I’m Radhika Vaz, a Stand-up Comedian, and this is how I Lead from Within
Radhika Vaz is widely recognized as this generation’s feminist voice, and one of the country’s most well recognized stand-up comedians with an international following. Her one-woman comedy specials, “Unladylike” and “Older. Angrier. Hairier.” have sold-out in New York, Los Angeles, and all major Indian cities. Vaz is considered one of the pioneers of the stand-up movement in India, and she has been featured in Vogue’s ‘The power of 50’ and is a frequent guest on NDTV and Radio One. As a freelance columnist, she has written for Verve, GQ, Vogue, and several blogs, and she recently published a book called Unladylike: A Memoir – “A wildly original and humorous account of growing up as an Indian woman.”
My Professional Journey
I moved to New York in 2000. I had a job and a normal routine of working, going to the gym, and spending time with friends on the weekends, which was cool and I really enjoyed it. The funny thing though, my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, was training for the New York City Marathon and was really busy. He had something to do outside of just hanging out. I remember he was the one who asked me, “Don’t you want to do something?” To be honest, I didn’t know what to do, and he said, “New York is a city where you can do anything. You can take any kind of class you want.” That’s how I ended up doing an improvisational theatre class.
All of a sudden, it became a fun and cool thing that I did once a week and then twice a week. It was just fun to go to class and meet people from all over the world and with totally different backgrounds from mine and totally different life stories – simply because I was in the corporate world and they weren’t. Soon after, I started teaching it, and I started to write material to perform and it just took a life of its own.
I started doing stand-up much later mainly because I was doing improvisational theatre. I never saw myself as a stand-up comic because in my head stand-up had this heavy pressure to make people laugh. For some reason, Improv didn’t feel as intense and maybe it had to do with the way I was taught Improv as a group activity. I really liked the whole experience of collaboration. I started doing Improv when I was 29. I performed a lot right through my early 30s, but it was all Improv. I only began stand-up about five years ago. I did my first show in 2010, when I was 37.
I definitely think my surroundings and environment were a huge influence. There are some people who have innate confidence. I’m impressed with those people, but I’m not one of those people. Confident people believe in their truth, they live their truth. I think some of us become confident when we’re younger and some of us come to it when we’re older. For me, it was a very slow process to get to that level of confidence. I didn’t have any role models in comedy growing up here in India. In my case, I think it was my environment and experiences that allowed me to pursue my own career. For example, living in New York and just seeing other women who were out there speaking up. They were doing their own thing and that definitely inspired me to do my thing.
On Finding My Feminist Voice
I was an only child, and both of my parents are very liberal people. My mom initially fulfilled a pretty stereotypical role simply because of the generation she is from. However, as my parents have gotten older, I think they’ve become less traditional as a couple. My mom went back to school two years ago and received a diploma in counseling. She has become a counselor, and has been counseling for several years. It’s something she is really good at. She went from being an Air Force wife who traveled with her husband to doing something that she really wanted to do. She discovered her passion for counseling, and I guess it was later in her life. It was very cool and made me understand that both of my parents have pursued what they wanted to do.
While my parents never put any type of pressure on me to be a certain way, the peer pressure was to be a good Indian girl or a good Indian woman, and I always questioned it. I have always thought that certain things are just stupid. For example, the ridiculous notions around sexuality and virginity for women and men. I actually opened my first show talking about what a big deal it was to lose my virginity and how I definitely knew that the boys weren’t being judged for it, and why that was the case. I had those questions in my head.
I believe that feminism should mean equality for all. Yes, men and women are different, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be equal. I know people who say they don’t have women employees anymore because there are safety precautions they have to ensure, which creates a headache and extra expense for the company. The fact that the country can’t provide safety precautions for women is an issue because that instantly makes us less equal. I think women just want a situation where we can be equal, and where we can do the same things as men. I want girls to be able to walk on Carter Road in Bandra completely drunk alone and not worry about being looked at or judged. Yes, women should be equal in every way, even if it seems extreme.
