Zarna Garg’s New Stand-Up Special Is a Family Affair

zarna garg one in a billion
Her Stand-Up Special Is a Family AffairMandar Parab

When Zarna Garg’s three children pushed her to consider a career in comedy, the former lawyer had been a stay-at-home mom for 16 years. As an immigrant from Mumbai, India, Garg wasn’t even convinced that stand-up could be a real job, but her first gig at a New York City open mic in 2018 set her on a new trajectory. “I just started ranting about my family and my kids, and people were dying [from laughter], and I couldn’t understand what was happening,” Garg recalls. “I had to go home and Google what is a joke? because I didn’t even know that.”

A few short years and a pandemic later, Garg has channeled her innate comedic chops into a massive TikTok presence (705K followers) and sold out shows at clubs across North America. Branding herself on social media as the Funny Brown Mom, she posts videos often from her kitchen, frequently while cutting up pineapple, and usually while telling her kids no when they ask her permission to do something fun.

With her debut hour-long special One in a Billion premiering on Prime Video on May 16, Garg is poised to win over a wider audience with her sidesplitting observations on everything from arranged marriage to hot yoga to bubble baths. (“In India, you get water in bucket. There’s buckets in America too, but they’re filled with fried chicken.”) caught up with Garg during her tour stop in Tucson, as she reflected on the business of comedy and what it took to reach this career milestone.

A lot of your stand-up encompasses your everyday life and family dynamics. How did you originally test the waters for talking about your husband and kids onstage?

It was very natural. I guess no one in my family expected my career to be what it has become. We all thought I’d do a few open mics and then that would be it. Instead, each thing just became a bigger thing and a bigger thing, and it just kept growing. … I realized, Oh, if I say funny things about my husband, it is making 10,000 other women feel like that’s their life. So knowing what it became, my whole family was on board. And also, I mean, I supported them unquestionably for 16 years, so they owed me.

zarna garg at the comedy cellar
Garg at New York City’s Comedy CellarCourtesy of Zarna Garg

Some of your material leans into stereotypes of Indian parents being strict and raising kids to be overachievers. But your own story breaks from a traditional path. How do those contradictions play out in your life?

People do ask me, how can I be so strict and old-fashioned about my kids when I myself am a comedian? I'll be honest with you. In an ideal world, I would be a software engineer. In my head, I should have been that Google billionaire. But I’m not. Destiny had a different path for me. And I think that these contradictions are a reason that my audience resonates with me so much. We’ve all thought we were going to do something, but it ended up another way … or our parents had one dream, we had another dream, and it was a messy road to get wherever we got.

When you were starting this new career, did you have any specific heroes?

I come from a world where we don’t really consume stand-up comedy. Of course I watched Russell Peters growing up, but I never imagined that I would be somebody who could do that. I had never stepped foot in a comedy club before. And that’s true for a lot of Indians today. My audiences are overwhelmingly people who have never stepped foot in a comedy club.

So I watched all the big comedy specials out of curiosity, to see what were people joking about. Then I started watching more female comics. I loved Ellen DeGeneres’s stand-up set. I knew her as a talk show host. I never knew she was a stand-up comic. I looked up Roseanne Barr’s late-night set. And once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s endless. Hasan Minhaj’s first comedy special. Then things started falling into place in my mind about where I could fit in.

garg and her family in one in a billion
Garg and her family in One in a BillionMandar Parab

You start off your stand-up special talking about the immigrant experience. You left India as a teenager to avoid an arranged marriage that your widowed father had set up. What were some of your first impressions of America as a new arrival?

I moved to Akron, Ohio. My sister lives there even now. I thought it was a very calm and quiet place, because I was coming from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. Everybody was super kind, super warm. Warm as people, but cold as a place to visit.

But my overall impressions were nothing but amazing. And that’s part of why every show I do, it’s my desire to make American people feel good about themselves, to remind them why people like me come here. The American psyche has taken such a hit in the last decade or so. There’s a lot of “We suck. We don’t do this right, we don’t do that right.”

