Mommy issues: Meet the unique new voice in stand-up, Zarna Garg - Hindustan Times
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Mommy issues: Meet the unique new voice in stand-up, Zarna Garg

ByKarishma Upadhyay
Aug 05, 2023 11:28 PM IST

Her jokes are brutal, frank, questioning. Why are we like this, is her overarching theme. She toured with Tina Fey, and now has a special out on Amazon Prime.

Through the first year of her comedy-club performances, she expected each set to be her last, says Zarna Garg, laughing. “I thought we’d run out of people who were excited to hear an Indian mom’s stories.”

In her comedy, Garg questions why brown women must laugh in secret. Why the archetypal mother-in-law is so awful. She jokes about her kids, her two cultures (Indian and American), her inability to not parent. ‘I don’t think I’m funny. I’m just honest,’ she says. PREMIUM
In her comedy, Garg questions why brown women must laugh in secret. Why the archetypal mother-in-law is so awful. She jokes about her kids, her two cultures (Indian and American), her inability to not parent. ‘I don’t think I’m funny. I’m just honest,’ she says.

Instead, it turned out that the homemaker from New York (via Mumbai) had struck comedy gold. As she told tales of her inability to not parent (“at the checkout counter, if the person is young, I tell them, ‘Do your MCAT; take the CPA exam on Saturday’”); about the differences in her two cultures (“if my husband said I love you, I’d know he was cheating on me… with a white woman, because where else is he learning it?”), the crowds at her sets grew.

In her fifth year, the 48-year-old has a comedy special, titled One in a Billion, released worldwide on Amazon Prime. She opened for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the Washington DC stop of their Restless Leg Tour in April. She has featured on the Apple TV+ show Gutsy, hosted by former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her daughter, writer Chelsea Clinton. (They meet and interview women with powerful messages, such as former soccer player Abby Wambach and rapper Megan Thee Stallion).

Zarna moved to the US at 15, after the death of her mother. Living with an elder sister in Ohio, she finished school, studied law, began to practise (“I really wasn’t very good,” she jokes). She met and married hedge-fund manager Shalabh Garg, and quit her career to care for their three children (now 21, 17 and 11).

As her eldest child, Zoya, was preparing for college — her course choices at Stanford are one of the highlights of the Amazon show — Zarna decided to rejoin the workforce. She didn’t want to return to law, so Zoya suggested she try stand-up.

“My first set was supposed to be five minutes long but I ended up doing eight because the crowd seemed to be enjoying whatever I was saying.”

What she’s saying is often breathtakingly bold, intriguingly subversive, and not in the familiar ways. With her warm persona and all-embracing smile, she talks about how brown women don’t get to laugh enough; how the archetypal Indian mother-in-law is the world’s greatest super-villain; how it’s possible that Indians are so good at the spelling bee “because we’re not good at other things; we’re not athletes… and don’t get us to dance.”

She’s the refreshing other half to the now-tired templates of South Asian comedy in the West. She is the parent they complain about, telling her story; the older immigrant explaining her befuddlement. And she’s befuddled on both sides of the border.

“In India and in a lot of brown nations, women hide and watch my videos,” she tells co-hosts Gayle King, Tony Dokoupil and Nate Burleson, forehead scrunched in confusion, on the CBS Mornings show.

She didn’t start out aiming to be subversive. But when she first began performing, she says, it felt familiar. “Like I was in my kitchen talking during a dinner party. It’s what I’ve done for decades. At weddings, I would just be handed the mic and told to ‘say something’. They knew I’d probably say something ‘wrong’ and get trolled for it later, but make people laugh then.”

She did have a conversation with her Delhi-based in-laws early on, about the jokes at their expense. “I am just so blessed that they are evolved and understand what I am doing. If there wasn’t real love between us, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” she says.

Meanwhile, as her fan base has expanded online (she has over 700,000 followers on TikTok and nearly as many on Instagram), a dedicated subset has emerged, who spring to the defence of the in-laws, and her husband. “They’re mostly single Indian men,” she says, laughing.

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Garg’s ascent has occurred at warp speed. In 2018, she was a stay-at-home mom considering stand-up. By 2021, she had won Kevin Hart’s comedy contest, Lyft Comics. Last year, she appeared on Gutsy.

A lot of it was luck, but some of it is meticulous strategy. “When you start at 44 like I did, you don’t have the luxury of just hanging about and trying out things. I had to figure out how to work comedy like a business,” she says.

She decided to keep her comedy clean (“catering to families is where the money is”) and leverage social media correctly. “It’s not enough to have a large following. What’s more important is who is watching and then how many of them are actually buying tickets. When I started, I got a social-media coach to teach me how to be authentic while getting the attention of the tastemakers.”

Garg has a thirst for learning, and her institute of choice is YouTube. “Late at night or at airports, you’ll find me watching and learning,” she says.

She recently forayed into cinema, and plays an overbearing Indian mother in her first film (she can’t reveal its title, she says). She has a newly launched podcast that she co-hosts with her family. There is also a biographical screenplay, titled Rearranged, which she hopes to turn into a film trilogy.

She wrote it before she began her comedy career. “I took a screenwriting class where they kept saying ‘Write what you know’. So I did.” The first part, her teen years, has been picked up by a production house, and filming is set to begin soon.

Getting her back out there, helping her find the time to do the things she’s doing, has been a family effort. Her teenaged son, Brij, set up her TikTok account. “Both my sons, Brij and Vir, have really stepped up to the plate. And my husband is the most supportive guy ever,” Garg says.

It helps, she adds, laughing, that she has “no desire to win a Mom of the Year award”. “I don’t need to be making hot parathas every day. Mothers are usually not allowed to say that they’re not in love with the job of mothering. I love my kids but I don’t love the whole avalanche of responsibilities that comes with becoming a mother. I truly was just anxious to get out into the world and not feel like the world had passed me by. If a woman wants to only take care of her family, it’s absolutely her choice,” she adds. “But it’s a tragic waste of every woman’s life who is made to believe that that is all her life should amount to.”

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