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Interview – Radhika Vaz

Photo of Radhika Vaz in a black flapper dress against a white background

Radhika Vaz, in her own words, is a comedian, writer, and proud Indian. She has written Unladylike: A Memoir, a book described as a ‘quirky, uplifting blend of humour and critical thinking’ that is ‘for every woman who dares to be herself in a world constantly telling her otherwise’. She is an improvisor, sketch writer, and stand-up comedian who has performed in India, New York, and other cities including as she says, “well, London, Singapore and Dubai at least!” She has written and performed the comedy web series, Shugs & Fats, along with Nadia P Manzoor and won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Series, Short Form category in 2015.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Radhika, hi, and thank you for this interview. I’m having a beautiful morning, it’s begun with a grin on my face, because I’m watching the very first episode of your show, Shugs & Fats, on YouTube! This episode is called Working Out and about a minute into the film, one of the characters is losing it: “Why am I not married?” “Why are there no men?” It feels right to start this interview with a look at marriage, gender and the body. These subjects are at the core of socio-cultural practices and stereotypes, timelines and politico legal environments. What is humour doing here, for you, and your audiences?

Radhika Vaz (RV): I think just calling something out in the most obvious way makes it funny and therefore more palatable. Women feeling pressure to marry a man, and in many cases marrying just anyone to ‘achieve’ this requirement is not funny. It’s hideous but it is happening, and will keep happening because it is our default state – no thought is given to the option. And sometimes we don’t want to accept that this is what it is – this socio-cultural conditioning is what makes us want to be in a marriage, in a relationship, it’s what makes us have kids. We want to believe it’s all free choice and it is not always. And this is a tough pill. But if you can get someone to laugh at it then you get to keep the conversation going or in some cases just start the discussion – and I believe that the way to do it is with humour. Or maybe there are other ways but this is the way I attempt to do it.

Radhika Vaz with her book Unladylike: A Memoir

SA: Yes, humour does help start discussions. When you consider humour and sexuality, what are the first few thoughts and feelings that pop up for you?

RV: TABOO. It’s taboo for women to speak of sexuality – indeed it is taboo for us to be sexual beings. I know we have all the sexy images in Instagram but that is not the same as sexuality. We are still submissive and not because that turns us on, it’s because it turns them on. #notallwomen but as a rule we are still in a culture that praises women for pleasing men. That is why only the ‘perfect’ bodies are on display. We still call plus-size women ‘brave’ for wearing a bikini. Pop star Lizzo is ‘brave’. I mean give me a break! She is just human. But she is a size icon because we created an environment in which someone like her had to have courage to take her pants off. I am ranting I know but this is one of those things that really bugs me.

It’s like older bodies. Unless a 70-year-old woman has been nipped and tucked into some sort of semblance of a 25-year-old body she has no right to show up in a swimsuit. “Age appropriate dressing” is one of those annoying terms – and we slavishly fall for this crap.

I feel like I have strayed from your question. So let me back up. Here is what I think. I think we are still in a trap of a heteronormative – youth biased – light skin biased – sizeist – ableist culture and until we consciously snap out of it we are throwing a cloak over a human being’s ability to really find what their sexuality even looks like.

SA: Have you ever felt that perhaps humour can cross a line and become something else, unintended perhaps, but not humorous? Have you felt this way at any time and what insights has this left you with?

RV: Oh yea. I struggle with the line. When do I cross over from being inappropriate and funny to being problematic and unfunny? I will admit this wasn’t anything I asked myself in 2013 but ten years later it concerns me. I don’t believe I should hold back a good joke. But that joke has to come from a good place, a real place and not a place that intends to shock or from a desperate need to be relevant and say something. I think that is what my ideal is now. Will I make mistakes? Probably. Will I apologize for them? Possibly. Comedy is tricky because audiences want us to cross lines because they can’t – it’s that crossing the line that makes stand up so alluring and also so risky. So yea – it’s a day at a time. A joke at a time rather!

SA: Suzy, who #refusestowearpants is your companion. Do you think animals have a sense of humour? Is there any wisdom for us, the people part of this planet, that we can borrow from them?

RV: Oh my god, animals are hilarious and wise. Also they have to have a sense of humour to put up with us humans. Let’s start with the fruit of my own loins – Suzy is amazing. And I am not just saying this because I gave birth to her via C-section but because she is. To start with, as you pointed out, she refuses to wear pants. How enlightened is that?

Suzy, who #refusestowear pants
Suzy living in the moment

SA: Okay, wait, I’m talking about naked person dog Suzy, not a from-your-loins Suzy. I’m confused!

RV: Ok. That’s my idea of a joke. Which I guess if I have to explain isn’t much of a joke (LOL). My point is that just because I did not physically give birth to her doesn’t mean she isn’t my child. I had a surrogate carry her for me. Am I making this worse instead of better? Have I cleared up some of the confusion?

SA: Yes! Thank you! I thought perhaps I’d mixed things up a little more than usual there! Ok, so, animals and wisdom?

RV: Look, animals can teach us everything if we let them. Suzy doesn’t harbour grudges, life is how it is in this one moment and then she is on to the next thing. She fights and forgets. She lives on pure instinct. What a great way to live.

Right now my one big regret in life is my non-vegetarianism. I want to change this. I hope I can.

Radhika with Suzy

SA: Thanks Radhika. One last question please! Growing up, what was it like for you to use your sense of humour to engage with your world? How do you negotiate the environment and spaces we live in today and retain the integrity behind the humour?

RV: Humour works in all different ways. As a kid I definitely used my sense of humour to escape and sometimes to hide from the reality of what things were. Children use it to deflect some of the troubles they face and I definitely was that kid. I was an only child so I was left to my own devices a lot and that forced me to engage with an internal world, the voices in my head!

Now as an adult, and as a professional comedian, humour is my way of life. I look at almost everything with the thought “Is this something I can use later?” and again in a sense it helps me in bad times. Even on my worst day a small voice is saying “Yea this sucks now, but do you think you can use it later?” and the harder the sucks the better the chances are of it being good material. I think we all use humour as a coping mechanism – it’s all we have sometime.

Image Credits: All images are courtesy of Radhika Vaz