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Welcome to America, You're Cancelled: Indian Comedian Has the Last Laugh
Surbhi on being brown and problematic, and what she won't say on stage
I first met Surbhi (below she explains why she has no last name) in 2016 when she snuck into a private screening of a film I directed called Can We Take a Joke?
The event took place at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and the post-screening panel discussion included my wife (who produced the film) and me, as well as an ACLU attorney, Greg Lukianoff (president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), and two high-level comedians—Karith Foster and the late, great comedy legend Gilbert Gottfried.
The audience of 400 journalists, think tankers and comedy fans had already done quite a bit of laughing when a tiny Indian college student approached the mic during the Q&A period.
Surbhi scored some of the biggest laughs of the night as she talked about her experience as a fresh-off-the-boat (her term) immigrant who came to the land of the free for college and promptly got cancelled.
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My wife and I have been friends with Surbhi ever since.
Surbhi went on to graduate from college with a degree in computer science. But, much to her family’s horror, her true passion isn’t coding, but comedy.
You can also catch her on Instagram, and on the popular podcast First World Problematic, which she co-hosts along with fellow standup comedians Wyatt Feegrado (HULU's Better Days & Amazon Prime's De-Assimilate) and Vishal Kal (Netflix's Indian Matchmaking & NBC's Celebrity Dating Game).
Surbhi, my wife, and I are now working together to bring Surbhi’s life story to the stage and screen.
Below Surbhi and I discuss the four words that got her cancelled, what she won’t say on stage, and what it’s like to be a young standup comedian in an age of self censorship and nonstop culture warring.
TED BALAKER: Tell me about what you thought American college was going to be like and then what it turned out to be.
SURBHI: When I came to America for college I thought there would be this open expression and debate culture, and that it would be a lot better than it was in India where everybody would be like, “Oh, shut up. You're a girl. Nobody cares.”
I thought it would be this environment where you can have real conversations, and it felt like it was more closed off than in India.
And I used to think I was liberal, but whenever I questioned anything, I was told by liberals, “Oh, you're extremely Republican. You're the filth of the world.”
And they were just getting really rude really fast to the point that I was so disillusioned by everybody around me.
And eventually you got cancelled. Why were you canceled?
I just spoke up for a male friend who was wrongly accused of raping somebody. I wrote four words, “regret is not rape,” on a whiteboard in a common area.
And people did not want to hear it. They were just like, “Oh, you're dismissing every woman who has ever been assaulted.”
How did your life change?
So it started with a couple of girls. I used to work at the library and these girls showed up at the library where I was working and they were crying and they started screaming at me and they were like, “Oh, so you're telling me that I don't deserve to exist,” and I was like, “I have no idea what you're talking about.” And they made this big scene at my work.
And then I went back to my dorm and like, the next day when I had gone to the bathroom to shower, somebody broke into my dorm and vandalized things, broke things, and broke my phone. And they peed outside my door.
Just normal situations like sitting in the dining hall—people that I knew would not want to sit with me publicly, even if they were friends with me. And that entire semester, nobody would talk to me. I was extremely alone.
Was this an instance of a group of mostly white people policing a brown student?
Yes, pretty much.
And it’s ironic that you were smeared as someone who doesn’t take sexual assault seriously because that issue was a constant weight on you growing up in New Delhi.
Being a girl can make you very vulnerable, especially if you're traveling alone in the evening. There's a ton of safety concerns. New Delhi is the rape capital of the world.
There's a lot of unreported sexual assaults, there's a ton of stigma attached. If you are assaulted, and you speak up against it, you're gonna have difficulty getting married. You're gonna have difficulty getting a job. And a lot of that has changed and is changing in better ways. Slowly.
Why don’t you have a last name?
Yeah, so basically, my parents were just like, “When you get married, you can get your husband's last name because you're just, you know, a visitor in our home and right now, like, it doesn't make sense for us to give you our last name when you have to change it anyway, because it's technically not yours. Your husband's last name is, that's your real family. And that's your real house.”
Now you're a young comic in New York and you perform all over the country. Tell me about your ability to speak freely on stage. Is it good, bad, somewhere in the middle?
I would say it is goodish.
Yeah, I think just like I used to perform in LA before the pandemic and I felt like there was a lot of hesitancy from the audience for controversial topics.
There were a lot of my jokes that did not work then that work now, and I don't know if it's LA versus New York, if it's like pandemic-post pandemic, people who don't care all that much or like if Trump is not President and like people are a little bit less on edge, but I do feel like it's easier to make certain jokes.
And I think maybe it's part because of my race and gender that I'm lucky that I'm brown and female and able to get away with more stuff than other comics because I do feel like the topics that I touch, I don't see white comedians touching.
What are the topics comedians are most likely to avoid?
Sexuality. If you're, you know, like a straight person, you're avoiding, like making jokes about gay people, lesbians—actually, people make jokes about lesbians all the time. Gay people, they avoid. That I find very interesting.
