Courtesy of Abby Govindan
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Basically, you can’t please everybody.
Abby Govindan is a 23-year-old comedian, writer, and social media personality from Houston, Texas. She spoke with Funny Or Die over Zoom to discuss her journey in comedy so far, the importance of telling diverse stories, and what it’s like navigating Twitter, comedy, and creative spaces as an Indian-American woman.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
For those who don’t know you yet, I want to get into your origin story. How did you get started with comedy? When did you start?
I got started when my boyfriend and I broke up in 2017. I was devastated; I was convinced that he was the love of my life. I had a very Marvelous Mrs. Maisel story where I took up stand-up comedy, as just a hobby to get my mind off things, but ended up doing well. I was able to go on tour in my senior year during finals week, which was stressful, but so much fun. I got to meet other people in colleges who were my age, who had faith in me, who really invested in me early on. These sets were not good. Let me tell you. But people were so nice to me about it and so supportive.
Shortly after I took up stand up, I studied abroad in Ireland. I had a friend in Ireland who had 1000 followers on Twitter and he refused to follow me back. He was like, “Your Twitter is dry. I’m not going to follow you until you prove your worth to me.” So that’s actually the reason I started using Twitter more. Then as I was leaving, literally on the airplane from Ireland back to Houston, some tweet [of mine] blew up on Irish Twitter, and overnight I got 2000 followers. Which looking back isn’t that much, but was really cool to me at the time. Later that summer in 2018, another tweet blew up and I got 10,000 followers overnight. And it’s only been upward from there!
I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities [through Twitter]. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people, including my heroes. I got to meet federal politicians, I worked as a volunteer influencer with Julian Castro who has been one of my favorite politicians since I was in high school, because I grew up in Texas.
Something you talk a lot about in your standup sets as well as on Twitter, whether it’s jokingly or seriously, is having immigrant parents and being Indian-American. What’s that like taking up space in such a white, and male, dominated industry?
Okay. I love this question. I was 20 when I started stand-up and being a young Indian woman was definitely daunting because people did not take me seriously. But it was really a power trip when I would walk into a room, everyone would see me as the youngest there, they’d really underestimate me, and then I’d end up being the funniest [comic] there. Every time I had imposter syndrome, I would just look at these men who I was performing alongside who’d been doing this for 10, 11 years who couldn’t even get one or two laughs. I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I put so much time and effort into the writing process.
Sometimes it gets frustrating, and I do fail. I have jokes that I thought would work well, that don’t. But at the end of the day, the stuff that I say on stage, I’m really proud of. I don’t feel like it’s tacky, I don’t feel like I’m throwing my identity under the bus. It’s stuff that I hope will age well. I try to be very intentional with what I do, I don’t want to ever punch down.
So it’s been daunting, but also I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities, and I think having a [large] Twitter following proves that people do have vested interest in diverse stories. People want alternative perspectives. So I’ve been proving that investing in not only me, but people whose stories you wouldn’t hear or typically see on screen is worth it. I feel like Hollywood now is more accessible than ever. It’s just been so great.
Regarding my Indian identity, that’s funny because I have a story about that from this week. I really love the Desi (South Asian) community. I wouldn’t be where I am without their support. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without them, but they really try it with me sometimes. A year ago my parents found my Narcan, which is a drug that you inject people with who are experiencing an opioid overdose. It literally saves lives. The opioid crisis disproportionately affects low income and homeless people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to Narcan, so in New York City they were giving it away for free. So, my parents found it and they automatically assumed it was for me, which is an insane assumption, because my mom is a physician and you can’t inject it into yourself.
They texted me and confronted me about it in a really funny way that sounded like a clickbait, Buzzfeed article. I shared it online, and immediately all these people, primarily South Asian kids were like, “She’s making fun of her parents’ broken English. They’re so clearly struggling with English. Her parents traveled to this country with no money. They ventured out here all on their own,” and I was like, “Why are you projecting? My parents are fluent in English. They got full scholarships to grad school in America, which is why they’re here.”
That’s another thing about being Indian [in this industry], because there’s such a lack of representation, the few people that do represent these communities have more pressure to reflect all the experiences of these communities.
