THE PANTOGRAPH PUNCH

Performance22.01.24
#PIJF#CARVINGSPACE

Paving the Way for Pan-Asian Comedy

Jess Karamjeet, the founder of the Pan-Asian Comedy School Aotearoa, aka PACSA (Laughs), reflects on her journey into comedy, and her hopes of joy across diverse communities.

When I was 17, my family and I flew to New York City to support my Indian grandpa during rounds of chemo. The trip was emotional and heavy – my first brush with death as an almost adult – but we made time for light relief. Grandma and I rode the subway from Queens to her favourite mall, armed with dollars, and an apple and raw almonds for lunch – because, for her, stopping for food is a waste of valuable shopping time (!).

I loved being out for the day, but as we travelled home on the subway, arms laden with outlandish discount dresses and shoes, Grandma asked me the dreaded question: “So, what will you do with your life?”

I froze. I couldn’t help thinking that my acting ambitions paled in comparison to my brother’s goal – he was studying law at university in order to make his – and my mum’s – dreams come true. The only boy in the Indian family, he was to become a judge just like my grandpa, who presided in New York City. Our great-uncle had paved the way before Grandpa, emigrating from India to England to become the first Sikh to become a Queen’s Counsel. The life plan was laid out for my brother when Mum gave him, with all manner of seriousness, the auspicious initials J and P – for Justice of the Peace. I got J and K– maybe for “Just kidding!”, the wacky prankster’s catchphrase; my destiny as a stand-up written in the stars 30 or so years ago.

But at 17, despite feeling disheartened by my lack of progress in acting, I didn’t want to let my ambitions die. So on that subway ride with Grandma, I responded with all the tenacity I could muster: “Grandma, I want to be an actress.”

Without missing a beat, she replied: “A… dentist?”

This memory was seared into my mind and, retold to friends, it became one of my first truly comedic anecdotes. I could hardly believe it was Grandma who delivered the punch line.

“My brother is a judge, and I… TEACH MIME.”

As a storyteller, my family and identity have always been my comedic inspiration, and I’m sure a lot of Pan-Asian creatives can relate. There’s freedom when we put our truth into words – for me, that means playing on stage in the space that acknowledges my brother’s privilege because of his gender, as well as our juxtapositions, exemplified by lines like:

“My brother is a judge, and I… TEACH MIME.”

Like most Pan-Asian kids, my journey to stand-up comedy wasn’t a direct one. It was something I came to much later in life, but the puzzle pieces were always there. I’d had telltale signs of neurodivergence as a kid: big feelings and regular outbursts, near-constant conflict with friends and subsequent isolation, but my family presumed these problems were because of my ‘point of difference’ – being one of a handful of brown kids in our small, English town. Processing feelings of ostracisation, I’d diarise and write folders full of short stories. Then, searching for other creative outlets, I gravitated toward theatre, singing and acting.

I grew up watching a tiny handful of British comedians who were carving space: Craig Charles in Red Dwarf, Meera Syal in Goodness Gracious Me. Then there was Jesminder in Bend it Like Beckham, delivering tongue-in-cheek one-liners like “Anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?” And with her boundless ambition, I decided somewhere along the line that I wanted to be like her. No, not destined for the football pitch with my two left feet – I wanted to act. The startling lack of brown faces on screen didn’t deter me; the few that were there were a beacon of hope.

“Anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”

In my early teens, brown actors from the UK were a long way off from Bridgerton and The Little Mermaid. My acting school put me forward for the role of Susan in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I spent the entire audition internally squirming. Was I the only one who realised I wasn’t a white-skinned ‘English Rose’? Sadly not. The casting directors saw it, too.

Put up for swathes of roles, I didn’t get a single one. My mixed-raceness making me too different, too hard to place. Not white enough, not brown enough. I often wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d landed another audition – what was to become Jenna Coleman’s first soap opera gig, on Emmerdale. Would I have had her career trajectory, too, and been up for the same roles? Would I have been the first POC assistant to Doctor Who? Grand ‘what ifs’, but maybe – in a parallel universe.

