“Sikh Stand-up Comic” in Newsweek

narinder singh gotham.jpg
After my post last week on Hari Kondabolu’s “Manoj,” it seems fitting to discuss an actual stand-up comic who walks the delicate line between what we might call “self-deprecating good fun” and outright self-hatred, Narinder Singh (thanks, Colleen). Narinder Singh has three YouTube videos up: here, here, and here (as “Sikh Stand-up Comic”). I don’t love the videos — seems like he’s trying too hard — though admittedly the sound quality on them makes it hard to understand what he’s saying at times.

But Narinder’s “My Turn” essay in this week’s Newsweek is much more to my taste. The key section for me was this:

“A lot of people ask me why I wear a turban,” goes one of my jokes. “I tell them it’s because it contracepts my vices. But you know what, turbans are great contraceptives . . . I haven’t had sex in five years!”

I became more ambitious. I now wanted to show the entire audience that Indians, Muslims or brown people in general were affable and moderate. Because I received my first couple of threats from Sikhs, I had to convince myself that my fellow Sikhs were in fact also moderate. But it felt strangely exciting reading the verbal barbs posted on my first YouTube clip: I was having an impact.

I e-mailed some of the overzealous Sikhs and told them that I was making fun of prejudice against those who wear turbans, not the turban itself, which seemed even more sacred now. After 9/11, many Sikhs had cut their hair and stopped wearing turbans. The menacing looks and discrimination were too much. Our visible identity in numbers was dwindling in both America and India. Bollywood films had reduced Sikhs to fools and caricatures. In America we were being taken too seriously; in India, not enough. It sometimes made me feel compelled to conform and fit in, too. (link)

Seeing Narinder Singh say this makes me appreciate his approach to comedy more, in spirit if not in the actual performances I’ve seen. For one thing, though the reasons were different I too received my share of hate mail around the time I was first blogging at SM, (including an outright threat, from a fellow Sikh). I sympathize partly because I think the temptation is strong to “make an impact” and get attention with edgy statements — every writer, blogger, or comedian just starting out knows this — even if it offends some people and loses you some friends.

Still, I’m not sure he’s quite there yet in his actual comedy routine. What do people think?

To end on a positive note, Narinder Singh’s final quip might well be the funniest line he’s written:

Still, I completely understood my fellow Sikhs’ sensitivity and their fear of being marginalized further. I really didn’t mind the death threats and the heckling, as long as I continued not having sex.

24 thoughts on ““Sikh Stand-up Comic” in Newsweek

  1. I like him. Sure, he’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s because he hasn’t been performing a long time. Give him a few years and he’ll be fine.

  2. I know Narinder personally (not too well, more on an acquaintance-level, and he can really work a crowd. He’s an endearing fellow and I’m glad to see him get some well-deserved recognition!

  3. I’ve had that “self-hater” epithet hurled at me as well. Some people seem to think that you can’t lampoon hypocrisy in your own community without giving “white people” more fodder to use against us. Whatever.

  4. I’ve known Narinder since before he thought of giving comedy a try and he’s rough around the edges because it takes so much to get up there and be funny and hope people will laugh and hopefully with you and not at you. He’s much more natural in person and I think time will definitely make him good at this art while he still maintains his dayjob :-)

  5. He’s not even close to good…but I’m glad he’s doing it. He has an interesting perspective. Sooner or later he’ll figure it out…or stop.

  6. I read the article too, but was frustrated when I read this:

    I wanted to show that Sikhs were not fanatical Muslims.

    The comment leans toward the splinterin “We’re not Muslims, so don’t worry” attitude, unfortunately.

  7. 8 · tamasha said

    I read the article too, but was frustrated when I read this:
    I wanted to show that Sikhs were not fanatical Muslims.
    The comment leans toward the splinterin “We’re not Muslims, so don’t worry” attitude, unfortunately.

    I dont think so…..he did not say Sikhs are not ‘muslims’, only that Sikhs are not ‘fanatical muslims’.

    In the same article he goes on to say, “I became more ambitious. I now wanted to show the entire audience that Indians, Muslims or brown people in general were affable and moderate”.Most of the Sikh awareness groups that I am aware of have never resorted to’Sikhs are not Muslims so spare us’ in their campaigns against hate crimes. They have continued to fight prejudices based on religion in general and an average American’s ignorance of Sikhs and Sikhism in particular.

    His material wasnt laughed-so-much-that-my-tummy-hurt funny but still pretty darn good (and actually much better than most of the other desi born stand-ups that I have been subjected to).I can understand the ‘rough around the edges part’ that other have mentioned.

  8. Wow, this guy reaallly sucks.

    Aziz Ansari and Hari Kondabolu (sp?) need to get more love/press. This dude just needs to stick to his day job.

  9. One thing that is slightly jarring though, stand-up by nature is an irreverential and out-of-the-box perspective on things.Not to say that many stand-up comedians dont believe in issues ,principles or activism.They however tend to use their medium secondarily to get some of their personal opinion across.

    None of them takes up stand-up specifically ,primarily as a tool of activism.Primary purpose of stand-up(or any other)comedy should be….just that,comedy…laughs.

    Narinder writes ,

    “I began doing stand-up to educate my fellow Americans about my religion.”

    I wish Narinder would have had to try stand up because he wanted to make people laugh(with the education agenda as maybe an odd-on).It think its inherently sad that someone should have to take up comedy to educate someone about something as serious as religious intolerance.Nothing against the guy,just the circumstances.I actually salute the guy for his attitude and self-assuredness.

  10. 1) The truth is that jokes like “bad turban day” is not going to appeal to the Indian community, or not even his entire routine for that matter. I had mixed feelings. Why? Because as it is said, Narinder writes and performs primarily for the non Indian community. Know your audience. Just imagine a white person listening to the idea of having a bad turban day, when he/she has seen the turban as a symbol of hatred thru Osama’s videos. How is that person going to react? Well, you don’t have to imagine. The reaction is apparent in the youtube clips.

    2) The article does one thing very well. It portrays the Sikhs in a vey positive light. By reading about Narinder’s struggle, it humanizes Sikhs by showing their frailty and their resiliency. The last line, in particular, shows how he handles both the Sikhs and nonSikhs in a self-effacing manner. Maybe this is the heart of comedy or a comic. It doesn’t matter how he started. We are all works in progress. Everything evolves. Everything changes.

  11. I think it’s limited to say that backlash towards Narinder is because he’s a hypocrite, etc., etc. I think it has more to do with community expectations/requirements of behavior (is he really talking about getting laid vis-a-vis the turban? Kind of inappropriate), and the other issue is that he’s not that funny. I think if the humor were more sophisticated or clever, then there’d be a market. Part of why he hasn’t taken off is because there’s a high degree of uncomfortability re: whether or not he’s actually on point or entertaining. We talked about this last week at TLH, but I think it cuts against the image that Sikhs are asked to present to the world (and amongst themselves) when someone wearing a dastar is making crass comments and jokes that toe or cross the line of what’s considered acceptable behavior in religious practice.

  12. Narinder, hope you’ve developed a thick skin. People can be harsh — especially those who’ve never stepped on a stage. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.

  13. 14 · Camille said

    I think it cuts against the image that Sikhs are asked to present to the world (and amongst themselves) when someone wearing a dastar is making crass comments and jokes that toe or cross the line of what’s considered acceptable behavior in religious practice.

    I disagree. As Che Guevara said, the role of the guerilla is to liberate the public’s revolutionary imagination, to pave the way for more substantial change. Also, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

    If I understand Narinder’s stated goals correctly, then his indirect approach and mine are not that different (except that my medium is fiction.) In case you haven’t noticed, most of America doesn’t even know who Sikhs are. So Narinder can use his comic persona (not to be confused with the “real” Narinder) and I can use my characters (flawed, all-too-human beings, not to be confused with the “real” me) to call attention to Sikh’s existence and concerns. That clears the way for scholars and more serious types to step in and raise the level of discourse.