On Challenges As a Female Comic
I have always wondered what it feels like to be a male comic. If some of my material was performed from the male perspective, by a man, I definitely think people might be able to take it a little bit easier. I think men are given permission to say things and do things, and women aren’t given the same permission. I certainly have felt it with my material, but then again, I have also grappled with this idea because maybe they just don’t think I’m funny.
My paid public shows are very different, and being a woman, I attract a certain type of target market. Sometimes, women are outnumbered relative to men in my shows, but if it’s a hardcore corporate event for employees you’re going to get stuck with more men. First of all, I don’t know how open they are to listen to a female comedian talk about life and gender roles. In those instances with all-male audiences, there is a sense of discrimination that happens on an unconscious level. I feel like female comedians don’t get the same level of corporate work as our male counterparts because men are the ones choosing the comedian. What comic is going to be accessible with material that is edgy to listen to even for women? It has been an issue, but I always tell people there’s always that possibility.
My Biggest Learnings
After my first show, I thought oh, my god, I don’t have anything else to say now, but then I did my second show and went forward. I’m confident in my ability to do my profession. Sure, I go through moments of insecurity, but who doesn’t. There’s a certain way that I’m able to deal with heavy things and make light of them. I don’t think it’s necessarily an easy job to be able to take rape, for example, and turn it into a joke. However, as a woman, that is an advantage I have. I can take stuff that’s edgy and get people to listen to it a little bit differently. I’m pretty proud of that and it makes the job fun for me personally.
I have tried a lot of different things. I work for Radio 1, and I write for Times of India. I like to put myself in positions to learn something new about myself as a woman and a comic. One thing I’ve learned is that I am a risk taker. I always thought that I liked to play it safe, but being a risk taker was something I recognized in myself later on. Playing it safe cannot be an inherent part of your job. If it is, you will reach a certain point, but then you won’t be able to go any further. If you’re not a risk taker, you become repetitive. That is true in my profession and probably in most others. The risk-taking spills over to my personal life as well. That has been the biggest learning for me.
On Pursuing An Unconventional Career
I’d say two things. One, I think being financially stable helps the creative mind. If you have a job already, but you want to do something creative, then you need the discipline to work after hours. I’d suggest letting things build to a certain degree. If you are the kind of person who needs that financial support, then you’re the only one who can give it to yourself – you owe it to yourself to keep that until your other interest starts to give you that stability.
I’ve been through a situation where I quit my job thinking okay, in two years I’ll be making money off this thing and until then, I’m married and I’m not a high-maintenance girl. It was horrible to be dependent on someone. So, I actually went back to work. It wasn’t the same high intensity job and was much more low-key. I made a little bit less money, but it was mine and it just gave me a sense of independence and stability. I would say, for as long as you can handle it try and keep yourself financially stable, don’t be in a big hurry to give things up because you think you can live on a tight budget.
The second thing I would do is manage a creative job like a project. For example, my first big project was a one-woman show. Instead of writing a one-hour show, I broke it down into five minute steps. I was going to have to do 12 five-minute pieces or six 10-minute pieces, but doing that made it so much simpler. I think it’s important to recognize that nothing is just going to happen. It is going to happen in baby steps and you control the baby steps. The best way to control those steps requires planning it out properly like any project.
The one thing I wish I could see more of and I hope it happens – more women stand-up comics. Just look at the number of men who had to have joined the comedy scene. Consider someone like Papa CJ and many others, these guys were not 18 years old when they entered comedy. These guys are all close to 40. Where are the women who did the same thing? There are none, nowhere to be found, and there are only a couple of us. If you look at the number of women entering this scene, it’s again such a small percentage. I would like to see that change.
More on Radhika
For more good stuff from Radhika, check out her recently published book, ‘Unladylike: A Memoir’ – “A wildly original and humorous account of growing up as an Indian woman.” Available on FlipKart and Amazon.