoring? What is wrong with you? You’re acting like people don’t shit. That’s so weird to me, just the prudishness with which people—“How come you all are using curse words?” I was like, “Oh my God, are you serious? What world are you living in where people are not using curse words?”
I believe all this propriety and like, “Oh my God, use fancy language. Give us an analogy for every time you go take a dump”—I really do think that it’s a way to keep people down. It’s a way to keep people down constantly to be like, “Oh no, you’re talking about shit. Therefore I will not listen to anything else you have to say.” There’s a classic thing where you have a problem and you’re telling it to someone, and then they’re like, “I don’t like your tone.” Girl, it’s not about my tone. Listen to what I’m saying.
I think this whole insistence on propriety is a tool of oppression. I do think that. I’m not uneducated by any chance. Even if I was, that’s not the point. I know my language. I think I’m fairly eloquent as far as my English is concerned. I think I’m fairly communicative as far as my Hindi is concerned. But I will use curse words. How about that? I will. I will because it scandalizes you. I will because it makes you feel like, “Oh no, what is happening?” I will use them.
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, sometimes I think I just use them as punctuation [laughs] or when I can’t find the right word. Amit Varma in his writing class tells me, “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs and this and that.” I’m like, “Yes, I’m using swear words instead of all of these things.”
No, but you’re right. It still scandalizes people in India when you swear. Then you must be a particular kind of girl. I think that’s the connotation that keeps coming back. There is a template for a good girl. It’s always the girl who cooks, gets married to the right guy at the right time and knows how to knit. Let’s not forget the knitting and the cooking and the cleaning.
MITTAL: Yoga. Yoga.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh my God.
MITTAL: Ah yes, pranayam [breathing]. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s a particular type. The kind who doesn’t open her mouth and doesn’t laugh out loud. It’s all of those things. Basically what they’re saying is, you shouldn’t take up too much space. Now, the loud laughing is part of taking up too much space. The cursing and calling attention to yourself is taking up too much space. It’s all of those things.
Now, comics, by their very nature, are taking up too much space. You’re the only person with the mic in the room. So that, I can imagine now, is a whole other problem.
MITTAL: Yes, yes. It bothers people a lot. It bothers people a lot, and I am absolutely thrilled about it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Are you constantly told that you are not an eligible marriage match anymore? Because who’s going to marry someone with a potty mouth, who swears, who’s onstage, and who will make fun of members of the family and not be proper and travel? Is this a thing that you’re constantly told?
I’ll tell you why I ask. Because when I was doing my Ph.D., even the most well-meaning people, all these random aunts—and, by the way, I was doing my PhD in economics. I wasn’t gallivanting around the world and hanging out in a brothel or something. They were like, “Oh my God, who will marry you if you are this qualified?” Because I already had a law degree. The assumption is that whoever I marry has to have more degrees than me, which is hard. That was the thing they used to keep telling me. Do people keep telling you, like, “Who’s going to marry you if you have this job?”
MITTAL: First of all, Shruti, you are so fucking cool. (This is my time to gush; give me a second.) Your degrees, whatever. Every conversation that I hear with you in it, every fucking tweet of yours, everything you fucking say is so fantastic, and I am so obsessed with your work. You know what? Honestly, some dude with 40 more degrees than you cannot be you.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, thank you. No, but I did find the most incredible guy who has absolutely no qualms about being married to me despite not having more degrees than me and so on. That worked out well for me.
But how is that for you? Is it harder to date? Is it harder to persuade members of the family that, “Dude, I can get married? This is not going to be an issue. Whoever I choose to marry will work this out.” What is that zone for you?
MITTAL: I’ve realized, again, in the dating space also, then it becomes power play immediately. It’s immediately like, “Oh, I will come and tell you a joke.” You’re like, “Man, I’m drunk. It’s 11:30. Go away.” If you want to start a conversation, sure. It’s that same ethos of in the playground when you’re a baby, and the boy who really likes you will come and pull your pigtail and then run away.
That is literally what most flirting is like, that I have experienced at least. Where they’ll be like, “I’ll come and one-up you.” I’m like, “Yes, just go away. I want to talk to my friends and hang out.”
There is also, I think, the general intimidation of somebody who has a mic in their hands for work. There’s that thing where you have more power, or at least the impression that you have more power than them, and they immediately want to assert themselves so that, you know, the “you know who’s boss” kind of a thing.
