Finding the Funny in Bleak Times at Moontower Comedy
A Q&A with stand-ups Akaash Singh and Paul Varghese
The world is constantly going to hell in a handbasket. This is not new information. However, the past 20 months are on a whole different level entirely. Natural disasters, the insurrection (yes, that was this year), Texas' insistence on controlling women's bodies, the ongoing pandemic ... how do we keep calm and carry on? Or even just not wallow in a state of anxiety and despair 24/7? Well, the age-old idiom of "laughter is the best medicine" couldn't be more true. I don't know anyone who couldn't use a laugh.
Ahead of their Moontower Comedy appearances, I spoke via Zoom with Texas-raised comedians Akaash Singh and Paul Varghese – separate inteviews combined here for easier reading. They shared their personal quarantine experiences, online comedy shows, how they approach creating routines, and more.
Austin Chronicle: As a fellow Asian American, I am always curious if parents understand jobs that are "non-traditional." What are their thoughts on you performing comedy?
Akaash Singh: The first time I did stand-up I was a freshman in college, and I knew then that it was what I wanted to do. But, I was still Indian, so I was pre-med, and took the MCAT, and luckily I didn't do well my first two years of college. I applied [to med schools], but I probably would've had to do a scribe program for a year. My friend was moving to L.A. to become a cinematographer, and once I got my mom's permission, I went out there. I told her I was gonna try comedy for a year, and thankfully she was like, "I'd rather you know than wonder for the rest of your life." It's always been stand-up since that point.
Paul Varghese: To [my parents], work is not something you enjoy, it is just something you do. For me, there really wasn't an Indian Eddie Murphy at the time to point to and be like, okay, you can do that. I think they respected it once I started making a living, and then they were cool with it. All their friends that they would see at church who knew me helped them out, too.
AC: What's your quarantine been like? How did you cope?
AS: I really struggled with the quarantine. I was in a dark place, it's cold in New York, and you don't see the fucking sun, and because of that, I haven't found a way to make it funny yet. A lot of people really thrived in the pandemic. I got in worse shape. I learned no new skills, no new languages.
PV: Writing-wise, it was really beneficial for me, more introspective than anything else. Career-wise, it was a kick to the jaw; everything was gone. But, I had been non-stop moving every other week, if not every week, and to have several months being stuck in your own head was actually a good thing for me. I needed to slow down... it is probably the closest thing I've had to a vacation.
AC: Did you find yourself approaching comedy differently in the last year-and-a-half?
AS: No, in general, when times are worse, it's easier to be funny because there is constantly material to try to make funny. I had never been in a relationship, except for this one with my wife. I used to never talk about relationships in my set, or if I did, looking back I would think, I am not saying anything that's real.
PV: I do end up talking about quarantine and the vaccine for about a minute, then I move on. I don't want to harp on it too much, because every comic is talking about it, and I don't want to repeat the same stuff.
AC: What have your experiences been doing online shows?
AS: It really sucked, but I kind of treated it like an open mic. There's a part of me that will always be a little insecure and want the validation ... and it's hard to get validation online. Even if the audience is unmuted, the laugh seems so far away and doesn't feel big. I used these shows to test out material, and made sure that I told at least one new joke that I have never done before.
PV: The timing is pretty hard, because you have to wait for delays, Wi-Fi, and all these different things you never have to worry about onstage. The big thing is, you don't really know what people are laughing at, or offended by, because the video is off or they are muted. I did it for what it was, but it's not something I would consistently want to do. Nothing beats a live performance.
AC: How do you go about creating a routine?
AS: I tend to mostly write onstage. I'll have the idea onstage, I'll say it, I remember it, and I will keep talking it out show after show. Eventually, I will flesh it out, and be like, okay, here is the bit behind this idea.
PV: It normally starts out with a problem, or something that annoys me. It can be something as petty as something my dog did or something as big as police brutality. Basically, I try to figure out a solution to what I am angry about. Sometimes comics will rant about what pisses them off, but at that point you are just yelling and at some point you have to be funny. It's easy to say "racism sucks," but unless you offer a unique perspective about it, you are just repeating what everybody else already knows. If I write about being Indian, I always try to make sure whatever I write, somebody who is not Indian would be unable to write that. It needs to be that specific.
The 10th edition of Moontower Comedy takes place September 22-25 in Downtown Austin. For tickets, performance schedule, and COVID safety information, visit austintheatre.org/moontower-comedy.