In 2019, Bombay-born, Manhattan-based Zarna Garg did her first stand-up set. In the short amount of time that has passed, the comedian has earned the Ladies of Laughter 2021 Newcomer Award, a spot on NYC’s Top 100 Inspiring Small Businesses list in 2020 and more than 50 million views on her comedy videos since starting her channel during the pandemic. Garnering fans with hits shows like “My American Dream” and “Sari, Not Sorry,” Garg has a big year ahead, including two shows in March at the Kennedy Center with Maz Jobrani. Ahead of her sets at the Comedy Cellar in Las Vegas, we sat down with Garg to talk about her comedy digital community, performing at funerals and always finding humor in the good and bad of life.
You’ve spoken about how your daughter persuaded you to become a comedian. Is she a big comedy lover or does she maybe just have good insight?
What happened is because she was born and raised here, stand up comedy is in her world. She's seen kids do open mics, even at talent shows in schools, so she knows what it is a little— at least she knew a little more than I did. So when she realized that my mom's funny, to her it was a really natural instinct. “Well, if you're funny, why don't you try stand up comedy.?” Whereas for me, that was a big leap. I had never even thought about that as a career possibility for me.
@zarnagarg Am i wrong though? #indianparents #indianmom #arrangedmarriage #lovemarriage #indianmatchmaking #loveisblindnetflix #zarnagarg #browntiktok #valentinesday #happyvalentinesday #romanticlove My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from "Titanic") - Céline Dion
And then your son helped you get started on TikTok, right?
Yes, so TikTok is a little different. And he was certainly much more comfortable. I mean, he knew what it was. I didn't even know what it was. But it was his opinion that my jokes would translate well there. I think he watched a lot of TikTokers that year, and then the pandemic happened and he started seeing comedians pop up on TikTok. And he's like, “Mom, your jokes might find an audience because it's a very international crowd, TikTok.” And he then filmed takes of my jokes and edited them himself and uploaded a few to see what would happen.
What is your favorite joke?
“I've never said I love you to my husband” is one that's very popular, so I love doing it because it opens up conversation with almost everybody. Whether you're a child or an adult or an elderly person, you're gonna have an opinion on that topic. It's an icebreaker. It does well. If I post it, people always have an opinion on it.
The first time I told that joke, it was very rustic. It was like, “I’ve never said I love you to my husband. And you know, what's the rush? It's only been 23 years.” I'm being a little glib about Indian people. In our culture, if you get married, you're married for seven lifetimes. They say that you reincarnate with the same person and all of this is religious stuff, but we've made jokes about the fact that we're going to be together forever, so in the scheme of forever, 23 years doesn't feel like a lot. And earlier, it was just that. But then I added bits to it because I was like well white people do this and other cultures do that, and that joke really took on its own life when my son put it on TikTok. Because then people from all over the world were like, “We don't say it either.” It became an area that I started really exploring. I really thought I was the only one who never said, “I love you,” and then once I realized that there's a lot more people like me, I started looking into it a lot more seriously and getting into it.
On your website, you say “comedy is rooted in discomfort, but teaches you to keep perspective and turn the pain into therapy.” How does that guide you as a comedian?
I have learned now that almost every comedian that I know— even professional, really serious, successful comedians— their comedy comes from a place of a lot of heart and from deep wounds. It's true for me too because those are things that make you feel really hard and when you feel hard about something, you think about it and you want to do something about it. It forces you to think why something happened or it could be a word issue. For example, I have a joke about the use of water and how water is used in India versus in America. Now that's not something that I have deeply felt myself, but it is a global crisis, the shortage of water. So sometimes when I'm sitting there, I can't help but think wow, look at how it's done here and look at how it's done there and my mind goes in all these places. But in the end, to make life livable, to make life fun, you have to find the humor in everything because there's really no absolute answers to any of these things. Should people take bubble baths? I don't know. Should everybody have clean drinking water? Absolutely. But do I know how to make that happen? No. So at the end of the day, I try to take all the things that I wonder about, however light or serious, and put a funny spin on it and hope that it makes people laugh and think.
Has getting into comedy been helpful processing the pandemic?
Absolutely, and I have found a community. Because of my comedy, there's a digital community of people that lean on me and I lean on them and we have found ways to cope. What a horrible two years we've all had as human beings? But because of my comedy, other people have found me and then I check out their work. There's been a lot of mutual benefits in the digital community that I've created and that I'm now part of other people's communities. It kind of kept us sane. I think it kept me sane because I was forced to do work. I was forced to think of people who had it much harder than me. How could I alleviate their stresses? I started doing Zoom shows, I started doing Instagram Lives, TikTok— anything I could to reach a new audience and make new people laugh.
What’s it like doing comedy over Zoom?
I'm one of the unusual comedians that has no problem doing comedy on Zoom. Of course real-life clubs are my bread and butter. I'm very comfortable because the pandemic went on for as long as it did.
Zoom has been surprisingly effective. Most people think, “Oh, it's so impersonal. You're sitting on a digital screen on your laptop.” But you'll be surprised with how successful our Zoom shows have been in bringing companies together and bringing families together. I've done everything. I've done birthdays, anniversaries, corporate meetings. I've even done funerals on Zoom: comedy show at a funeral.
What was that like?
The person who passed, his wife’s friends hired me to do a 10-minute bit at the funeral because they knew the person who passed as somebody who was extremely fun-loving and would not have wanted people to be crying. And I took it on as a challenge. I was a little confused and very scared when I took that job, but people need to love so badly that if you give them the slightest reason to laugh, they're gonna go there. It was actually an incredible show and I did the whole show about how like, “Is this life even worth living?” I just made it glib and I made it so that wherever this person has gone is probably better than what we're dealing with right now.
Since then, I've done several more. I understand if, God forbid, something was to happen to me, I wouldn’t want everybody to get together and just cry. I wouldn't, so I understood what they were saying, yet taking that job on felt like a big risk, but it worked out beautifully in the end.
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You've got a lot of great projects in the works, including a TV pilot. What can you tell us about that?
So I have a TV sitcom pilot that's out. It's being developed right now. I have a producer attached to it. It's based on my comedy. It's like an Indian mom version of let's say, Everybody Loves Raymond. It's that idea, but the mom is the central character and it's the conflict with the kids, the conflict with the in-laws, conflict with the husband. Very everyday humor, very everyday stuff. It's really the kind of stuff that I laugh about with my kids everyday at home. It's based in Manhattan because that's where I really live, so we've set it in Manhattan high rise and my in-laws have to move to America under some strange circumstances and live with us.
You also have some upcoming shows in Las Vegas. What are you looking forward to about those sets?
I can't wait. I'm going to be at the Comedy Cellar in Vegas from February 21 to 27. Vegas is so iconic and what an honor to be able to perform there, and I'm just looking forward to seeing that audience. I've done a lot of cities and I do New York City every night, but Vegas is Vegas. There's no other place like it in this world and I'm very excited to bring my show there.
What else is important to know about you?
I guess just that I'm you know that I'm an Indian immigrant mom-comedian. That's pretty much only one of me in the whole world. Everybody's support is so much appreciated. Most women like me— actually, I don't know anybody like me who's a really traditional Indian woman, wears Indian clothes, wears a bindi and comes on stage to share my culture. I've been told by many people in my audience that when they come to my shows, they feel like they traveled to India. And I want to invite everybody into that world with me because not too many women can do what I do, and everybody's support matters. So I thank those who are supporting me and I look forward to adding more to our tribe.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Tickets to Zarna Garg's shows can be found here.
Photography by: Courtesy Zarna Garg