    That said, I agree with nfa. Nothing funny about straight propaganda.

  14. think it has more to do with community expectations/requirements of behavior (is he really talking about getting laid vis-a-vis the turban? Kind of inappropriate),

    You might as well have added that you empathize with the anger of those who sent Narinder the death threats. This sort of thinking is the font for fanatical actions like book burnings and killings. What is acceptable and what isn’t? Where do you draw the line? I have seen this often: smart, educated minorities are all for freedom of speech except for when the speech is related to their own communities. I don’t recall enough, but weren’t similar sentiments expressed on the Dera Sachha Sauda thread, by otherwise reasonable commenters? I mean you all will say, oh violence is bad but then in the same breath disapprove of the freedom of someone’s speech. It’s not that these guys were going around abusing Sikh Gurus.

  15. 14 · Camille said

    (is he really talking about getting laid vis-a-vis the turban? Kind of inappropriate)

    When people used to ask my cousin Mintoo why he wore a turban he’d answer that it was to tie up girls with, and my man did NOT have the “contraceptive” problems Narinder complains of. In Texas. In junior high.

  16. Harbeer, I understand Narinder’s intent. I don’t have strong feelings around whether he’s “good or bad” for introducing the American public to Sikhs; I just think he’s not particularly funny. Whatevs, he’s young and working on it. :)

    Bada Bing, way to hyperbolize a rational comment in an attempt to derail the underlying argument. Using your logic, you only believe in “free speech” when it serves to undermine, ridicule, or slander a community group.

    Last time I checked, disagreement was part of the free speech process. A person can say whatever they want, but free speech also invokes great responsibility. A person shouldn’t have to worry about death threats or censorship, but you shouldn’t be surprised if there is critique, dissent, or argument, or if your views are decried. Free speech is about an exchange of ideas, not about wholesale acceptance of all viewpoints as equal or equivalent. You could come around and tell me the sky is green; if it’s blue to me, I’m not going to agree with you, nor do I have to give you much merit for your comment. That doesn’t make either of us wrong or right, it’s just part of the process.

  17. he’s all right in my books. i don’t know him, but i have read some of his other writing, which is more spiritually oriented, and also some of his creative writing, and he is firmly placed in exploring what it means to be a sikh, and humanizing the sikh experience to the rest of the world. i think his comedy is another exploration of this impulse, and i salute him for challenging the need to compartmentalize his sikh identity within a sacred box. definitely he can’t say these things in a gurdwara, but i bet, from his own personal experience saying these things which run in his head frees him to say more what is interesting, what is tragic, and what is comical in his life experience. that’s great.

    his comedy is alright, i definitely don’t laugh my head off, but that’s because i’m sensitive to appropriation of and misinterpretation of sikh symbols. but that’s my oversensitivity from being sikh and seeing firsthand the negative repurcussions of misunderstanding on the sikh body, both individual and community. still, i don’t feel threatened by his use of inappropriateness because he wears a turban and keeps his beard, so i know he is committed on a personal level and not about destruction of what is dear. if it were otherwise, i would interpret his message as self-hate/rejection. also, the space where he says these inappropriate things is a space of irreverence, so i feel like that is part and parcel of his craft. i look forward to seeing more of his comedy! keep at it narinder singh!

    and i’ll give him this too. he’s cute.

  18. re: symbols. i used the term because it was the most convenient and easiest for a quick comment. i know. thanks.

    next time i will go on a rant about “existential physical commitment” to one’s “internal placement of worldview towards the divine.” ;)

  19. 14 · Camille said

    he’s not that funny

    you nearly always hit the nail squarely on the head–i’ve heard from other quarters, notably ta-nehisi coates, that the worries over creating humor with a minority as the subject isn’t nearly as challenging as some think (and the absolute requirement is that it be funny–if anything, that’s why this guy may fail).