Getting to the inaugural Crazy Funny South Asians variety show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater was a trek given the near-apocalyptic scale of this season’s first snow on November 15. But somewhere between the endless lines outside Penn Station mere blocks away, the unnecessary but – I’m calling it – quintessentially Indian queue skipping and the leaky ceiling above the second row in the black box theatre lies a metaphor for the scrappiness and resilience of the night’s show.
Hosted by Alingon Mitra, the show features nine South Asian-American comedians and is a charming attempt at melding together traditional stand-up with live sketches, pre-filmed scenes and the use of scarcely functioning powerpoint slides. The cast is notable, featuring Fareeha Khan, Maya Deshmukh, Gibran Saleem, Pratima Mani, Kunal Arora, Akaash Singh, Tushar Singh and Gayatri Patel.
Dilli Wali Girlfriend, Chikni Chameli and Dil Chahta Hai set an appropriately joyful and nostalgic tone before the show begins. UCB theater’s hallowed halls have scarcely heard Hindi pop or seen as many brown faces gathered, and it’s refreshing to be an insider, privy to a living-room type feeling that the performers successfully extend, one hopes, to the smattering of non-South Asians present.
The show has clear strengths and weaknesses, with the sketches failing to meet the excellence of the stand-up. Still, each element has its place in articulating details of the American diasporic existence that remain unexplored in entertainment, both underground and mainstream. The dominant theme veers naturally towards the agony, pleasure and friction of living in multiple worlds, like in Arora’s description of the slight Italian-ness of every community in his native Queens. In one live sketch, four comedians compete in an Indian-off – a showdown meant to decide which one of them is max Indian, in the cringiest stereotypical imagination possible: a.k.a. who can handle the chai-est of chais, who can abstain until marriage, and who hates Pakistan more. The subtext misfires a bit, particularly for audiences unfamiliar with the cultures, but the tongue-in-cheek lesson about the slippery need to prove one’s cultural capital does it’s job.
Among the performers, Gibran Saleem and Alingon Mitra deserve a shout-out for their well-churned and intelligent sets that deftly integrate self-criticism. It is impossible to take your attention off either comedian, because they possess and wield with ease that indispensable quality: the ability to surprise. Maya Deshmukh, too, is a firehouse with an easy presence and is a fine actor. I hope further iterations of the show include stand-up from her, and the other female performers brimming with potential.
Despite its rough edges, the show is crackling with hunger, delightful and just self-aware enough, as evidenced in its finale. By this time, the increasing male-ness of the show had become a source of discomfort, prompting one audience member to question why the finale panel discussion featured none of the female performers. That panel, which was initially planned to feature the all-male four-member troupe, American Born Desi Comics (Mitra, Arora, Singh, and Singh), followed the screening of one of their video sketches. When the question was asked, the four women ran out onto stage and, though it took a few minutes for the men to pivot their agenda, they gave up their seats and left the stage to allow a full discussion with the female comics, which, inevitably, turned to the question of being a female, brown comic in New York City.