I think that even any woman that owns her power, any woman that’s not going to take too much shit—I think it’s tough dating. I think that’s a general sentiment going around, that it’s tough to date when you’re a self-contained and self-owned human woman.
This was actually maybe 2012—no, ’13—when I’d just started doing stand-up. One side of my family was a little bit obsessive about me getting married. They said, “Why don’t you get married first?” I’d gone to my first show in London. This one relative calls me, and they’re like, “We want to hang out with you” and everything. I call my dad, and I’m like, “Should I go?” My dad’s like, “You can, but just go for one dinner and come back, OK?” I go for one dinner, and at the dinner, they’re like, “You’re doing so fabulously. Can’t believe that somebody’s paid for you to come all the way here and talk rubbish.” I’m like, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Then they call me again. They’re like, “Oh”—and I was leaving; I was going to be in London for three weeks. They said, “Oh, we’re having another dinner. Why don’t you come over?” I went to the second dinner. Then for the second dinner, there’s this guy who is 70% jawline. His jawline could cut glass. He was an ear, nose, throat, monkey, donkey, buffalo, cow, any animal—squirrel—surgeon. He was a surgeon. He was making something called tapas. It’s all very grand.
He’s very—making eyes at me, and I didn’t get it at first. Then my uncle is like “Sarphira hai beta [he’s a bit crazy]. You must talk to him. He’s rich.” I was like, “OK. I’ll talk to him. This is a person.” And it’s all very fancy. You think about the context: We’re on a balcony in a house just outside of London. We’re drinking what is the finest wine. Then, while we’re drinking it—he’s made tapas, not to forget.
Then [chuckles] his jawline suddenly is like, “So.” We’re talking about our romantic liaisons now. He’s expressed interest. I’ve been like, “Well, you’re attractive and I’m drunk.” He goes, “So, do you intend to continue this after you get married?” I was like, “Now, all this good wine ka nasha [intoxication] gone to waste.”
Then I was like—I don’t know what I mumbled. I can’t remember specifically what I mumbled, but I think I must have been like, “Oh, yes”—I think I said, “Oh, I have to make money, don’t I?” He’s like, “Oh, once you’re part of the family, I don’t think Mom will like you doing it too much.” I was like, “Main tere se dhang se nahi mili [I don’t know you well enough]. Now I have to cater to your mother? What is happening here?” Then I ended up having a longish chat with that uncle of mine.
I think I’ve made it amply clear. I told them that, “The next time you do this to me, if you ambush me with a guy, I’ll start telling them I’m a sex worker, and that [chuckles] I’m like an Anil Kapoor nipple tweaker in Bollywood.” They were like, “You can’t say all that. You know how badly it reflects on the family.” I was like, “That’s not my problem, bro.”
RAJAGOPALAN: One thing I’ve noticed, which is very interesting about you: I’ve heard Indian stand-up comics who largely do their sets in English. A little bit of Hindi or Hinglish thrown in. When they are abroad, they usually fall in one of two categories. Either they are doing gigs in front of a completely desi crowd. They are talking exactly the way they would in India, except this is a group that’s richer and they’ve paid in dollars and they’ve shown up on time. That’s really the only difference, right?
MITTAL: Oh my God, that’s really good. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: You know what I mean, right? That’s what they’re doing.
Or they are speaking to largely an American, sprinkled in with an Indian American, audience. These are typically the smaller clubs in New York. And most of them basically change the way they speak. They change the accent, the rhythm. Of course the content of the jokes has to change a little bit because the context has to be built. But I’ve always laughed less in those sets because I feel like the timing is off.
Somehow you’ve managed to figure that out. I don’t know how you’ve done it. I’ve heard the bits you’ve done in Australia; all this stuff is up on YouTube. You are speaking a little bit more slowly than you do in India. You enunciate a little bit more, but somehow your timing has not gone off. What is the secret sauce to this?
MITTAL: Thank you for noticing that. Thank you. Wow. Do you know, I’ve been specifically trying, actually. Now, I realize there are two things. One, you can go the Vir Das way where you’re like, “I’m talking to a global audience. I’m a global comedian, and therefore the globe is my globe.”
I am from Mumbai. These are my dogs. My mother is smoking in the next room, which she really should not be. And I think that—I’m very keen on, when I go abroad, to lean into who I am at home and take that version of me there, as opposed to go there and then just say the things that people want to hear. I feel like that’ll also sound disingenuous.
