By MOHANALAKSHMI RAJAKUMAR, Staff Writer
DOHA, QATAR — “The laugh is political,” said cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. After doing standup comedy for nine months, him and I are in agreement.
As the only consistent female member of a regularly preforming group, each performance is an experience in neural multiplication, creating new brain pathways doctors say keeps away Alzheimer’s. Getting up on stage once a month is about one-tenth of what a comic would do elsewhere in the world. Because of the limited amount of venues, we do as many shows as we can.
Whether it’s once, or whether it’s five times a night, audience members come up and often say, “I could never get up on stage.” Those people are the nice ones.
There are others in the crowd that come in, sit in the front row, arms folded, and scowl as if to say go ahead, try and impress me.
The nights that I get the most laughs are the ones when I make fun of the trials and tribulations of our family of three: an Indian mother, a Thai-American husband, and a white-looking toddler. “Arab women seem concerned I’m running off with someone else’s child,” I say, and there is an explosion of laughter.
The origins of my standup are actually in essays I wrote about being a South Asian-American woman living in the Arabian Gulf where society is stratified by race and class. Most people of my skin color are nannies or janitors. When it came to making jokes, I stripped out the social commentary, and then had a list of readymade, comical situations. Yes, the irony of racial politics is funny.
But some nights, like this week, I have other material I want to try. Arabic language gaffes, mixups with my name, commonalities between South Asian and Arab culture. These don’t get the same belly laughs; I don’t have to hold punch lines until the crowd recovers. There were a row of women laughing, but as women are wont to do, chuckling to themselves politely.
I left the stage, knowing I had left the safe laughs to the side in order to take a risk. And that is the manifesto of creativity: trying, testing, adapting, working. I’ve read about Chris Rock who goes to small clubs and tests out hundreds of jokes before taking the best of the best on stage. I know Tina Fey’s now-popular show 30 Rock had almost no viewership in the early days. I’m not saying I’m Chris or Tina, but I am saying it takes a lot of work to be really good at what you do.
And that’s my giving a damn.
Dr. Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a well-traveled scholar of literature and a freelance writer based in Qatar. She is a co-founder of the Maktaba project, a Children’s Library concept starting up in Doha. Follow her on Twitter @moha_doha.
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