Demoralised, I wondered what the future held for me. Clutching at straws, I enrolled to study jazz singing on a pop and world music degree – only I didn’t have a Grade 8 Classical Singing qualification, and they wouldn’t let me sing because of that. Following my ADHD tangential and impulsive instincts, I transferred to a different university to study creative writing. My studies undoubtedly helped to shape my creative voice, and I authored a dissertation of autobiographical short stories – drawing from my confused identity as a closeted, Queer POC.

I spent those early days of stand-up floundering, searching for guidance from someone – anyone – who understood what it meant to feel othered by an audience at first glance or after revealing a snippet of their truth.

I later undertook a master’s degree in writing for performance and publication. My final thesis was a mockumentary comedy series, but, still lacking confidence after my time as an actor, it would be years before I put my words into action.

My first big break in the story room of a TV show led me to Melbourne, Australia, and a screenwriting job at the home of a soap opera I’d watched since I was eight. Finally, I had more writing and story-lining credits under my belt than most new writers could dream of.

Then my one-year visa expired. Friends and colleagues encouraged me to Aotearoa – somewhere I’d visited briefly while backpacking. Almost as soon as I moved here at the start of 2019, I saw Frickin Dangerous Bro live and I’d love to say the rest was history; how, two years later, post-Covid, I was on line-ups alongside Pax and James. In reality, I spent those early days of stand-up floundering, searching for guidance from someone – anyone – who understood what it meant to feel othered by an audience at first glance or after revealing a snippet of their truth.

In my first couple of years of stand-up, I did countless hours of open mics and pushed through the ‘only female on the line-up’ moments. I sat through racist, sexist, ableist and homophobic material with gritted teeth – willing the MC or show producer to take on their responsibility to make the gig a safe space. Sometimes I challenged the perpetrator directly, with mixed responses. Once I was met with outright denial from a comedian who had told me, twice, “I think you think you’re browner than you are.” She’d been so inebriated at the gig that she didn’t even register saying it.

Photographer: Elisa Bonnafous.

Group L - R, with PACSA (Laughs) participants: Ambika, Mia, Jenni, (Jess), Marzia, Shweta and Anjula.

PACSA (Laughs)

It hasn’t all been a struggle, though, and that’s been down to the community of creatives both in and out of the comedy industry. In the early days, when a comedy school for Pan-Asian performers in Aotearoa was nothing more than a hope, I made a pact with a friend, Proudly Asian Theatre’s founder and Shortland Street actor Marianne Infante. She wanted to encourage more Filipino people into the acting space. To do that, she was going to run a course. We both would! Marianne was determined to improve representation in her industry, and having another change-maker in my life meant someone to talk to and allowed me to be inspired by her progress in real time.

I started the Asian Comedy Takeover gig in 2022, with the encouragement of SquareSums&Co, as part of the Asian Soundscapes festival in Ponsonby and, in October 2023, I hosted the Asian Comedy Takeover with two emerging and two pro comedians. It gave them the chance to create material that spoke directly to their Chinese, Fijian Indian, Malaysian, Muslim, Punjabi and Pakistani communities, plus those who intersect with the diaspora. On top of that, unlike at a lot of gigs out there, these comedians were contracted to get paidddddddd.

The second of its kind, the Asian Comedy Takeover was a sell-out and, with an overwhelmingly Pan-Asian crowd, it showed an appetite for comedy acts that catered specifically to underserved audiences. Great, right? Pat on the back. Job done.

If the next generation of performers doesn’t find their feet, one year’s success can easily be an anomaly.

Except there was a problem. In reality, there are only a handful of Pan-Asian comedians in Tāmaki Makaurau and slightly more in Pōneke. Eleven of us had shows in the 2023 comedy festival, out of approximately 140 performers. This was celebrated as a triumph, but the number isn’t representative of Aotearoa. The number isn’t guaranteed to increase or even maintain year on year, either. All it takes is for a handful of performers to have other creative priorities – exemplified by Pax Assadi and James Roque, two of the most notable Pan-Asian performers, who were absent from the 2023 festival – or for performers not to have the funds, or to be passed over, which happens more than you’d think. If the next generation of performers doesn’t find their feet, one year’s success can easily be an anomaly.