I don’t know fancy things about the larger world, where you say “Trump” three times and people will laugh. I don’t know those things. What I know best is where I come from and the things I can—those are the things I promise you I can be funny and I can talk about them.
I would love for you to come on my personal journey when I’m onstage. That’ll make me irreplaceable, is what I think—is that “OK, when she comes, she comes with this really—she’s got a very unique story that is solely hers.” Then it’s not that, “Oh, any comic can come and do these generic five jokes about spices and British people.” No, “If she’s coming, then there’ll be something specific.” I’m trying to do that.
Accents and Timing of Speech
RAJAGOPALAN: How do you work the timing out? Because I know Indians in general speak really fast.
I had this choice. When I started teaching, I was still in graduate school. Economics is full of international students who come to the U.S. to get their graduate degree. You have people from the Caribbean, you have people from Europe, and they all have different accents. A lot of my colleagues, they had a classroom accent. “Demahnd” would become “demand,” and they were doing it because these are undergrad American kids. They’re 18 years old. Maybe all of them have not had a chance to travel or understand many accents. This is a way of making the class more accessible, which I totally understand.
In my head, I was like, “I can’t do this. I can either think about the economics or I can think about the accent,” because if I do both, I am just going to ruin it. The only change I made to myself is to speak a little bit more slowly than I would to an Indian audience. The classroom speed is a little bit slower, but I didn’t really change anything else. The students figured it out, or maybe they just thought, “Oh, that’s the crazy economics professor with a weird accent,” and that was fine.
It’s a really tough thing to do when so much of what you’re saying relies on timing. I recently saw Zarna’s stand-up on Amazon, her set, the special on Amazon. And I find it incredibly funny on Instagram and other places, but something about the speed and the timing just felt off when it was for this supposed global audience. It was slower, and it didn’t quite work as her usual quick-witted responses. She’s just so naturally and spontaneously funny. I was a bit disappointed. How have you done that part of it?
MITTAL: Actually, I know what you’re talking about—oh my God. If you watch my Montreaux set, actually, I am so criminally slow that I [laughs] had written a nine-minute set for that show. The set was supposed to be seven minutes. I finished only five minutes of it because I was talking so slowly during that time.
One, as Indians, we just talk so fast over here that slowing down a little bit more is just natural. I do think that we tend to belabor—I think that’s a very male way of talking, is to be like, “So anyway, you know, uh—I was thinking the other day that, uh, you know, uh, it’s so hot outside, because . . . we are going to have a . . . heat party.”
You’re like, “Man, that was too long. That was too long. ‘It’s so hot outside’ should not have had a five-minute gap between ‘it’s a heat party.’ You took too long.”” It becomes belabored.
I’m also constantly paranoid that people will stop listening. [laughs] So I get it all in there. I get it all in there.
RAJAGOPALAN: But you manage to say—my favorite thing about the Australia set is you say “bobs” and “vagene,” and that’s the first time I realized that bad spellings on Twitter and Instagram DMs are a universal thing. The perverts cannot spell, and it’s not just the Indian perverts, because all the girls are laughing. They pan to the audience and all the girls are laughing.
Because when you said it, I was so surprised. I was like, “Will they get it?” And then they did get it. Because I was laughing so hard. Clearly, there is more universal experiences that we share in this digital age than we even realize.
MITTAL: That’s the thing. One thing I’m thinking now—and I’m going to London in the next few weeks, and I’m a little bit jittery about it. I’m like, “Oh—” because I’m talking about the pandemic in India and my experience in the pandemic in India. I was like, “Will it matter to them?”
I realized the more you zoom in on an experience, the more you examine the minutiae of an experience, the more universal it becomes. Everybody in the audience may not have experienced the pandemic in India, but everybody definitely experienced loneliness. Everyone definitely felt that their sleep cycle was screwed. Everyone definitely had really fricking weird dreams.
I think that hyper zooming in on your human experience, I think, is the key to tapping in on the universal human experience.
RAJAGOPALAN: A couple of weird things you have to experience as a comic: one of the timing things, you’ve laid it out for me.
The other thing I find interesting is the corporate gig. I know that this is hugely lucrative. During the pandemic it went on Zoom, which I know was just a tough gig for all you comics, but thank God you did it. You stayed afloat. Kudos to all of you. What is the difference between the corporate gig and just a regular audience in one of the stand-up clubs or bars in Bombay or Delhi?
