My Turn: You Gotta Laugh, Mate
An Indian woman in Australia tackles stand-up comedy.
By Uma Thakar
When I grew up in India, my name was no big deal. But when I arrived in Australia, every other person would say, “Uma? Like Uma Thurman?”
Well, Uma Thurman and I do share one thing: We both have big feet. But she’s about six feet tall and I’m five-foot three. When I take off my shoes, I’m half naked.
I shared this experience when I began performing stand-up comedy earlier this year. After one of my shows, an audience member came up to me and said, “An Indian woman doing stand-up comedy? That’s rare.” “You’re so brave,” someone else said – and I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment.
I love laughing and making people laugh. My Toastmasters mentor encouraged me to give stand-up a try. It’s daunting to go onstage and perform comedy: While many of the techniques used in public speaking are the same that you use in comedy since both are performances, the difference is that in comedy you have to get frequent laughs if you want your audience to stay – and if you want to be booked for another show.
It’s a tough field but I enjoy the challenge. It’s like anything you decide to do in life: If you enjoy it and are willing to take a few knockbacks in the beginning, you will succeed.
I knew that in order to grow, I needed to take some risks. So this past February, I performed at the St Kilda Laughs Festival in Port Philip, a city in Victoria. For the fun of it, I threw in a Bollywood dance during my comedy routine. Both were firsts for me: I’d never danced or performed comedy. But the audience loved it. Whew! What a relief.
Growing up in India, I studied in Catholic boarding schools, and some of my comedy material is inspired by those experiences. I was once selected for the role of a witch in a school production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (The nuns must have had something in mind for me.) Since then, I have had an avid interest in Shakespeare. Today that interest has morphed into one of my comedy shows, called “A Bollywood Shakespeare.” As an Indian woman living in Melbourne, Australia, and speaking with an Indian accent, it’s easy to make people laugh simply by being myself onstage! I also laugh at myself and don’t take myself too seriously.
One of my toughest audiences was a retirement village. I performed there – and no one laughed. I thought they were too polite to heckle me. I put my foot in it, almost literally, when I asked a lady with a walking aid if she’d like to join me in a Bollywood dance. I obviously was too intimidated by the serious faces around me to think straight.
After the performance I was chatting with the retirees. “We love your Shakespeare comedy and the Bollywood material,” one of them said. “Really?” I replied. “But how come no one laughed during the show?” “Oh, that’s just the way we are,” one older lady said. “We tend to smile inside.” Huh? I wish I had known that before the show.
I really enjoy stand-up comedy and I’m forging ahead in the field. I owe a lot to my mentors, particularly at my Toastmasters club. My mentors believed in me and gave me the courage to laugh at myself, both on stage and off. That’s the key to success in any field: Find a good mentor and follow their advice.
I now have a comedy spot on YouTube called “TheUmaHuma,” a show where I post my routines. My blog is a mix of reality and imagination called The Surreal Diary of an Indian Woman. A short piece I wrote is a typical example:
“Open up or we shoot,” the bandits shouted.
I huddled behind the flimsy school door along with the other young kids between 5 and 7. I was 5 at the time and at a Catholic boarding school in Central India, in one of the poorest states. Bandits used to rove the poverty-stricken town and the thick forests surrounding it, looking for food.
We survived some days on donations of milk powder from the USA, and the bandits would gladly exchange gunpowder for milk powder.
This is just one more surreal experience from my life that provides great material for my comedy. Like my Aussie friends say: “Whatever the situation, you gotta laugh, mate.”
Uma Thakar, CC, is a member of the Tuesday Chatters Toastmasters Club in Melbourne, Australia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.