No one’s perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. But speaking as somebody who lived in much harsher environments, I feel like I’m in a position to remind Americans how great they are. Something so special about being in America is you can get up onstage and be critical of anybody and anything, and that’s okay.

zarna garg
rashmi gill

How did you manage to go from New York City open mics and clubs to touring as a headliner and then taping a special in just a few years?

I came into comedy with complete clarity that I’m doing this as a business. I was looking to reenter the workforce at a time when I feel like women have been most beaten down by the pandemic, especially the moms. It’s like the pandemic gave me a renewed sense of “I have to fight this fight,” because so many of my mom friends got thrown out of whatever jobs they were doing. Even many of my doctor mom friends got crushed out of work.

I was like, “If the audience does not like me, I accept it and I will move on.” And to be honest, I wouldn’t have had the luxury. What club was going to book me if I wasn’t killing consistently? No one is out there looking for a 48-year-old mom, Indian with an accent. I knew that I would have to prove myself at multiple levels higher than the average comic just to even stay in the game. But I was okay with that high bar. It showed that there was room for a real business.

If you have a very strong set and you are able to answer a few questions—Who is the audience? How are you going to tap into that audience?—you have the case to either go to a streaming service or go to a producer who is familiar with how streaming services work. In my case, I didn’t go to them. They found me, because they heard the buzz. If every club I book is reporting sold-out shows and added shows, they sit up and they take note.

Now that you are selling out shows across North America, what are some memorable moments you’ve had with fans?

I’ll tell you one moment. At an Indian wedding where I was hired to perform, a whole lineup of elderly Indian people were waiting to meet me after my set. A few of them had tears in their eyes and said, “We have lived in America 50, 60 years, and we have laughed at things we don’t understand. For the first time, we enjoyed something that we completely understood, and thank you for bringing this world to our world.”

That night, I really went home and wept because I didn’t go into any of this thinking that I’m doing something big. I really didn’t. I was just trying to find a job and put something good out there. I did lots of free first-responder shows during the pandemic, because I would get messages from doctors, nurses, like, “We just need something to lighten up our day,” and I would go and do a show, wear a mask, whatever it took.

zarna garg
rashmi gill

I’ve held hands with people whose relatives have told me, “This person’s not going to make it much longer, but we want them to smile today.” That’s the heavy part of what I do. It’s a reminder to me that I have a bigger purpose than just making jokes. I take it very seriously.

What are you most proud of about this special, which is bringing your stand-up act to a global audience?

What I’m doing is so unheard of for brown women everywhere in the world. There are entire countries where women don’t watch my videos openly. They watch them in hiding. Because, culturally, a woman who’s going to make fun of her husband, her kids, her mother-in-law—it’s not okay in that culture. With this special, I’m trying to break a lot of barriers, not just in America. It’s not just about getting the word out and getting eyeballs. It’s about making millions of women in the world believe that they have a right to laugh at their life, that it is okay for them to participate in this art form. They’re not committing a crime.

You bring your family onstage at the end of the special, which is so unique. Talk about that decision and what went into filming it.

In addition to my stand-up career is my digital career—my TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter accounts where I do a lot of home videos. My kids and my husband are participants. So it only felt fitting that if I’m going to talk about them for an hour, and you guys may know them from all these other platforms, that they should be a part of this moment in the special. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, and without them I wouldn’t have the stories and the jokes that I have. And honestly, they’re a good-looking bunch, wouldn’t you say?

Absolutely. Were you picking your kids’ clothes when you were getting ready for the taping?

Honestly, I was so crazed that I didn’t. I put my husband in charge, and then the day of, I was like, “Oh my God. Not a green shirt.” My husband was in shock. He’s like, “There’s a lot involved in picking kids’ clothes!” I said, “Yes! Yes, sir. Thank you for getting involved for the first time in two decades.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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