Comedy has not made me successful, but it has made me a better failure: An interview with Aditi Mittal
Comedian Aditi Mittal has performed at venues across India, UK and the USA, recently appearing on the BBC’s Welcome to Wherever You Are and BBC Asian Comedy’s The Cream of South Asian Comedy. The Upcoming caught up with her to chat about her stand-up and her special Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, which she is bringing to the Soho Theatre on 17th August 2016.
What led you to the world of stand-up?
I do stand-up because I have no idea how to do anything else.
How did your special come together, was it a series of similarly themed bits or did you consciously construct it as an hour?
It was similarly themed bits: to me the show had to encompass its title Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say. I realised that when you’re a woman in India that means pretty much EVERYTHING, but I made a conscious effort to talk about things that confused me, things that I didn’t understand well enough, and use humour to either point out the absurdity of it or make fun of myself for not being smart enough to get it!
Were your characters Dr Mrs Lutchuke and Dolly Khurana always going to be part of your show?
Oh yes! The first time I did a character (in costume) on stage, I was BLOWN away by the immunity I felt. Dr Mrs Lutchuke specifically to me was a revelation. Let’s face it, as a woman I didn’t want anyone in my audience to know I was having sex (it’s such a TERRIBLY unladylike thing to do you know?), so I decided that if I DID want to talk about it, I would do it wrapped in a the guise of an unthreatening old woman, and people would laugh at it first before being horrified!
Has there been any point in your career so far where you felt you had truly found your voice, or is it still a constant journey of discovery and self-doubt?
Oh, the fact that there is no final “voice” is the most attractive thing about stand-up. It’s that the learning curve is constant, you start from zero every day and you work your way up from there. Every day is a brand new audience, stage, mood, and the only constant is you (which, I’ve realised, is not a very dependable constant either). The challenge is exhilarating. I’ve only been doing stand-up for five years, so I’m nowhere near finding out what my voice is, but Lord I’m enjoying the process of talking while I get there and I certainly hope the audience is too. (Otherwise, YIKES.)
Would you say there are major differences between the Indian comedy scene and that in the UK? What about the kind of audiences you see?
Well, the age of the two scenes are of course the biggest difference. While India is still in its fifth or sixth year of having an urban stand-up comedy scene, the UK has a scene that’s been around for decades. Indian audiences are still new to the craft of a single person standing in front of a mike trying to make people laugh, so we still get people who come to the show with ZERO idea of what’s going to happen. I know that UK audiences have just seen more stand-up so they are aware of the basics.
In the UK and US female comedians have to battle with the perception that their entire gender is somehow less funny than men, while at the same time being prevented from occupying anywhere near the same about of screen-time on TV. Is the situation comparable in India?
Of course. This whole “women are not funny” is based on Christopher Hitchen’s tired argument that women didn’t evolutionarily need to be funny since they were the ones doing the laughing. But the same argument then merits the thought: how can men laugh, because evolutionarily, they’ve just had time to work on being funny, right?
One of the beautiful things about being a woman is that no matter what the culture, country or religion you can be treated as a third class human being across boundaries. I’ve had people yell out at me to go make sandwiches, while I’m on stage, suck the mike (coz it’s long and black, get it, get it?), mansplained my own punchlines, been told to shut up while trying to get a word in sideways in all-male writing rooms and, if sources are to be believed, I have also slept my way to where I am in life today (which is not very far dammit, need to sleep around some more). So let’s just say, a woman in comedy is a tainted woman already.
As far as screen-time is concerned, mainstream Indian comedy likes its female comedians to either be hideously ugly (coz lol, she so ugly/unfuckable) and/or gloriously dumb (coz lol, she so duuurm, but at least she hot). If a female character has any other aspect of a personality then you are nagging wife, raging bitch-vamp. I’m halfway on the scales of ugliness, stupidity and raging bitch-vamp, so it would actually be nice to see full blown HUMAN female characters on screen doing comedy.
Has the advent of Twitter changed the way you approach comedy at all?
Oh completely. Twitter is how we managed to attract people to shows when we started our careers. I use to it to comment on any news of the day, post my mundane thoughts while I sit around in notorious Bombay traffic and, of course, learn new things (in the 140-character bits that I can comfortably consume them). And of course, since we all know that brevity is the soul of wit, Twitter’s 140-character limit is a great day-to-day challenge in being able to practise that.
When performing in the UK, or abroad in general, do you feel you have to change or omit any of your material?
Oh yes, of course! One of the biggest elements of humour is context, and so the moment a context changes, I tailor-make the material to the best of my abilities and knowledge. If I go to an audience, I can’t start talking to them like they’re in my house, I have to take the stories of my house and place them where the audience sits. It’s DEF one of the most exciting parts of travelling while performing.
Your special is called Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say: is there anything you don’t feel comfortable joking about as a comedian?
As a person, I’m a comfortable mix of insecurities, apprehensions and biases that my family and culture have bestowed on me, but as a comedian: nothing. It all depends on what aspect of “uncomfortable” things you’re joking about. It’s all about punching UP vs punching DOWN. When you punch UP, you’re making fun of (for the lack of a better word) “the oppressor” and when you punch DOWN, you’re making fun of the “the oppressed”. I recently hosted a show called Sex and Sexability in Mumbai, a night for disabled comedians. In India, where political correctness is a bit on the sacrosanct side, it was a rip roaring evening of people being made fun of for their condescending political correctness and ignorance towards disabilities. So no thought is off the table – as long as there’s a good laugh available at the end of it!
Beyond confidence etc, how do you think your comedy has changed since you started as a stand-up?
Comedy has not made me successful, but it has made me a better failure. I’ve stopped taking every bad show as a massive failure, but more of a knock on the head to work smarter. In a job that’s literally hinging on the failure, a success spectrum like this is VERY comforting. As in, even when I hit rock bottom, I have a smaller crevice to crawl my sorry ass out of now.
Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say is at the Soho Theatre from 17th until 20th August 2016, for further information or to book visit here
Watch a clip from Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say here: