Outspoken in a shy kind of way, Zarna Garg left the comfortable world of law and stay-at-home motherdom to stand before a crowded room and make jokes at the expense of her family, her upbringing and her Indian culture. She’s a professional comedian, pushed into the limelight by her daughter Zoya, who saw her mother’s frustration as an golden opportunity to flaunt a talent that was waiting to be developed. Over a 100 million Tik Tok views later, Zarna Garg’s talent is in full bloom as she brandishes her family-friendly comedy like…an iron chef.
I was looking at a video of you and your son, and you were making some pasta. He was telling you that Italians created pasta, but you said that Indians created cooking. True or false?
@zarnagarg Indians know it best! Are you team “break the pasta”? #zarna #zarnagarg #indianlife #india #comedy #jokes #family #kids #womenincomedy #browncomedy ♬ original sound – Zarnagarg
True, absolutely! (Laughs) That’s what I believe, yes. We eat so much that we had to be the ones who created it.
What was the first meal?
Probably something with lots of vegetables. (Both laugh) That’s my brand – it’s bombastic. I’m always saying things like, ‘Indians did this, Indians did that.’ When I run out of what to say to my kids when they ask ‘why’, I just say “because Indian people did it!” Because they don’t know any better.
Did you always think that you yourself were funny?
No, never. And I actually still don’t think I’m funny.
Millions of people would disagree with that, but why don’t you think you’re funny?
You know, I don’t think about it. The stuff that comes out of my mouth just comes out and then other people laugh and I’m like, ‘oh, I guess I’m funny.’ Now that I work as a comedian as much as I do, I will tell you, it doesn’t really make people funny. You kind of ‘just are.’ My kids have always told me ‘you’re so funny’ – their friends have always told me that – but I personally never thought of myself as particularly funny. But then again, people also think I’m a controlling mom, and I don’t think I’m that controlling.
Who says you’re controlling? The kids?
You’re familiar with the show This American Life. I was just featured on it last week with my daughter, Zoya. The host Ira (Glass) was asking me ‘why do you feel you should be controlling her classes in college; that yYou should have a say in that?’ I mean, to me, it seems like common sense, but here in America, that’s controlling. You know what I mean?
What did your daughter have to say about that?
She obviously ratted me out to This American Life! (Both laugh) My daughter respects no boundaries. This is supposed to be family stuff.
Yeah, you’re supposed to keep this stuff in the house. She’s not following the rules. Not at all. Exactly.
I know it was your children, and especially Zoya, who pushed you out there the first time. Is she on the payroll?
Yes, but I’m paying for college. That’s what I told Ira. He was saying that while she’s in college she needs to discover – she needs to discover nothing! She needs to discover where this money’s coming from.
She needs to discover where this money is coming from, that it’s not magically appearing, and to be wise with it.
Exactly! (Both laugh) This is my brand overall; this is my kind of humor. It’s family humor. It’s stuff you’ve seen in America like in other cultures. I just think I’m one of the first to do it with Indian culture.
Where do you think Indian culture and American culture dissect?
The topics are all the same. The issues are all the same – parenthood, motherhood, being a married couple for a certain number of years. I think we all think and feel the same thing. I just have my own Indian spin on how I deal with it. For example, an Italian mom may have her own ideas about how to make pasta, and the kids may have their ideas, and in the end, she can end it with a “my grandma taught me in Sicily so I do it better.” They’re all coming at it with the same idea, but just a different spin on it. That’s how I see it.
How much of ‘your spin on it’ do you owe to your upbringing?
Oh, all of it. it’s where we come from; it’s the roots.
Did your parents have a good sense of humor?
They didn’t think they did but I thought they were funny. Sometimes they were very serious, but I was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!” I thought they were funny.
How about your husband (Shalabh)? How was the conversation with him when you wanted to make this move into comedy?
Oh, he has been most supportive. I was a stay-at-home mom for 16 years. He knew I had to give up my career (Zarna was a practicing lawyer) to build the family and to be there for us. He also understood that I was really dying to do something of my own; something interesting, something that I was passionate about. So he was very much like, ‘what can I do to help you?’
Also, honestly, I don’t think he or anybody else expected my career to become what it became. You know, we really thought that a few people – you know, my friends – would come and watch the first few shows and that would be the beginning and the end of it. We really didn’t expect that this comedy would resonate so broadly and so widely across the world and across different cultures.
Was there one appearance or one performance that told you ‘I think I got something here.’
Yeah, I mean, the first time I sold out Caroline’s. I was like, “who are all these people?” (Both laugh) Okay, I know the first 20 people because they were my friends and family, but who are the remaining 300? And it was so diverse. It was completely multicultural. There were South Americans, the black community was out in big numbers, the (LGBTQ) community was out there. And the more I talked to them, the more I realized that even with these communities, we share so much.
