Why you should care

Because performing stand-up comedy is scary for everyone — especially when you’re one of India’s few female comedians. 

Laughter. It can be the contagious sound of happiness or deep-bellied, raucous fun. But for 26-year-old stand-up artist Aditi Mittal, comedy means so much more. As one of the few female comedians in India, it’s a political statement, her way of retooling the vocabulary used to talk about women in her country.

“Will you promise not to call me a woman stand-up comic in your article, please?”

“Umm … no. But why? That is who you are…”

“It’s strange how the men in any profession are just professionals, but the women are women CEOs, women pilots, women astronauts. I’m a professional doing a job. When I wave a sanitary napkin in front of a crowd and make a joke, it is humor that about 50 percent of the world’s population should relate to. And yet, it’s a f**king genre. Will someone please explain why? If I was a Russian spy, that would be a genre, because not too many people know what it’s like to be a trained killer. But calling women’s humor my speciality … that’s just pathetic, you know?”

Point made. There’s definitely something wrong with the “female humor” narrative, and as Aditi pursues her mission to set the record straight, her comedy philosophy continues to be a work in progress. Four years ago, when she signed up for her first open-mic night, she had plenty of time, no job and her dad’s belief that she was the funniest person on the planet. With nothing to lose, she took the stage and cracked many seriously funny and some not-so-funny jokes.

“In so many ways, comedy for me is a happy accident,” she says. “I was lucky to be born in a family where no one told me that women can’t ‘do’ or ‘get’ humor. I guess when there’s no one around to tell you that you can’t drive, the thought of being scared of going behind the wheel doesn’t occur to you. You turn the ignition and you’re on your way.”

We belong to a culture where a pack of sanitary napkins is first wrapped in newspaper and then put in a black plastic bag before surreptitiously being handed to a woman.

— Aditi Mittal

Aditi’s “way,” as she calls it, has led her to clubs in the U.K., Los Angeles and Mumbai and appearances on BBC World, BBC America, BBC Asia and in Stand-Up Planet, an American documentary about the best humor to be found in the developing world.

In 2013, Aditi collected her experiences and anecdotes from the past three years and wrote her first solo show, the aptly titled Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say.

“The show is quite literally about all the things that women in India aren’t allowed to say,” she says. “We belong to a culture where a pack of sanitary napkins is first wrapped in newspaper and then put in a black plastic bag before surreptitiously being handed to a woman. As if it wasn’t a harmless pad but a carrier for radioactive waste! God forbid that the menfolk start seeing us living, breathing creatures whose bodies perform functions other than ‘shaking that booty’ and ‘pushing up that rack.’ ”

When you say things that you shouldn’t, the fallout can be nerve-wracking. “Hell, yeah,” attests Aditi. “I remember a show where this one asshole at the back thought it would be a good idea to keep screaming, ‘Suck it!’ and ‘Lick it!’ The good thing is that after a while, you develop a thick hide and give it right back. The Internet, though, is way more vicious. They’ll say the most dehumanizing, demeaning things because they can get away with it.”

So what does she do about it? Complain? No, much better.

“You just put it all in your script and hope that someone, somewhere realizes what’s screwed up in the way women are being spoken at. And you hope that just because you didn’t give up, you made it just a little bit easier for all the others that come after you.”

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