Trans people. That's a no no. Nobody makes jokes about trans people. I think that I barely heard any and I think just the audience too, is hesitant to laugh at trans jokes.
I speak a lot about immigration. I talk about, you know, undocumented people, and I have a joke about how, “Give me a green card and then close the borders.”
I can make that joke, but I don't think comedians touch on that.
I talk about being a woman. I talk about my race, like I make jokes of “IT guys" or like Indian call center people. I use the accent, but nobody can use it outside of my race, unfortunately right now, like they will just get booed off the stage.
Even Gabriel Iglesias, he did an Indian accent and he got in a lot of trouble for doing that.
Do you think people who aren't Indian should be able to do Indian accents?
Yeah. I don't have that accent and I'm making fun of somebody who has that accent. So if I'm able to do that, like I'm not South Indian, I don't have that accent.
How do racial politics work on stage?
I think there's like this sort of oppression Olympics going on. There's a hierarchy. You cannot make jokes about any race that's darker than you.
I would just never address certain topics like anti-Semitism or Islam. I don't even touch those topics with a 10 foot pole because I know that, you know, it's very difficult to pull it off in this climate.
And I think that's where, like, comedians are—they just avoid the topic. Or if they do it, they are very careful. So I wouldn't say that people are getting booed off the stage more, but people are also, you know, doing risky stuff less.
Ricky Gervais had some quote that I'm not going to remember perfectly but he said something like, “You can tell a joke about X, but it doesn't mean you're anti X. You might even be pro X.”
Is there a difference between mentioning a topic and being against people from that category? Do you know what I'm saying?
Yeah, I think that's pretty much what the crux of comedy is.
Comedy is this extremely effective tool to have difficult conversations. And so like by telling a joke, you’re diffusing that tension.
If you go back all the way back to you know, Lenny Bruce, he would make jokes about Christianity. He would make jokes about the government, to bring those difficult topics to light and not be like, “Oh, I want an anarchist society, down with the government, down with Christianity.”
It's very much that you are opening the door for this uncomfortable conversation to be had. And not that you are against it. If you look at a very left event, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, they're joking about Biden's age.
They're discussing failures of the administration. That doesn't mean that they're against it. They're all liberals, and they're all making fun of Biden, and like, nobody's gonna be like, “Oh my God, they hate Biden or they're not leftist because they're complaining about the left.”
But the second it becomes about a race or a sexuality or a gender, then you don't have that nuance. It's like oh, “You’re a TERF, you’re a Nazi!”
So I think that nuance is lost with the certain protected classes, which is wrong because there's no other way to broach that conversation.
And if you look at earlier comedy, a lot of what it did was talk about different races and that has helped reduce racism has helped normalize, you know, interracial marriages, gay people.
I think that the power of conversation, of free speech, is we can just have a conversation and try to figure out, like, what the issue is and not just be angry at somebody or cancel somebody.
Especially with stand up—if there's a whole room that's laughing and you're not laughing, you just didn't like the joke and you probably didn't get it.
And it's not that this person was targeting a certain race and everybody in that audience is racist except for you, who fell from like heaven with your angel wings to protect this class who, if they heard the joke, wouldn't even care.
Tell me about your coconspirator Wyatt and the big gig he lost because of your problematic podcast.
So Wyatt Feegrado is a very established comedian. I co-host his podcast, First World Problematic with him. He did a world tour, where he did Europe and then he did like California and East Coast over last year.
He had a comedy special come out on Amazon Prime, and he's like 20 years old. He's the most accomplished person I know of that age, after Kylie Jenner and her two kids.
But he pushes a lot of buttons. His full time job is acting. He does a lot of commercials and he was booked on a commercial for a really prestigious company. And he was going to be paid $11,000 a day for that job and he was very happy for it.
But then they ran a background check and he failed. Wyatt asked them to send details of the background check to him.
And it basically had a lot of our podcast underlined. It said, “Wyatt and co host say X-word 20 times.”
Or they joke about doing meth. And that nuance goes away because we were joking about doing meth. We were not doing meth.
People make jokes. That’s the point of a funny podcast.
We also have a reel about negro spirituals, and the word “negro” was highlighted. And he has a joke about segregation. So the joke is, “You know, white people shoot up schools. So we should resegregate schools to protect the kids of other races.”
And that was pointed out, about how we should resegregate. You take out the context, you take out the humor, and of course if you're going to use that one word, it's going to be upsetting.
So he lost that job. He is probably never gonna get hired with that company ever again. But we all had a good laugh.
And it even came back to his dad.
Yeah. So he made a joke. He said, “When I was a child and a sex scene came on the screen my dad would cover my eyes so I didn’t see him masturbate.”
And his dad’s company did a wellness check on the dad. And they were like, “Is this something you actually did with your son?”
And Wyatt’s dad had to clarify that it was a joke, like all other things his comedian son says.
Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes “Little Pink House”starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn, “Can We Take a Joke?” featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a forthcoming feature documentary based on the bestselling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.