The author with comedian Zarna Garg. Photo courtesy of Samantha Sinensky.
The author with comedian Zarna Garg. Photo courtesy of Samantha Sinensky.

Bicultural Chutzpah

A look at HinJew comedy shows.

Chatter and laughter wafted through the dimly lit room. Glowing stage lights of pink and purple illuminated the aperitifs and food platters being served to an excited audience. It was a Thursday night at the West Side Comedy Club, and applause erupted as Indian comedian Zarna Garg and Jewish comedian Felicia Madison took the stage for their widely popular HinJew comedy show. Aptly named, HinJew is a comedy show comprised of both Indian and Jewish comedians, who unite to share jokes and stories, and highlight the similarities between Jewish and Indian cultures. “What do you call an opinionated girl with chutzpah? Answer—single.”

When I first heard of this unique entertainment, I was curious to see how the comedians would synthesize the ostensibly different sects of humanity. I never viewed Jewish and Indian culture as possessing any similarities, but I quickly realized just how many overlapping (stereotypical) qualities there are, such as, tight-knit family structures, overbearing mothers and an emphasis on education. It was refreshing to have these parallels revealed in a hilarious comedy show, that left me crying with laughter.

Comedic duo Zarna Garg and Felicia Madison, along with their own standup, conjure up a lineup of Jewish and Indian comedians for each show. The most recent performance was to a sold-out audience which featured the well-known, hilarious, Jewish comedian, Modi. The audience is diverse, but it is clear, from the consistent howling laughter, that humor is a connecting force. During the show, all barriers that seem to divide groups of people dissolve, as everyone is here for the collective goal of having a good time.

Garg is one of the very few female, immigrant, Indian comedians. She jokes about topics that are not traditionally mocked such as mothers-in-law, and other family dynamics. Most of the female Indian comedians were born in America, but Garg actually immigrated from India at the age of sixteen. Garg was also the recent recipient of the Best Comedy Feature Screenplay award at the Austin Film Festival. She was also granted a development deal with Rooster Teeth Productions, a digital company.

She is a mom of three and an attorney by trade, but Garg said that she “always knew how to make people laugh and was always told I was funny, I just never knew what to do with it.“ Although Garg possessed creative and comedic talent, she was discouraged from pursuing her talents growing up, as this is simply “not an Indian thing to do.” India has a patriarchal culture, and it is very out of character for an Indian woman to make jokes about religion, the prime minister, and her husband. Many people in her culture have shunned and chastised Garg, while certain relatives have even ceased communication with her. For example, her overbearing “Auntie,” which she mimics as a bent over domineering presence stating, “don’t worry, some boys like a double chin.” Despite the possible pushback she may receive, Garg said, I “believe in what I’m doing and I’m going to do it.”

Felicia Madison provided Garg with the courage and support to begin this endeavor, as “Funny Brown Mom,” especially during the early stages of HinJew Comedy. Garg recalls that “Felicia got me right away, she understood my fears and was willing to help me through it.” As an experienced mom in comedy, Madison guided Garg through the fears that come with starting out as a standup comedian, so Garg “was able to take that step and try one joke, and then one became two, and two became three.” Together, this witty pair created a widely popular show that relates to people from all different cultures. It is not only Indians who relate to the Indian jokes, or only Jews laughing at Biblical references. “At the end of the day, it is relatable human experiences.”

The genesis of HinJew Comedy proves to be a solution to what Garg considers the “insufficient entertainment options for teenagers in New York City.” Of course, there are sports games and Broadway shows, but these choices can be very expensive. Alternatively, the average teenager (including myself) turns to Netflix during free time but huddling around a computer screen is not the optimal family activity. Most comedy shows in New York City are riddled with inappropriate jokes and require all customers to be at least 18 years old. “There was nowhere to go where my kids can laugh,” said Garg. She fought clubs to open her shows to kids ages 13 and older and tells her comedians to keep it clean. Garg pokes fun at many topics specifically applying to teenagers, such as the heavy high school workload and college admissions process. She jokes that “by the time teenagers get into college, they are half dead.” HinJew Comedy has become a low-cost family activity and it makes Garg “happy to see families together laughing. We don’t realize how robotic our lives are until we have moments like these.” She jokes about matchmaking as an avocation. As a quick technique she suggested, “doctors and lawyers come to the front, engineers by the bathroom, on standby and the artists should leave the room.”

Garg also emphasizes the therapeutic benefits of laughing, and its ability to destress even in the most hectic times of our lives. “I love to see people leave my shows smiling, I consider this my achievement.”

It is very enlightening, not to mention hilarious, to discover that Hindus and Jews are not so dissimilar. The core values (and idiosyncrasies) are universal. Both cultures are steeped in family traditions of “stressing” education and showing the love. The comedic aspect focuses on the exaggerated tough love, helicopter love, prying love, controlling love, meddling love…fill in your own kvetch. Go and see for yourself and you will be rolling over in a downward dog with laughter.

Samantha Sinensky is a junior at The Ramaz School in Manhattan.

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