Can a Pun Champ Conquer the Comedy-Writing Scene? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Rekha Shankar is an emerging comedy-writing force who built her career on something other comedians call cheap: puns.
SourceNick Rasmussen

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because she built her career on something other comedians call cheap: puns.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • Emerging comedy writer/actor Rekha Shankar was supposed to be a doctor but ended up a pun champion.
  • Shankar is earning accolades and work on Netflix shows as she finds her voice.

Typically, the host picks the category, but as I begin my interview with Rekha Shankar, I’m feeling generous and I let her choose: election, bowel movement or cheese?

“I know you don’t know me super well, but I’m going to pick bowel movement,” the comedian and pun champion replies. Within 30 seconds, she’s off.

“I’m going to go fast and loose on that category,” she begins, followed by, “When you see how I leave others in the dust, you’re going to say, I wrecked ’em.” She ends with: “I really am happy I got to take a crack at this category because I know some people find me cheeky, but I really think I’m getting to the bottom of it.”

Are you laughing? Groaning? A little bit of both? That’s the goal for the first woman of color to have ever won the Punderdome 3000 — a live Brooklyn-based pun-off competition that’s been running since 2011. In fact, Shankar has won the white male–dominated event 20 out of the 25 times she’s participated, twice competing internationally.

And now Shankar, a 30-year-old native of the Philadelphia suburbs, is emerging as a comedy writer and actor with a repertoire beyond poop jokes. She’s racking up credits, from Netflix’s Magic for Humans (premiering in 2021), to Kal Penn Approves This Message, to her role as an ensemble player in the upcoming Netflix sketch show Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun (premiering in late 2020). And the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal tapped Shankar in its “New Faces” showcase this summer.

But can a punning background really help her break through?

Ask any working comedian what they think of puns and you’ll get the same answer. The joke format that hinges on how well you can play around with words is considered the low-hanging fruit of the comedy world, shunned by improv teachers and not openly bragged about. “It’s a little easy, like anyone can come up with a pun; [it takes] less skill,” says Angie McMahon, a performer in Chicago who has appeared on Netflix’s baking show Nailed It. She compares puns to “hashtag games” on Twitter, adding, “Some folks would never dare consider people who frequent hashtag games as comedians. They are just quick with puns and wordplay.” Nina G, a stuttering stand-up comedian from the San Francisco Bay Area, says, “I hate puns! I call them the thinking man’s prop comedy.”

I don’t know, unfortunately, if any Indian American child is told or encouraged to be funny or do the arts.

Rekha Shankar

Nonetheless, it was one of the many springboards Shankar used to get on her comedic feet, which has been running since. Despite being laid off in January along with the majority of CollegeHumor’s staff, she’s found ample opportunity, though she downplays her success as nothing more than the “crapshooter working in her favor.” Yet it’s all part of a steady rise, including being promoted to head writer at CollegeHumor in 2017, becoming a guest writer on the Astronomy Club Netflix sketch series in 2018, then landing the role of Gaya in Between Two Ferns: The Movie in 2019.

But when I ask her where the funny comes from, she admits that it didn’t happen until much later in life. “My whole family is immigrants; I was the second person in my family born in the U.S. I’m supposed to be a doctor,” Shankar says. “I don’t know, unfortunately, if any Indian American child is told or encouraged to be funny or do the arts.”

Luckily, funny found Shankar in a combination of ways: First, a childhood best friend who taught her in fifth grade that “funny could be a personality trait.” Second, an iconic ’90s sitcom. “In high school, I got disgustingly obsessed with Seinfeld. I was taping it — there were four episodes on a day — and I would just watch them. And when the DVDs came out, that’s all I wanted,” she explains.

Shankar didn’t realize “funny” could be a full-time job until her first year as a premed student at NYU in 2007. Within two months, she knew the biology track wasn’t for her, and she decided to take advantage of the school’s film writing and editing programs, and started making videos.

Since graduating in 2011, all of Shankar’s opportunities — from joining a pun group in Brooklyn to creating, producing and directing her first film, Hustle, which was selected for the New York Television Festival in 2016 — have come by her betting on herself first. She wasn’t getting performing opportunities, so she dove into improv and puns. No one wanted to pick up her script, so she produced it herself.

Shankar’s goal now is a staff writing job on a half-hour comedy, a place where Astronomy Club, Troopers and CollegeHumor Originals director and editor Ryan Anthony Martin says is where she can truly shine. “Her voice — it really is a fun mix of witty and foolishness,” he says. “An Indian woman as head writer is clearly a boom for representation, but beyond that, I think she really wants a chance to create characters that look like her, but with real dimension.”

And it would be another giant leap for America’s overlooked punsters.

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