There is a Yiddish proverb that goes, “Better to laugh about your problems than to cry about them.” The real trick lies in getting other people to laugh about your problems, particularly if the people belong to a group that gave them to you.
The first Jewish comedians became pretty adept at this, and Black comedians such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock were masters of drawing out the hilarity in racial tension. Vijai Nathan, at her best, is capable of this tricky brand of comedy; of getting outsiders to laugh along with insiders by tapping into a universal understanding of the absurd.
A classic Vijai Nathan story, like how she got picked to play the role of Martin Luther King in her all-white elementary school because she was the closest thing the school had to a black man, sends both non-Indian and Indian audiences into hysterics. Sometimes racism is so ridiculous it becomes funny, especially when we no longer see the comedian as black or Jewish or a woman but as someone like ourselves. There’s nothing particularly Indian about being young and having your dreams crushed, or being driven crazy by your family, or wanting to fit in, and truly masterful Nathan storytelling takes advantage of this.
This year’s McGoddess, which represents DC-based Nathan’s fourth effort at Capitol Fringe, doesn’t quite pack the same punch of her earlier shows and stand-up. Unlike Nathan’s one-woman show, Give Them Vagina: Tips from Mom, Dad & Cosmo, which highlighted the clash between Nathan’s experiences with love, sex and dating and the expectations of her Indian immigrant parents, McGoddess excavates some of the comedienne’s earlier family history and childhood. Fans of the raunchy and rowdy Give Them Vagina won’t find similar fare here. This is comedy you can bring your aunties to.
We are introduced to a less caustic, more self-effacing Nathan. Usually everyone’s a sacrificial cow to the gods of parody in Nathan’s comic universe—Indian people, white people, her parents, her classmates, even herself. All the sacrificing usually proves a purpose; displays some hidden hypocrisy in American culture, Indian culture, or both. McGoddess succeeds at this, but only rarely. Bits like when her penny-pinching father makes a double entendre of the saying “Jesus Saves” during her family’s first attempt at Christmas, or her mother’s hilarious superstitions about pregnancy stand out as clear winners.
Other bits could stand for more work, such as when Nathan delivers a litany of mother-in-law jokes only unique in that they’re delivered in her father’s Indian accent, or a breakdown of the Hindu gods and goddesses so trivialized it would make your distant redneck cousin wince.
McGoddess ends up being a fast-food version of Nathan; cheaper and mass-market by design. It’s functional in its overall purpose, which is to appeal to the palate of a wider audience, but far less distinctive as a result. There isn’t an Indian-American comic living who can’t put on an accent from the old country and make fun of their quirky parents or who doesn’t have a coterie of arranged marriage jokes, but now there lies a necessity to bring something new to the table; to inject some fresher social commentary or present some unfound truth.
America gets it; Indian dads are cheap, as are Asian parents and Jewish grandmothers. Comedy must evolve with the times, especially if everyone’s already heard the punch line.
McGoddess performs thru July 28 in the Milton Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
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Amrita rates this 3 out of 5.