Aunty Z and her belan have brought a fresh lease of life to south Asian comedy. It would not be wrong to liken her to Melissa McCarthy who made a name for herself with her in-your-face comedy. Zarna Garg, proudly wears her identity on her sleeve and manages to exploit the South Asian complexes to her advantage.
Zarna Garg, the Indian-American aunty with a bindi, an unapologetic attire and accent, was raised in Bombay and moved to the US to escape matrimonial bondage when she was barely an adult. She opted to leave home rather than be bullied into marriage.
Garg is first and foremost a mom, then, by her own admission, a lousy lawyer, and is now an award-winning screenwriter and stand-up comedian. She has been comically highlighting the immigrant and American experience with her own signature and hilarious style. She is also someone who finds romance in doing math with her husband and has only said ‘I love you’ once in her life – to an Amazon delivery guy.
Garg was warmly accepted by the Indian community when she began her journey as a stand-up, and she made it a point to represent what they were living in their everyday life. What began with shows targeted at an all-Indian audience in parks and subways expanded to a multi-cultural audience across the world during the pandemic. Since the pandemic, she has brought her comedy shows online – a move which was covered in The New York Times – and outdoors to venues such as Central Park and the Met. The credit for her online and social media success goes to her son. She proudly mentions, “He said, ‘Mom, I know the clubs are closed. You’re very sad. But there is TikTok.’ He took a couple of my clips and put them up there. See, all this leads to the basic conclusion that we should believe in child labor.”
Garg’s reels on Instagram and videos on TikTok have raised a storm, with an ever-increasing number of viewers and followers. Garg’s entry into comedy came after the failure to produce a big Indian rom-com. Her main motivation was to bring out the happy and fun side of the immigrant story. She explains, “Somehow, the idea of Indian immigrants in America is very sad and heavy. And I felt like no one was representing the fun side of our lives here. That was the biggest motivation. I also saw a business opportunity. I was like, why isn’t anybody doing this, and maybe I should do it. And that’s how this ball got rolling.”
It certainly has rolled into one massive ball of success both on stage and online.
The face that makes you crack up, does, as in many cases, hide a melancholy story. Garg lost her mother suddenly when she was just 14. Shortly after, her father decided to fix up an arranged marriage for her. The loss of a parent at a young age can be devastating and now she had to take some major decisions. Finding the walls caving in on her, she decided to leave home and find her own way.
“I moved here right before I turned 16. My mother passed away, quite suddenly, actually. And I decided, for various reasons to live with my sister who was living here in America. So I’ve been here since then. I’ve gone to college in America, I’ve gone to law school. I was a stay-at-home mom for 16 years. I have three kids. I’m married. And then the journey of comedy, screenwriting and all of it started.”
Comedy has been Garg’s armor ever since she was a kid. It also became her ticket to fit in. She quickly learned the value of “being the fun one” among friends, relatives and strangers, who would open up to her because she made them laugh. That was true while she was growing up in India, too.
“In hindsight, I was always the funny one. So I got included in a lot of things even though my mom wasn’t there to pitch for me. My friends always included me because they knew I’ll keep it light. I’ll keep everybody happy. It’s something I’ve done naturally my whole life so I didn’t even have to really work at it.”
Now Garg performs for sold-out audiences at top clubs across the country, and you can find her each month at the famous Caroline’s on Broadway with her second hit show, “Sari, Not Sorry,” following her headlining debut, “My American Dream.”
In a short span of time in the public space, Garg has accomplished a whole lot, giving credence to her talent and popularity. She is a featured comic on Kevin Hart’s Lyft Comic Series, and she won Best Newcomer at Ladies of Laughter. Garg was the featured performer for the Outstanding Mother Awards in support of the Save the Children Foundation, where attendees included Halle Berry, Kate Hudson, Kris Jenner and others. Her debut romantic comedy screenplay, “Rearranged,” beat 11,000 scripts to win the Best Comedy Screenplay Award at the 2019 Austin Film Festival.
Garg is one of a handful of female Indian comedians worldwide, quite possibly the only one, who publicly takes on her mother-in-law. Though she jokes and pokes fun at her mother-in-law, making her out to be someone akin to Lalita Pawar, Garg admits that her mother-in-law is a wonderful person.
“I cleared it with her,” says Garg. “I got her blessings. She’s completely on board. She gets the joke. We have a great relationship. That’s why I can do this. You know, I explained to her what I’m doing, why I’m doing it. And you know how much fun people are having with it.”
Zarna, or Aunty Z, is a rare voice representing the Indian immigrant women community and making their day to day experiences into her comedic influences. She is now a popular favorite at New York’s famed Comedy Cellar, currently booking over 10 shows a week and performing alongside fellow regulars like Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Ray Romano, and Kevin Hart. Soon her jokes will be traveling west to Las Vegas where she will be performing at the Comedy Cellar from February 18th till the end of the month.
“The belan is central. You’re doing something all the time with it. You’re either fixing things with it, you’re breaking ice with it or you are chasing one of your kids with it. I use it for everything, except actually making rotis.”Zarna
Never has there been a comic with a prop as interesting as the one made famous by Zarna. She has given the belan a new lease of life. She is quick to point out the many uses of the belan in an Indian mom’s multifaceted life.