People say the best humor comes from reality. Yet especially in the difficult times we’re currently facing, it can be hard to find things to laugh at. Enter Zarna Garg, whose comedy hails from a very real and very unique point of view. As an Indian-American, as a mother, as someone who originally got a finance degree before turning her talents in a new direction—Zarna’s story is different from most entertainers. She’s been able to take that and all the craziness of current events, and mix it up into something we can all enjoy.
I recently caught up with Zarna to discuss her own personal journey, navigating comedy in a COVID-19 world, and when she can tell that a joke is actually funny. Here’s what she had to say about her story and her awesome sense of humor.
Brittany Frederick: How did you go from getting a finance degree, to attending law school, to becoming a professional comedian?
Zarna Garg: It’s every Indian mom’s dream, let me tell you. We are all secretly thinking, how can we find a path to stand-up comedy? (laughs) The law and comedy connection is understandable because both jobs require you to love the language. There are a lot of lawyers who are now stand-up comedians. You have to really like the words enough to want to fidget with them to the nth degree, which is what writing jokes is about. So I get it; there is a little showmanship involved in law too. Of course my own path was all convoluted. I had no idea I would be doing [comedy] two years ago, even. No idea.
BF: Has anything you learned in those other fields found its way into your comedy?
ZG: Of course. I have three kids; I’m constantly reading them their Miranda Rights. I’m like “You have the right to remain silent. Use it.” (laughs) Actually, I learned that on like one of the NCIS, CSI shows. I didn’t really learn that in law school. I think in law school you learn to write logically, and that helps me with my joke writing, believe it or not. It helps me write jokes that are really tight and neat, and go from point A to point B without getting all torturous in their logic. When you go to law school they tell you that you never stop thinking like a lawyer, and that is true for me.
BF: How do you tell when a joke works? Is there some logical process you can run it through or is it more gut instinct, or a combination of both?
ZG: I have a gut instinct, and then what I find out is that my gut is wrong sometimes. Of course there are things I find funny, but until you try it on a stage and try it many, many times, you don’t know if it’s going to land for sure. That is also something that differentiates what I do from a lot of other screenwriters. (I’m also a screenwriter.) I test-trial a lot of my material in real life.
The one thing that has changed this landscape is social media, because then you get feedback right away. I can put a joke up on Instagram and within an hour I know. If it’s not funny at all, you will watch it die. If it’s really funny, if the idea of it is really funny, then you watch it take off. So there’s that. The gut instinct is just a moral compass, just a guide. I’ve been wrong, and I think a lot of comedians have bits that they love and just can’t figure out why no one else think [they’re] funny.
BF: Since you also have that screenwriting aspect, did you put more emphasis on that when COVID-19 stopped most live comedy shows? Or how did you adapt to the pandemic?
ZG: I immediately transitioned to Zoom shows within a week of the lockdown. I knew there was trouble ahead. I didn’t think anything was going to open up soon. I had a moment of “What can I as a human being offer to people at a time when everybody’s depressed and the world looks like it’s going to hell?” If people are enjoying my comedy and it’s bringing them some joy, then I should share it with the world. Then it became a journey on how best to share it with everybody.
I live in Manhattan and we were at the epicenter [of the COVID-19 pandemic] before it went anywhere. The devastation and depression that we saw early on, I experienced it as a mother, as a citizen of this place I’ve lived in for almost 24 years. I had to roll up my sleeves and be like “What can I do?” and I started doing Zoom shows for free for a lot of first responders. Once I did it for them, I was like “Oh! Wait a minute. I can do this as a business.”
BF: What’s the most unusual or interesting place you’ve done a show, now or otherwise?
ZG: New York City subway, hands down. Last year we were so desperate for venues. We were so desperate just to have an audience. I was desperate to spread the laughs. We were getting pushed out of everywhere. Like Central Park—the police would be like “No crowds!” so then we had to move. I was outside the Met steps and it rained so hard we had to take cover under construction awnings. So then I took my little speaker and I went right into the subway and did a whole show in the subway. I would say comedy during the pandemic was very unexpected. I didn’t really think that would ever happen in my lifetime, but here we are. We had a great time, by the way. We had a blast.
BF: Where’s the balance for you between making something that’s timely or topical, like about the pandemic or about cultural issues, and also just wanting to be funny? Can a comedian really do both?
ZG: That’s the art and the craft of it. I practice a lot on stage, six nights a week somewhere in New York. That’s not counting all of the Zoom [shows] and everything else that I do. I start with “What is it I want to say?” and everything has to be funny. That’s what I’m about. I have no interest in delivering heavy messages. There’s a lot of people out there that can do that. I stick to my wheelhouse, which is whatever message I want to deliver. I myself try to find the humor in it.
There’s humor in everything if you look for it. My mother-in-law is a difficult, difficult person. But I try to find the funniness in it. I try to put myself in her shoes and go “What would it be like if I became a mother-in-law?” Then I realize how bad I will be and then it becomes funny. So it’s the art and the craft of blending the message in with the humor. It’s what I do all day. Then I test it. Like right now, I’m trying to write a joke about Afghanistan, but I realized no one is ready for it. I tested it a few times, it fell like a bomb and I was like, “No. Not ready for it yet.”
BF: Do you have goals for next year as the entertainment world continues to open back up? How do you build on what you’ve accomplished virtually?
ZG: I’ve built a whole online community through various [social media] channels, to all the Zoom shows I’ve done. Every time the question is the same: “When are we going to see you in our town?” More than anything else, I would like to be able to travel and take my show to different cities and meet these people. These digital relationships have become real. They feel like they know me because I put so much of my life out there.
I really would like to physically connect with these people—look them in the eye, shake their hand, give them a hug. On the worst days, when something really bad happens in the news, I’ll go on and be like “What’s everybody doing?” and try to rally people’s spirits. I’m kind of getting tired of the whole electronic world. The dream scenario is that I can travel a lot next year and meet people in real life.
BF: Is there anything about you or about your particular brand of comedy that you’d like people to know? Especially if they’re not following you yet?
ZG: There are very few brown women who are privileged and in the position that I am in, where I get to make jokes about my culture. Back home it would not be tolerated at all. Considering the crisis that’s going on in my part of the world, I really appreciate it. I just want to thank everybody that supports my work in any way. I want to thank everybody for giving me a shot. Because I get a shot, so many women that could come behind me get inspired and think of doing it.
Systems are not in place for those of us who come from Asia. There’s barely any stand-up comedy in Asia, forget women doing stand-up comedy. I’m taking this on as a huge responsibility, to try to get my voice out as much as I can. So I really appreciate the people who will read this interview and choose to laugh at even one of my jokes. And it’s all free. I tell everybody, we’re all going to die anyway, so I just put my work out there for free. Everybody can enjoy it if it makes you laugh during this horrid time in our lives. I’m for it and I thank people for their time.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.