And for a lot of people that is their story; their parents didn’t really know the language, they came here with little to no support system, and that’s so valid, but that was never me. My parents’ immigration is a facet of my identity, but it was never the core. I have a lot of traumas, but immigration trauma isn’t one of them.
I’ll be in meetings and I’ll pitch an Indian character just living her life, and [the people in the meeting] will be like, “Yeah, but where is she from? What is the story on how she got here?”
I feel like a lot of people do expect immigrants to have immigration trauma and also expect that to be their entire identity. I’d much rather be straight up honest about it, and be like, “I grew up privileged,” as opposed to grasping at trauma straws to make my story more palatable, or to elicit sympathy for myself, because I think that does a great disservice to people who actually did struggle when they came to America.
So, there are benefits and there are consequences. A lot of people are interested in what I have to say and the stories that I have to tell, but then a lot of people also do expect my stories to be one way or the other— and South Asian kids are just as guilty of it as non-South Asian kids. Someone pointed out that we have a tendency to infantilize immigrant parents, like portray them as helpless and clueless or whatever. All parents text weird, but because I’m Indian, both Indian and non-Indian people were lecturing me.
It sounds like you’re not only helping to pave the way in the broader sense of being a young woman of color in comedy, but then also expanding that niche of not having immigrant trauma and being able to tell those stories. That’s a cool detail within what you’re doing.
Thank you. Another example of this would be Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever. It was a great show. It played with a lot of Indian stereotypes, it played into some of them, and then it swayed against some of them in ways that I thought was very nuanced. Of course, the South Asian community was split. People either loved it or hated it. One of the complaints was Mindy Kaling wrote the character a white love interest. I understand the frustration of not seeing yourself as a desirable love interest on screen, but Mindy Kaling writes to her own experiences. If she’s drawing on her experiences dating white men and that’s the story she wants to tell, then that’s her choice. Anyone who doesn’t agree is welcome to tell their own stories.
That’s the best we can ask people to do, tell your own story.
But a couple of weeks later I tweeted, “Hey, I want to write an Indian girl with an Indian love interest. Can you guys suggest an Indian boy name?” And I started world war three. So many people from India, who live in India, were like, “This girl is trying to write an Indian girl with an Indian love interest, so corny, so cheesy. She’s probably going to write a character with an Indian accent who immigrated and can’t speak English.” Then a lot of diaspora Indians, which is the term that we use for immigrants and children of immigrants, were pretty much saying the same things, “Oh, you’re trying too hard to be Indian. You’re not even from South India. Why are you asking for Indian boy names when you can just easily Google it?” Which, I did do a lot of Google searching, but there’s always the possibility that someone has a better idea online.
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It was just frustrating because a lot of these people are the same people who just a few weeks prior were saying, “Why is Mindy Kaling writing an Indian girl with a white love interest?” I’ve spoken to other prominent South Asian comedians and writers and they were like, “Yes, this is a very relatable issue. The community’s very split on South Asian public figures. And it’s a very hard community to please.” At first I felt alone, but after talking to people I felt… not better, but validated. I figured out the hard way that I’m never going to please everyone or make every single South Asian person proud, and that’s okay. That’s totally fine.
I think that changing those people’s minds is going to come with rubbing them the wrong way and doing the things that you’re doing, because the more exposure people within, and outside of, your own community have to different experiences, the more people will come to learn that this is good. Different narratives are good.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, immigration stories are very necessary to tell because it helps people sympathize and empathize, but that’s not the only thing that immigrants have to offer.
Totally. On the subject of other prominent South Asian folks in the industry, who are your favorite comedians, or writers, or actors, whom everyone should be aware of or who impacted your journey?
I love this question. Russell Peters is the reason that I am who I am today. I think I can even go as far as to say that Russell Peters is pretty much the reason any Indian comedian was able to find success. He started standing up in 1989 when a working class Indian man doing standup was literally unheard of.
Mindy Kaling, I saw Mindy Kaling on The Office when I was 16, and there was that one Diwali episode and it wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t over done. They didn’t punch down. They didn’t make fun of anyone for being Indian, it was just a funny episode in its own right.