MITTAL: Completely different. Because in a stand-up comedy club in Bombay or Delhi, you are there to be you. The audience is there to watch a funny person. In a corporate gig, it’s 50 people from HR who have first vetted you and made you paranoid about what you can and cannot say. Nothing about religion, nothing about—
MITTAL: —politics, nothing about the government, nothing about jokes, nothing about other jokes. In fact, you know what, just stand there onstage for 40 minutes. That’s literally the instruction they’ll give you.
I used to get a lot of, “Don’t talk about too many women’s things,” because also most corporate spaces are heavily male-sided. That’s why March is my corporate month, where they remember they have women in their company, and then I get hired to talk to them. But otherwise it’s mostly men-first spaces. A lot of these corporate spaces are men-first—and men higher up in the food chain.
Someone like Atul Khatri—I remember walking back, it’s like 4 in the morning, at the airport. I realized I’m the only comic in the world that needs to leave—I want all my flights to be out at 4 in the morning because I like early-morning flights. I like early-morning flights. I like to get into whichever city I am in. I like to relax there before the show.
I’m walking into the airport; Atul Khatri is coming back with a million-dollar smile on his face. I’m like, “Thayaar, how did it go?” He’s like, “The corporate show tha.” I said, “That’s great. So how did it go?” “Standing ovation.”
I was like yes, because he is talking to 55-to-60-year-old men about being a 55-to-60-year-old man. That whole universal experience of, “This is how I feel about X, Y, Z.” All those things are what corporate crowds will relate with very, very much. Whether it’s Amit Tandon also, who’s a corporate—they are their demographic. You know what I’m saying? They are their demographic. And they are minting money like anything in the world. And God bless them. God bless them.
The one complaint that I usually get is that “No no, you talk too much about sex. You talk too much about sex.”
RAJAGOPALAN: More than Atul Khatri?
MITTAL: That’s the thing. When it comes from Atul, it doesn’t seem like sex. You know what I’m saying? That’s the thing. A 55-year-old man talking to other 55-year-old men about sex is an in-joke.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, yes, that’s true.
MITTAL: Whereas if I’m like, “Hey, by the way, guys, anyone eaten any pussy lately?” They’ll all . . . die. I’m not going to be at a corporate show asking about pussy. Though, oh my God, that’d be my dream come true. [chuckles]
RAJAGOPALAN: When they put these things out, it’s like there’s the usual engineer joke, there is the usual HR joke, there is the usual commute joke, there is of course the leadership—it’s one of the few spaces you can make fun of the boss, right? And—
MITTAL: Also on the dynamic which—I love this; it’s a theory of laughter, is that bosses laugh 88% more than their employees in any professional setting. 88% more.
RAJAGOPALAN: [chuckles] Who calculated this, and how did they study this?
MITTAL: Somebody did. By the way, it is called a study of humor, and it’s called gelotology. The No. 1 scientist of gelotology is Mr. Robert Provine. (Not Praveen, but Prove—Provine? Provine.) It’s incredible, actually, some of the theories around laughter. But one of them is this one. One of them is that bosses laugh—
RAJAGOPALAN: We’ve seen this in all our Bollywood movies, right? Like, the don will laugh and have a really quirky, weird laugh. Then all the followers, exactly, will start laughing after that. Then there’ll be a couple of stragglers. The moment the don stops laughing, everyone has to stop laughing. We’ve even seen this in “Sholay,” right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Gabbar finds it funny that everyone’s now relieved that he’s playing Russian roulette with a gun or whatever.
RAJAGOPALAN: The other couple of weird things I had a question about: So I’ve heard that temperature really matters for a stand-up comedy club and humor. I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say this: that if it’s a little bit hotter, the audience laughs less.
India is just hot, hotter, hottest. Do you actually see this play out—that in a hotter room, temperature-wise, people will laugh less or people get more uncomfortable? Do you see any correlation?
MITTAL: So you know, we don’t have the luxury of temperature. Yikes. Jerry Seinfeld, lucky guy.
I do think that the two things that do affect—in terms of physical location, the two things that do affect our audience’s reaction is temperature, of course, when it’s either too hot or too cold. If an audience is not—if they’re thinking about the temperature, they’re not paying attention to your jokes. And that is just no fun.
The other thing, I have realized, is darkness. When you have an audience in the dark, they are more likely to laugh than when you have them well lit. Whenever we do shoots for stand-up—I did a show in Helsinki recently. It was a reality show called “The World According to Comedians.” They flew us down to Finland to find out why Finland is the happiest country in the world. It was actually a really cool show.