You know, I have a whole series of jokes about how I’ve never said ‘I love you’ to my husband. So many people from the black community, from the South American communities have come up to me and said ‘we don’t say it either. That’s a white people thing, or that’s the American thing or whatever.’ You know, we’re not all sitting around saying I love you the way they do it in Hollywood.
But that’s the beauty of it. Every family is doing their own thing and every adult has been like, ‘I kind of relate’ or ‘I don’t relate,’ and that’s what has been the big surprise of my career. I really thought I was the only person who didn’t say I love you. I mean, if you watch pop culture, you would think love, love love; every song is about love, every movie is about love. Everybody’s talking about it all the time. And yet, here I am – I’ve been married 25 years to this guy (laughs) but it’s never crossed my mind to sit down and look him in the eyes and all that.
Then, for the two of you or even your family, what says “I love you?” What does that actually look like?
Cooking! If I’m getting up every day and making you breakfast, you don’t think I love you? You think I’m doing this for everybody I hate? (Both laugh) The devotion and the sacrifice that goes into making a home and a family – like, my husband,goes to work every day – we’re so old school like a very typical husband and wife family. You don’t think your Dad loves you, (while) he’s out there working every day, paying for your classes, your football, your basketball and whatever nonsense you come up with; every day a new passion.
This opportunity to meet and relate with these different cultures, across the country as your star has risen, has it influenced or changed your worldview in any way?
I didn’t realize how few brown women do comedy. I honestly thought when I started doing it that there must be a hundred of us, or thousands of us, that I just didn’t know that because I was living under a rock raising my kids, being at home. But the more I’ve done this and the more I realize how few, if any, brown women do what I do, it’s actually become a little bit of a social responsibility. I’ve become a voice for my people because brown women have been told their whole life that “you should be seen, not heard. Laughing out loud is vulgar; that for men.”
Right now, I’m very cognizant of the role that I’m playing in this. Unknowingly, I’ve become a pioneer. I didn’t know it. People say ‘oh, you’re blazing a new trail.” I’m like, “I don’t want to blaze a new trail! I feel scared. I feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. Like, people are gonna hate me, you know.”
But here people are like, “oh my God, you’re a trailblazer!” No no no! Martin Luther King had a dream; I just have bills. (Laughs) I just did this so I could have a job, but somehow, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. And here we are. And now I can’t not be a voice for the people who’ve never done this. If an Indian woman living in New York City, who has the support of the biggest club in America cannot do it then who cares?
Were there any comedians or comedy figures that you looked to for guidance, or maybe just to see how they did it?
Luckily I live in New York which is maybe the comedy capital of the world so I’m connected to lots and lots of comedy. I have a lot of friends in the comedy community. If I ever have a question, an answer is just a phone call away.
Big picture, though, I take a lot of inspiration from Kevin Hart in how he’s built his career. He’s a family-friendly comedian; (most) of his projects are family projects. That’s another big passion of mine; it’s why I do what I do. I like families laughing at my stuff together. So, I’m very particular about doing comedy that is very relatable to family. I draw a lot of inspiration from him; I try to learn from him. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some of the projects this company has put together so I’ve learned a lot.
Two more questions for you. First, what is the last thing that you changed your mind about?
Ira Glass on the This American Life made me think, you know, because he related his own life to my story and said his mom always wanted him to be a doctor. So, he’s like, ‘look, I am here now. I have a radio career,’ and I came out of that interview thinking that he’s right – you can have different careers in America. But then when I talk to my daughter, I’m like, “no, no, no, but not for you.” (Both laugh) So, I changed my mind back to where it was initially.
Just in the span of an elevator ride down, you said ‘no, but not you.’ (Laughs) Exactly! Not you.
What is it that your daughter wants to do?
She has an artistic bent to her. She’s a writer. She likes to bake. She likes to do art; she’s a sculptor. So, she’s constantly looking for artistic things to do. I had a minute of thinking, maybe Ira was right. Why in America can’t you do all that? And then by the time I was done thinking about it, I was like, “no, I was right all along.”
What is it that you want her to do?
Something in STEM, like computer science or math or technology; something that leads to a job. Please. (laughs)
You know, you can marry the two disciplines – Art and STEM – if you get into the sciences and science fiction, especially if you take advantage of her writing skills.
I know. But there’s only one Mindy Kaling and there are 10,000 Google engineers. Please just get a job. I’m a parent, I’m broke; just get a job. (Both laugh)
Last question. The superhero Batman is famous for his utility belt, which he wears everywhere and which has everything that he needs. He needs a batarang, it’s there. He needs shark repellant, it’s there. If you, Zarna Garg, could have your very own customized utility belt, what would you have in it?
A rolling pin. Because, pretty much with that, I can get everything done. I can scare people; I can beat people. I can cook. I can use it as a weight. I can do a lot with my rolling pin. Without even thinking, I can tell you that’s the answer.