Kevin Hart calls me Indian mama because he’s never seen a funny brown mom before: Zarna Garg


Martin Luther King had a dream. Zarna Garg had bills. That’s apparently why, after 16 years as a stay-at-home mom, the India-born former lawyer began telling jokes for a living. Today, with over 12 million followers, the bindi-toting mother of three talks to Sunday Times about Mumbai, matchmaking and her meeting with Modi.
You were a stay-at-home mom before your daughter nudged you into standup. What were the other jobs you considered before comedy?
I tried a travel toothbrush business, a vegan chili business, and even a matchmaker for two days. One time two women came to me to help one of them get matched and the friend kept saying to the candidate, you’re a catch. I looked up from my paper and told her: ‘If you were a catch, you would have been caught.’ That was my last day in that business.
Is it true that you googled ‘What is a joke’ after the first gig?
Yes. And Google responded in the same dispassionate way in which it responds to everything from ‘how to murder someone’ to ‘how do I know if I have found my true love’ — with the FACTS. Google informed me that a joke needs a set-up, a premise, and a punchline; and like a proper diligent Indian student, I went to work.
We hear you have a bone to pick with ABCDs in general, and ABCD comedians in particular?
Well, I’ve been hearing them whine for years. It was time for our generation to speak and tell them — yes, we keep secrets from them, but that’s because they can’t handle the truth. The wind blows and they need therapy. How do they expect us to tell them that their father is actually a different person because shit went down in mom’s teen years, because life happens.
You were recently called one of the ‘gutsiest women in comedy’. Anything off-limits for you?
Nope. If I’m not ruffling feathers as a comic, I might as well be a pre-school teacher. So, free speech all the way. I’ll probably get killed for it but not before I cash in.
Comedian Kevin Hart calls you ‘Indian mama’. Do you feel the responsibility of representing South Asian moms on stage?
Kevin calls me ‘Indian mama’ because he’s never interacted with an Indian mom who will share her comedic perspective in a way that he is familiar with — in standup comedy. In fact, a lot of famous people refer to me as ‘Indian mama’ for the same reason. I entered their world, their stage, their domain with MY stories, MY culture and MY point of view.
As a short-lived matchmaker, what are your thoughts on Seema aunty of ‘Indian Matchmaking’?
This is a trade secret but Seema and I are partners. We have the same mission: to spread ‘aunty sensibilities’. Because the world works better when it listens to us. Aunties make the world go round.
Tell us about your childhood in Mumbai?
I grew up on Nepean Sea Road — it was a pretty typical south Mumbai life until one fateful day when my mother suddenly passed away, my father decided I should get married at the age of 14, and I got kicked out of my home for saying ‘no.’ I call myself the world’s first riches-to-rags story.
Do you miss Mumbai?
Recently, there were wildfires in Canada that blew dense smoke into New York City. New Yorkers were freaking out about the air quality but the Mumbaikars in New York were feeling nostalgic. The complete sensory overload of living in Mumbai prepares you for life everywhere else. No other place on earth feels too packed, too tight, too humid. I’ll never forget the love and warmth of friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, who all took me into their homes when my world fell apart and I had nowhere to go.
What was the biggest cultural shock on moving to the US?
I moved there at 16. The biggest shock was seeing how disrespectful students were to teachers. No one stood up when the teacher walked in. People ate, drank, put their feet up in class. At the time, I thought my heart would explode from the possibilities — maybe I could write with a red pen! Maybe I could wear a sweatshirt!
You studied law. Is it true that the legal notices you wrote made people laugh?
My legal notices were funny because half the time I was writing notices telling the other side none of this would have happened if their client had just listened to his mother.
From Kevin Hart to Bill Clinton, you have met them all. Your proudest moment?
Meeting PM Modi was pretty cool. He knew who I was, and he spoke to me in Gujarati! I love meeting famous people, but it doesn’t thrill me in the way that seeing a room full of strangers who spend their hard-earned money to watch my show does.
How does your mother-in-law react to your jokes on her?
She tells people she wrote all my material, and in a way she did, because without her, what would I have to say? I’d be getting up on stage saying things like, ‘I’m fine, I too have self-esteem.’
Finally, is there such a thing as a ‘mom joke’?
Being a mom is the ultimate joke.

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