Then as the season end of the show, we did a live show at Carolines on Broadway, and we’re doing the show and it’s going moderately. I was like, “Is it just fucking Finnish people being serious yet again?” Then I realized no, the light is literally shining on the last person in the audience. It is just difficult for people to loosen up when they know that other people are watching them laugh. I definitely think it’s a light thing.
RAJAGOPALAN: What about alcohol? Does alcohol consumption change the laughs? Because a lot of these clubs also have a minimum drink requirement. That’s how they make money. I can imagine that the completely sober versus completely drunk extremes are not great. What is the gradient for alcohol and humor?
MITTAL: I’d say for the average person, one and a half drinks is the ideal amount for someone to really ease into a stand-up comedy show. One and a half drinks is the magical number. Maybe I’m an alcoholic, so I’m like, “one and a half.” I’m sure for a lot of people it’s like the first 10 sips and they’re done. It’s fantastic when there’s one and a half drinks: then you’re ready to ease into it. You’re ready to listen; you’re also alert enough to listen and understand and follow.
The worst is when people are too drunk. And that happens at 10:30 shows and—
RAJAGOPALAN: Corporate shows.
MITTAL: —late evening shows, corporate shows—just late evening shows where people are so wasted, and they’ve come like “bleh.” Just that. Then they talk too much to you. You’re like, “Man, I’ve got the mic here. This ain’t about you.” Alcohol, one to one and a half drinks is my recommended amount.
RAJAGOPALAN: What’s your way of dealing with heckling? First up, do you get heckled a lot? I have never seen you live. I’ve only seen videos. I’ve never been in the same city at the same time. That’s one thing I have to fix at some point. On the videos, I’m guessing the heckling, if it happens, gets cut out. What’s the heckling ratio for you versus others, and how do you deal with it?
MITTAL: I don’t think I get heckled a lot more than people. No, I think I get heckled a decent amount. And I think it’s because I also talk to the audience. I also talk to the audience a lot. I’m like, “Oh, so how’s it going? How are you feeling?” Sometimes when you’re talking to people, a bunch of other people will jump in and try to hijack the conversation. You have to know to shut them up.
I think now I have the authority, I have the personal authority in my chest where I know that people have come to watch me. They paid money to watch me. I can, with confidence, be like, “Hey, listen, this is not about you. I’m so sorry. I promise you, as soon as the show ends we’ll go out, and whatever you want to say, I’ll listen to you, but right now, let me go.”
I think it’s also the idea—the thing is, when you start off with stand-up, you think that it is a very adversarial art. Maybe in India it is still very adversarial. It’s very insult and comeback and “comedian destroys heckler” and all. I feel like there is also a large part, because stand-up is still relatively a new art form, is that a large part of people just are curious about what stand-up is.
If you really think about it, they’ve paid money, they’ve brought somebody they really like, they’ve brought the car, they’ve parked the car outside, the kids have a babysitter at home (or the grandparents are watching), whatever. People have made an effort to come and watch you. They actually don’t want you to fail. They actually want you to do well because that’s what they have invested in for that day emotionally, monetarily, time-wise. They have actually invested in you being good.
I find that that, to me, gives me a lot of solace. It makes me realize that the audience is on my side every time I’m onstage. They want me to do well. I just have to meet their expectations. As I do this more and more, the ratio of me meeting the expectations will go higher and higher up.
RAJAGOPALAN: I feel like we’ve complimented you too much through the show and just praised you too much. So I want at least one story from you on the worst bombing ever.
MITTAL: Oh my God.
RAJAGOPALAN: And how long it took you to go through that process before you felt like, “Oh, I can do this. Even if I bomb, I can do this.”
MITTAL: Oh, so you know what, I bomb about—I’m worried about admitting how much I bomb because then it’ll become a thing. I don’t think Indians understand the—I think right now my bomb ratio is 17%. And that’s actually maybe a realistic one, in fact.
The two, three I can tell you happily about: One was when I had just started doing stand-up. This was at The Comedy Store; it had just opened in India. I really, really wanted to be able to perform for them because they were bringing all these comics from around the world down. I was like, “Oh my God, it would just be such an honor to hang out in the greenroom with these people and get to talk to them.”
