Comedian Aditi Mittal On What Makes People Laugh

As one of only 12 women comedians in India, Aditi Mittal is a pioneer. Seven years ago, she entered Mumbai’s budding open mic circuit. Today, her one-hour stand-up show Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say is on Netflix, she has 370k Twitter followers, and she’s just rounded up a two-week run of her latest show Global Village Idiot at London’s Soho Theatre.
Global Village Idiot explores Mittal’s Indian upbringing; born in Mumbai, she attended boarding schools in Pune and Panchgani and talks about feeling as though she "belongs nowhere and everywhere at the same time".
While Mittal confidently challenges the racist and sexist micro-aggressions she has experienced in her life, her high-spirited energy is welcoming and her ice-breaking frankness allows her audience to feel at ease. Moving seamlessly from the personal to the political to the punchline, Mittal is among an elite group of comedians using comedy to highlight powerful global issues, and her sets are as informative as they are funny.
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We met Mittal in Soho after watching her show to talk about her upbringing, intersectionality, and how to warm up an audience.
When did you decide on comedy as a career?
In Indian families, whenever parents are overly proud and we have guests, they will say "Sing a song for uncle" or "Do a dance for aunty". I was that kid. I was born with jazz hands!
I’ve been privileged to never have anyone tell me that I can’t do something. When I returned to India after working for a production company in New York, there were these open mics happening and I went to try. I had been on the open mic circuit for a year when The Comedy Store in London brought a branch into Bombay [now Mumbai] and were auditioning for new talent. I went in and nailed the audition. Then I got called in for an open spot that night, which nailed me to the wall because it went really badly. So, I did one more year of the open mic circuit and two years later, I tried again, and it went much better because I was experienced, and I was given eight spots in a row.
How has the industry evolved from when you began to now?
When I began, we had the support and experience of English and American comics, who had been practising for decades, coming to India to perform. They were kind enough to give us constructive criticism; the learning curve was very steep but because we were such a baby scene, the kind of advice and goodwill we got was unparalleled.
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The first open mic we ever had in India was one night a month, it would alternate between slam poetry, Hindi poetry, and stand-up comedy. This captured people’s imagination, and now we have managers and I’m sitting in London doing this interview! What is happening in India is exactly what happened in London three or four decades ago. I’ve had the fortune of growing with India.
What would you say the purpose or role of humour is in society?
That’s something I’ve been reflecting on: What is my purpose? What am I getting paid for? Humour has many purposes; it’s the ‘I know exactly what she’s talking about’ or ‘I’ve never thought of it that way’ or ‘I just had a good laugh and I feel better now'.
I was looking at the origins of laughter, and evolutionarily, why we laugh. One of them is that laughter is a signalling of the passing of danger. Whenever there is danger, everyone collectively holds their breath. The moment one person laughs, everyone releases their breath to signal that the danger has passed. This is what I think about when I set up punchlines, especially if saying anything that might be social commentary on something quite harsh. Everyone is like, ‘Wow did she really bring that up?’ but then you say something really silly or something that breaks the logic of that and they start laughing, like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s right'.
I love how you approach and address all the intersections of your identity in your shows. Is intersectionality something you think about when writing?
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Yes! All you can do is speak from the place that is closest to your truth. If we’re going to tell any version of our stories, it has to include the various intersections that we exist in. I’ve actually been struggling with the layers of privilege, among the layers of disadvantage in my life. That war is constant and we always speak from the place we exist within the power structure. I feel this as a woman and as a woman of colour, but then again having said that, in India we have a very flourishing caste system. As someone at the top of that caste system, someone at the top of the economic system, someone who is doing this job in a country where there are only 12 of us, and as an able-bodied person... it makes you realise that there is so much that you have and also so much that you don’t.
What is your writing process like?
I’ve started doing stream of consciousness writing for an hour every morning. That’s what's so amazing about this job: we get to process our lives! I know that I could write four pages and trash all four, but one thought will emerge from there that I can carry over to the next day or that I might try out at an open mic. That’s kind of been my ethos; I’m just throwing shit at the wall and seeing if it sticks.
When I was coming to the UK, a lot of people were asking me what I was going to write comedy about. I said, ‘Where I come from, duh, what else? I can’t tell you about Russia because I’m not Russian'. We’re so lucky to be in a time and place where we are getting to diversify the stories being told, so why wouldn’t we tell them?
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In your show, you talk about your performance being heavily responsive to the audience’s laughs; it sounded almost as if you’re doing a bleep test and each laugh is a cue for the pace you need to be setting. Is this right?
Yes! Yes! Yes! When I was hosting open mics in Bombay, I would say something like, ‘Guys I’m just your host for the night, I won’t be doing the jokes’ and two people would actually not laugh, and I’d realise they were taking what I said as gospel. In spaces like that, you have to give the audience the invitation to laugh.
I think the difference between stand-up and conventional performing arts is that when theatre breaks the fourth wall, it’s a ‘wow’ moment, whereas comedy is just a broken fourth wall. Comedy is you talking at the nonexistent fourth wall. You have to be in the room, even if you’re telling the same jokes for the hundredth time, you have to remember that you’re doing it for that specific group of people, for the very first time. That is why it has to be fresh and present for them, in that moment.
So stand-up comedy is almost like the study of people, based on what they find funny?
Yes, that’s exactly it. You end up reading people; there is so much merit in listening.
If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be?
I would be trying to be a comedian.
Who or what inspires you to keep going, even when you face obstacles?
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Will it be too cliché if I say my mum? It’s my mum! My mother took care of us, unmarried, in India, in the '70s. In order to support us she got a job in Indian television, in production, which is unheard of. That is what keeps me going, she did something that nobody else had done before.
Where are the most open-minded, forward-thinking, creative spaces in India?
Bombay is one of those places where you will find all kinds – it’s sort of the melting pot of India. Another place that not many people know about is Shillong. Shillong is in the northeast of India, and it’s really inaccessible by road. They’re still blasting through the mountains to build the highway up there. I’ve performed at a literary festival there three times now. I was blown away by the open-mindedness and the acceptance of possibly litigious ideas.
Also Bangalore, which is the IT hub of India. When you are sort of ‘blessed’ by the upper-middle class lifestyle due to your income, you become ‘surfacely’ progressive.
Keep up with Aditi Mittal on Twitter.
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