By Moumita Ghosh for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Writer and co-creator of Shugs and Fats, Radhika Vaz is also the writer and performer of Older.Angrier.Hairier. and Unladylike. She made headlines earlier this year for her nude act where she spoke of her appearance anxiety, as a part of an ad campaign for FabAlley. Her latest web series on YouTube called – Anyone’s invited, is at best, a glimpse into the issues she deals with during her live shows. It promises a few honest laughs as she talks about the double standards surrounding the topic of body hair, men’s thoughts on nipple hair and more. Urging readers to “fight hard for net neutrality”, she adds –“otherwise you won’t be able to send free, naked pictures of yourself on Snapchat.”
Ask her how she deals with the obligation of being perpetually funny and the comedian will quip— “By ignoring it completely! People always say I am very serious in my ‘real’ life and that is fine with me.” In an exclusive interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, Vaz, who calls herself a feminist because “it would be weird if I did not!”, indulges in a dialogue about everything from the lack of enough female comedians, to balancing issues of freedom of expression and women’s rights on the same platter, and of course, about what is more painful than a Brazilian bikini wax.
Moumita Ghosh (MG): To start with the usual, when did the entire stand-up comedy bug bite you and how did things fall into place?
Radhika Vaz (RV): I started performing improvised comedy in 2002. So, I suppose that is when I started to give it a thought. But I wanted to act, not do comedy. I sort of fell in to stand-up, more because I thought it would be easier to write and perform a one-person show rather than a group show – the latter being harder to organize.
MG: Share the experience of your first ever show.
RV: It was an improv show, sometime in 2003. It was a very large, posh theatre in Union Square – somewhere; larger and posh-er than anything I had seen, let alone, performed in. I just recall being so frightened that I was useless for my cast mates for most of the evening.
MG: You tend to remind one of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, especially in the effortlessly honest way you talk about “pussy-farts” and “sagging vaginas”. To put it in Ensler’s words, are you “worried” about — “what we think about vagina-s and we don’t think about them”?
RV: I think women have been shamed into hiding everything. We cannot even talk about our period in peace. We can’t go out and buy sanitary pads without a little embarrassment and this is worrying. We should talk about this a lot more and educate young women in such a way that they are not ashamed of their bodies.
MG: You made headlines when you decided to go naked to drive home a point – the importance of telling the “fashion police” to “fuck off” – as part of an ad campaign for FabAlley. Tell us a little more about how the idea was conceived and what prompted you to take, what is considered in popular discourse, a “bold” step?
RV: The idea was based on my personal experience of rarely being confident when having to dress for any remotely public event. I grapple with insecurities about my body and face, all the damn time, and I know it is exhausting. So, I just keep trying to find ways to put some of it behind me. I did not think that it was bold. Bold is someone dealing with serious adversity and standing up to that. I hope I am standing up to something, but there are bigger people! I am definitely amused by people’s reactions and by that I mean the one who hated it and thought I was “going too far”. Whatever. I thought it was funny.
MG: Having said that, how do you come to terms with the fact that FabAlley is an e-commerce website housing fashion products?
RV: People need to know that this was a job for me. A good job that paid well and somewhat on time. Haha. And creatively, I was clearly not given any boundaries! All I could do was express to girls to just do their thing as much as possible, in every area of their lives.
MG: How do you think the audience reacts when a female comedian talks about everything ranging from her sexuality to ‘Unladylike’ things onstage in terms of actually taking the lesson back home?
RV: I have no idea! I hope that I make some impression on them, I hope they think about things after they leave – but you may need to ask the audience this question.
MG: Why do you think there aren’t enough female comedians as much as male ones on the scene?
RV: Women are taught to be quiet and not make a scene. Keep our vaginas shut, so to speak. Comedy is the opposite of that – it is about pushing boundaries, getting a reaction and making a big bloody scene. That is why fewer women want to be part of it. It is not a sexy, feminine profession.
MG: One of your recent tweets read — “I LOL @ rape jokes bcuz it’s the 1 time I can LOL @ rape. Whats wrong with smthg that makes me feel bigger badder & for a moment less afraid.” What is your stand on the entire argument of such jokes contributing to rape culture?
