8 Questions With Vijai Nathan, a comedienne who opens for Russell Peters and is mistaken for Mindy Kaling

Indian-American comedienne Vijai Nathan was inspired by the likes of Eddie Murphy to carve a career in comedy.
Indian-American comedienne Vijai Nathan was inspired by the likes of Eddie Murphy to carve a career in comedy.PHOTO: COURTESY OF VIJAI NATHAN

US comedienne Vijai Nathan mines memories of growing up in a strict Indian home for her show

For stand-up comic Vijai Nathan, comedy is not simply a form of entertainment but also a chance to confront some hard questions in life.

Growing up as an Indian girl in America, especially in the 1970s, was no picnic, she says.

"There were not that many other Indians around and my parents wanted me to be all things Indian. There was this constant tension between being an American and being viewed as a foreigner.

"I wanted to be understood and it was around the age of 10 when I started watching comedy shows on TV. Comedians like Eddie Murphy would talk about tough topics such as racism and alcoholism and make it funny," says the Washington- based Vijai, who is staging her debut performance in Singapore next month at the Tanglin Club.

"From then, I had the kiddish dream to be a comedienne."

In reality, the road towards becoming one was not that straightforward. It was only in 1997 that the bachelorette, now 42, became a full-fledged comic. Before that, she was working as a journalist and living the "immigrant American dream", according to the thinking of her conservative folks.

Naturally, when she announced her career switch, her parents were shocked.

"When I started going for comedy classes, my dad expected me to get a master's in comedy. Well, now I hold a PhD in it," she says in jest.

1 How did you come up with your Singapore show's eyebrow-raising title, Good Girls Don't. But Indian Girls Do?

Like many Indian girls, I grew up with a lot of rules on how to behave like a good Indian girl and I had to follow all those rules growing up in America, because if I didn't, my dad would say, "That's it! you're going back to India!"

When you are always trying to be "good", you miss out on experiencing a lot of things in life, so the title is a little spicy, but it is also meant to be empowering and about taking risks.

2 What do you think makes for a great joke?

Being authentic makes the best jokes. I initially wrote jokes I saw other American comedians talking about, but they weren't real to me or my life.

It is only when I started writing jokes about how I really saw the world as an Indian-American kid of immigrants that my comedy started to connect to the audience.

My humour comes from the experiences I have had growing up in a strict Indian household in the US and anything that pops into my mind, from race to sex to family. For me, being Indian is a special part of my comedy but so is being an American. I identify myself as an Indian-American and that is where the inspiration for my shows comes from.

3 What is the best reaction an audience has had to your show?

The best reaction, of course, is a standing ovation, which I've been lucky enough to get a few times.

I was opening for Russell Peters for an audience of about 2,500 people and doing a joke about how men should always pay for dates, and all the men starting booing at me before I finished the joke. The women in the room were cheering but the men where definitely louder.

I stood my ground, delivered the punchline and, by the end, I had the whole room roaring with laughter.

4 Speaking of Russell Peters, what is the comedy megastar like away from the stage?

Oh, I love Russell Peters. I have worked with him a few times and he is really, really supportive of me.

He is such a funny guy but what people don't realise is what a good guy he is. In showbiz, that's a really unusual and wonderful trait to find. He's a sweetheart and has such a soft spot for kids.

5 What is something people would not expect of you?

I really like science fiction, especially Star Wars. I'm usually a girly girl but there is this inner nerdy guy persona, perhaps.

I started watching Star Wars when I was young and I honestly don't know why I like it but I do. My favourite character is Chewbacca - maybe because he is big and hairy - and I secretly dream of marrying someone like him. Someone who is strong but doesn't talk a lot.

I wonder what that says about me.

6 Have people compared you to fellow Indian-American comedienne Mindy Kaling of The Office and The Mindy Kaling Show?

I've never met her and people think I am her all the time.

I think what she is doing is great and I love her show, but we are very different. So much of my comedy comes from my experience from growing up as an Indian- American and how that has shaped me as an adult.

7 What other projects do you plan to engage in besides stand-up?

I plan to work on a comedy memoir. People are always asking me why I haven't written a book because they want to read about my experiences. It's been on my mind for a long time and I hope for it to be a funny and meaningful read.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who would brighten your day.

gurveenk@sph.com.sg