Zarna Garg’s brand new jokes for the Bay Area 

Besides eating, what are your plans for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday weekend? That’s the question comedian Zarna Garg – a.k.a Auntie Z and our very own Funny Brown Mom  – is asking the Bay Area, ahead of her upcoming tour at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, November 24-26. Titled Practical People, the show comprises what she calls a “brand new hour of jokes.” The same material will also be filmed for an as-yet-undecided streaming platform early next year. The tour includes one live recording of The Zarna Garg Show, her YouTube podcast that features her entire family. 

Garg, who has been living in the U.S. for over three decades, arrived on the comedy scene with her unique signature style a few years ago, after her informal home videos became wildly popular on YouTube and TikTok. During the pandemic, she famously stood under a tree in New York, where she is based, and brought cheer to joy-starved pedestrians. For Garg, there has been no looking back since.

Her work, which draws heavily on her real-life experience as an Indian immigrant mom in America, is showing on Amazon Prime as a comedy special titled One in a Billion. A rom-com movie – Rearranged – that she has already won screenplay writing awards for at film festivals, will be out early next year.

Contrary to popular belief, Garg’s stand-up comedy shows attract a mixed audience; typically, 50% of her audience is non-Indian.

India Currents spoke to Garg over a Zoom call recently. 

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Comedian Zarna Garg laughs with her hands raised during a Zoom interview with India Currents. (Image courtesy Ashwini Gangal)
Zarna Garg is her affable self during the Zoom interview with India Currents. (Image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)

India Currents: The Bay Area has a huge desi population. Does this make your material more relevant here?

Zarna Garg: The Bay Area tends to love my stuff more than other areas because I too am obsessed with tech and STEM and that type of education for my kids. A lot of my set relies on why we need to be practical in choosing what we need to do, and the Bay Area is where all these ideologies developed. 

IC: The audience may already know the premise and subtext for most of your jokes. Do you worry about keeping the material fresh?

ZG: I write and try out new jokes on a stage every single day. But what I’ve learned is that people don’t come to my shows for the jokes. You can sit at home and get a million jokes for free, from Seinfeld to Kevin Hart. People come for the shared experience of listening to the jokes with their mom, sister, husband, friend… and then talking about it.

Especially post the pandemic, we’re craving that human connection; we want to be part of a happy human space. After that hour or two of being in the room with me, you’re going to come out feeling hopeful and exhilarated, and you’ll have so much to talk about. 

That said, the whole show I’m coming to the Bay Area with is brand new.

IC:  You’ve introduced your family to the world on your Amazon show, but now they’re really in the limelight on your YouTube podcast. Were you apprehensive about putting them out there? Does this inherited fame come with its own risks?  

ZG: The idea that they inherited my fame is flawed; they actually built it with me. I became the face of a family business.

They have been working in my comedy business from day one. My daughter was the one who suggested (doing) comedy. My son got me on TikTok and ran my social media for two years when he was home from school. My little son is my best joke writer. My husband funded the whole thing; I didn’t make a dime the first few years. 

Yes, it is very anxiety-provoking when everybody is public. I thought about it a lot. And here’s why we did it: I got feedback from my audience that my standup show brings multi-generational families together. For the first time, they were all enjoying watching something together. I was racking my brain thinking about what more I could do to keep this family togetherness going. On a whim, we decided to shoot one episode to see what happens if we talk about things that Indians don’t usually talk about with their kids. Now families are sitting together and watching the podcast and having their own conversations. 

No one in my family is trying to be a celebrity, really. They’re all doing their own serious things in life.

IC:  How much of your podcast is scripted?

ZG: Zero. Even my kids and husband don’t know the topic until a minute before we log on. They fight me on it. As a digital creator, I can tell you – if you script it, the audience can pick up on it. I don’t want to put anything that’s fake out there.

IC: Speaking of fake, recently The New Yorker accused Hasan Minhaj of manipulating facts in his comedy. He said it’s the “emotional truth” of the material that matters. What’s your take?

ZG: Luckily for me, I have enough original and real trauma to make about seven to eight comedy specials! Everything that comes off my stage is true. The hallmark of my comedy is to make people feel good; in that space, there’s not much to make up. Yes, sometimes I’ll exaggerate my fights with my mother-in-law. Truth is, I’m not artistic enough to sell something that’s not real.

There are a lot of gray zones in comedy. Hasan is entitled to his view of what his comedy is about and what he wants to say to the audience. I’m sure you’ve seen his reaction video

The audience loves him. My own kids love him to pieces. In my live shows, I make jokes about Hasan a lot and my kids get traumatized. 

IC: Has there been a ripple effect of the whole Hasan incident for you and for the desi comedy community?

ZG: In some way, it is making other comics think harder about their messaging and what they stand for. 

Hasan’s going to be fine! He’s a freaking gorgeous man with that head of gorgeous hair.

IC: Controversy seems to be waiting in the wings to meet every comedian at some point in their careers. Do you think about it?

ZG: First of all, if you succeed, somebody’s going to have a problem with it. When the ax falls, it will fall harder on me because the world does not like successful women. And a successful brown woman who wears a bindi holds a mic and says whatever – I’m fully aware that I’m a moving target. But I’m not going to live my life in fear. 

IC: Your rise has been meteoric. What’s next?

ZG: Nothing short of world domination. 

I believe there is a space for a big South Asian comedy brand. There is no Indian Melissa McCarthy. There’s no Indian Joan Rivers. Our culture has not been highlighting women of a certain age. Even the women who are my age in Bollywood or the brown women in Hollywood are forced to be sexy and appealing to the youth.

I want to bring the Indian mom experience to the mainstream all over the world and give us the glory we deserve. The Indian CEOs in the Bay Area didn’t just fall out of the sky – their mothers raised them.

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.