RV: It is ridiculous to think that a joke, a song, or an item number makes someone rape. If anyone cared to read about the psychology of a rapist, or looked deeply enough in to why a patriarchal country like ours has this culture of rape, we would realize that a joke isn’t what causes it.
MG: Talking about sexist jokes, recently comedian Abish Mathew was shown the “middle finger” (ironically enough) and called a – sexist pig at the National Law University in Delhi. How does one balance issues of free speech and women’s rights on the same platter?
RV: It’s a tough one. That said free speech cannot come with caveats. Like I have already mentioned in my column – ‘Read It and Weep’ for the TOI, as a comedian, I have a very hard time reconciling my views on Freedom of Expression with my views on women’s rights. I am irritated by stupid sexist jokes sure, but I am even more agitated every time I hear the words ‘Santa and Banta’. To me, these unoriginal, old timey PJs are more offensive than Abish’s one about Malayali men beating their wives. In my opinion, he cleverly covered domestic violence without clubbing it over the head (oops). But that’s me, it’s how my mind works, I happen to like the very funny Carl Muller who writes about both paedophilia and incest in his many books about close-knit families. He makes an untouchable issue accessible because he uses humour to deal with it. Is Muller glorifying paedophiles and incestuous creeps? Should he stop writing? When it comes to any message – comedic or not – I think intent rather than content is what we think people need to consider. You all know that the only comedians allowed to make racist jokes about the Black community are Black comics. It’s an unofficial privilege borne of the inequalities their community had to historically deal with. And so to even things out, I propose that henceforth, only women comics be allowed to make women jokes because when it comes to discrimination, the truth is women have always been the new black even when black was the old black.
MG: The Feme-Funny Show came with the cautionary note—“Radhika Vaz performs with the best cunts in the business. If this offends you please do not come to the show, you are weak and for realz will not be able to handle it.” How tricky it is for a comedian to draw the fine line between satire and offensive material? Have you ever committed the “offense” of offending?
RV: It is very difficult especially because it is not something we can always foresee — what will or won’t cause offense. The best I can do is to make sure that I feel the joke is valid in the context of what I am talking about. But sometimes I even have to let that go because a joke is a joke and people have to learn to be okay with that. I had a man try and get the trustees of an auditorium I was scheduled to perform at, to cancel a show because he had seen it and thought it was offensive. What was irritating was that the trustees actually got worried and wanted to see my script. They should have told him to shove off. It wasn’t his business. You don’t like something? Leave…do not spoil it for other people.
MG: Comments on the cancellation of the Seinfeld show and the “conspiracy theories”?
RV: I think it sucks that the show was cancelled. I have no clue as to why or if this was a conspiracy and I don’t care – I just think it speaks very poorly of India that we are incapable of hosting international events without some idiots and their red-tape getting in the mix.
MG: Finally, among the new kids on the scene, who are the ones that feature on your list of favourites?
RV: All of them! I just want more women in the scene. Where are the ladies?
[alert type=white ]
What does your workspace look like?
What do you do when you hit the writer’s block?
And where do you find that mythical muse?
From the women around me.
Tell us something about you that most people don’t know.
Aha – that’s for my next show.
What are you reading right now?
Just finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Very funny read.
Tea or coffee? Early bird or creature of the night? Road trip or flying?
Coffee. Early Bird. Depends on the company.
What is something you know you need to stop doing?
Smoking and watching bad TV.
What are your pet peeves?
People who are late and act like it is cool.
What aspiring stand-up comedians must not do?
Write to please an audience. You never know what they are thinking anyway so just write to please yourself.
Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans in a mosh pit?
If not stand-up, then what would be doing right now?
Wow – I have no idea. A job of some sort…probably something I wouldn’t even be very good at.
What is worse than a Brazilian bikini wax?
A Vaginoplasty. Have not tried it but it sounds awful.
A stand-up comedian you would want to swap your life with?
James Bond. [/alert]