Hari Kondabolu and Aamer Rahman, I think they’re the very first stand-up comedians that I saw who were South Asian, aside from Russell Peters. They don’t cater to white audiences by any means, they speak truth to power. Their stuff is very straightforward, like, “Here’s the racism we deal with. Here is what it’s like to be a South Asian man in America and Australia, respectively.”
Hasan Minhaj is super energetic. He captivates his audiences and everyone wants to listen to his every word. He paved the way for Indian people in late night. He got his show in late 2018, then a few months later, Lilly Singh got her late night show, and now, this week, Kal Penn got his own show. Literally went from zero Indian late night hosts to three over the course of a couple years.
Aparna Nancherla, she’s really cool. There’s a lot of emotional labor that goes into the stand-up writing process. But when she’s on stage, it literally just feels like you’re talking to someone. She’s very conversational, she’s very naturally hilarious.
Danny Pudi, of course. He played Abed in Community. I watched Community when I was in high school and Abed is Palestinian in the show, but in real life Danny Pudi’s Indian. Abed wants to do film, but his parents are like, “No, that’s not what people like us do.” And seeing him… I felt so validated.
Thank you. That’s a great list. What’s everything been like for you in quarantine? Did you have any work plans or goals or anything that were kiboshed by COVID? How have you been doing?
I wanted to move to LA by June, so that didn’t really end up working out, but it’s also really nice because I’ve had more time with my family. As much as they drive me crazy, I know that when I get a full-time job or a TV writing career, when I’m able to make a living off of stand-up completely, I’m only going to see them twice a year for holidays. So I’m really trying to maximize the time that I spend with my family right now.
Once this whole shit storm blows over, whenever that is, what’s next for you?
TV writing is ideal. I’m applying to a whole bunch of TV shows to be a writer, so getting staffed is ideally the next step. I finished one pilot, I’m working on another pilot. I’m trying to sell a feature script idea. I’m currently developing a podcast with Dana Donnelly. The premise is men call in and pitch us their podcast, and then we talk them out of making it. It’s called No New Podcast: The Podcast. We have a couple of really cool production companies who are definitely invested in the idea, so that’s exciting.
Any recommendations for books, podcasts, TV shows, movies for people to stay sane during quarantine?
I am not a podcast person, but Scam Goddess by Laci Mosley is so good. It’s a true crime podcast. She has a guest on to talk about a scam each week and I’m constantly laughing. She has the coolest comedians on.
TV shows, oh, I have so many. I watch American Dad almost every night. I always said that it was ahead of its time and aged super well, but then someone reminded me that it came out in the Bush era, and it’s arguably even more relevant now.
I have watched Nathan For You so many times, The Eric Andre Show through twice. When I first watched those shows back in 2018 I was just a standup comedian, and watching those shows was when I was like, “Oh my God, there’s so much more to comedy than what I thought it was.”
The Orville, by Seth MacFarlane. It’s an homage to Star Trek and they use it as a vehicle for social commentary as well.
I really love Umbrella Academy. It has one of the most, if not the most diverse cast I’ve seen. They have a South Asian person, an Asian person, a Hispanic person, a Black person, someone who is LGBTQ, someone who deals with addiction. And for the most part, their races don’t play anything into their storylines. It was just so refreshing to see people who looked like me and my friends and family just be a part of this wacky sci-fi story without caveats.
Who have I been listening to? Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion again. She’s been killing it. “Savage” was already too powerful of a song, and then she just randomly dropped the remix with Beyonce. I almost died. I couldn’t handle it. Doja Cat, 100 Gecs, Chloe X Halle just released an album and it’s so good. Their voices are angelic.
Tik Tok has been a real source of sanity for myself and so many other people. I’m glad that Trump is not banning it. That probably would’ve incited world war three. The 15 year olds would have gone crazy.
Do you have anything that you wanted to shamelessly plug?
Yeah! I am working on this podcast with Dana Donnelly, as I mentioned. She is so hilarious. So keep an eye out for No New Podcasts: The Podcast. Also, just follow me on social media. I’m always developing really cool ideas and asking my followers for help coming up with certain storylines, and doing fundraisers and other cool stuff.