I go in for the audition. I nailed the audition. The audition was in the middle of the afternoon somewhere. I nailed the audition. I walk out of the audition with the confidence of a thousand angels. As I’m walking out, I get a call from The Comedy Store. It’s Don Ward, and he’s like, “Good job today. Listen, we have a show for the beep organization.” Just to specify, these are like overachievers whose companies have a turnover of more than 200 crores a year, and they are under 45. “They’re having a corporate show tonight. There are these three comics from the U.K. performing for them; would you like to come and do an opening act?”
I was like, “I’ll be there, yo.” I get in there. I remember the show started, they put one act on first, and they said, “You can go after this act.” I go after that. As soon as I walk on, there’s a gentleman in the front row wearing a Hawaiian shirt. This is a lesson that—if there’s anyone who’s an aspiring comic, if you’re listening, use your time onstage to shine yourself. Don’t bother about the Hawaiian shirt on that guy in the front row. This is just life advice from me.
I walk in; I’m like, “Listen, nice Hawaiian shirt.” I’d say it’s an older gentleman; he’s my father’s age. He’s my father’s age. He looks at me and he goes, “Joke bol na [tell your jokes].” I cannot tell you what happened after that because I have blocked it from my memory. I know that I basically said I moonwalked backwards out of that stage. I didn’t get called from The Comedy Store for another year.
MITTAL: Then I went back, and I reauditioned, and then they put me through the process all over again. That was an exciting bomb.
The other one just happened recently, in fact. I was at a corporate show somewhere in Goa. When I walked in it’s like, “Wow, chills, this, that and the other.” I was really excited because I was like, “Oh my God, this crowd likes me already.” Then I finished the show. Then I walked out and people were like, [dismissive sound]. And I was like, “How did I already have you on my side when I walked in and then lose you, completely lose you, while I was actually doing my act?” Then I walked out and then—
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you know when it’s happening? Do you feel it when it’s happening and you’re just trying to hold on, or you only realize—
MITTAL: Yes. Of course you know. It’s like when sometimes you make a joke to the wrong person in the audience. Apparently I made a joke to one of the clients, which I should not have.
Or another time it’s where what you planned doesn’t—I know I went and I had a bunch of jokes about kids these days, because I figured they were older men, so all of them have kids. I’ll do a little bit about it’s expensive to have kids these days. I can tell you that even as a single woman, because I don’t want to have kids because it’s expensive.
I’m doing this bit, and suddenly they’re all like—like one of them’s losing me. I can tell because he gets on his phone. Then I was like, “Oh really? Who are you calling? Are you calling your wife to stop that pregnancy? What’s happening?” That’s when the CEO’s looking at me like I’ve murdered somebody. I’m like, “What did I do?” Then I realized that that’s one of their clients. I was like, “Oh, I lost them. I lost them.” At that point, I was like, “Co‑oo‑ol.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Is it just like you got to do this one day at a time, and this is just part of the deal? Or do you get better at either not bombing or having tricks in your back pocket when things aren’t going quite your way, and you know how to get it under control?
MITTAL: It’s a running tricks and tips, of course. It’s a function of just doing this long enough. I also think that it does not get easier, but you just get better prepared. You just are more prepared.
Every show is new; every show is a different one. Every show is a brand new one. You have to fly by the seat of your pants in every single one. That’s what I love about this job, actually, is that it keeps me really humble.
I really don’t think I could become God tomorrow and just be like, “No, you guys, I’m God. But, like, am I?” Even my prayer will be with a self-effacing joke up top. It’ll just be like, “Hey, I’m God, if you guys want to call me that, but you can also call me—”
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m sure someone will be like, “Yes, but she’s not the funny God. That one has four hands.”
MITTAL: Of course. Of course. Of course.
RAJAGOPALAN: No, this is great. I’ve loved everything that you’ve done. It’s so awesome. It’s like a little—
MITTAL: This conversation got too serious. This conversation got too serious, I feel.
RAJAGOPALAN: I am not a stand-up comic, and most of my audience is not waiting for laughs every 10 seconds, right?
MITTAL: Maybe I’m just paranoid.
RAJAGOPALAN: I am very impressed with myself that I don’t just keep laughing every time I see your face. Because when I see you, I just think of all the funny things you’ve said.
MITTAL: Damn straight. You will be depressed after this. Promise me. I’m about to bum you out. No.
RAJAGOPALAN: No. This was a pleasure. Did you have fun?
MITTAL: I did. I’m a little confused. I hope I gave you what you wanted.
RAJAGOPALAN: You are fantastic. You gave us a piece of yourself, and that’s all we need.
MITTAL: Thank you. My pleasure.