That’s why, in August 2023, I kicked off PACSA (Laughs), aka the Pan-Asian Comedy School Aotearoa, with thanks to Creative New Zealand and Foundation North’s Asian Artists’ Fund, to build a community for Pan-Asian creatives and give them the tools to develop their comedy and take to the stage. Given the deficit of voices, the first cohort was comprised exclusively of womxn and non-binary performers – with different stories, backgrounds, sexualities, aspirations and career goals – and they graduated in December in a performance in front of friends, families and the public. The hope was that they’d be able to shrug off the potential baggage and stigma about stand-up, find their comedic voices and navigate complex identities in a safe environment. Then, they’d go on to flourish in the stand-up scene – or maybe they’d go back to their day jobs, that little bit more confident. Maybe their personal lives would be positively impacted. Because, for women of colour, stand-up isn’t just professional or personal. It’s both.

Photographer: Elisa Bonnafous.

Jess Karamjeet at PACSA (Laughs} End of Term show


I want PACSA (Laughs) to be a safe space to grow Aotearoa’s Pan-Asian comedy scene, because doing it alone, honing my craft without the support of an ever-present mentor – intersectional or otherwise – was an absolute slog. I’ve been a stand-up comedian for four years and, as a mixed-race, bisexual woman with hidden disabilities, the comedy industry is not designed to accommodate people like me.

As mentioned, microaggressions and outright racism are commonplace in the comedy industry, despite many (predominantly white, male) producers committing to zero tolerance. It’s why I felt torn about creating PACSA (Laughs) – what if I’m throwing participants to the wolves? That said, I hold on to the hope that there’s strength in numbers and we shouldn’t be held back from entering the art form, even though it isn’t perfect. There are also mechanisms to hold people to account, such as the New Zealand Comedy Guild. Plus, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of interest in PACSA (Laughs), and I know that, together, we can shape the industry to be better.

There’s something special about taking time to study an art form with your peers. Focusing on the fundamentals of comedy shaped me into the comedy screenwriter and stand-up comedian I am. It allowed me the space to write from life, to find confidence to explore my mixed-raceness, despite often being a minority in the room. My hope with PACSA (Laughs) is that students can play, explore and get to grips with who they want to be on stage, free from a white lens – and that’s the bottom line. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to morph our stories to make them more palatable or digestible for a Pākehā audience, and any producer or venue owner who implies otherwise is not someone I will gig for. Our lives, stories, languages and jokes are full of nuance, and those differences should be celebrated as worthy.

For women of colour, stand-up isn’t just professional or personal. It’s both.

I often think about the people in my life who championed my move into stand-up – my mum, dad, brother and ex-partner. Pan-Asian kids are rarely encouraged to aim for a career in the arts, but my mum paved the way before me, turning to the arts as an adult when she retrained and became an English and drama teacher, and showed me a different path, away from the stereotypical professions of our culture. Without her and my dad, who became a novelist later in life, I would not be where I am today.

So maybe I’m stepping up with PACSA (Laughs) to take on the ‘mum’ role: to guide the next generation of Pan-Asian stand-ups into the space with as much love and support as I can muster. To encourage them to find an authentic way to express themselves and to find joy in it. Perhaps to find that joy in the strength of their voices for the very first time. Some PACSA (Laughs) participants, WILL be dentists – like my grandma hoped I would be. And all are welcome.

I often wonder what it was like for my great uncle and for my grandpa, to be ‘the first’, and the one to follow in the footsteps. To be change-makers, steadfast in challenging the status quo in the legal, white-male-dominated profession. Someone takes the first step, another follows, then another. I never thought I’d be so bold as to compare my work with that of my grandpa and brother, but hey. I’ve reached a point in my life – despite emigrating to Tall Poppy Land – where I’m comfortable taking up space, owning my achievements and championing others. There’s value in making people laugh, and in connecting to people who have been pushed to the periphery for too long.

Plus, when I’m on stage, talking about my family and experiences, I’m the one with the microphone. You can be, too.

Jess Karamjeet performs her acclaimed comedy music show REDUNDANT as part of Auckland Pride Summer at Q Theatre, 16–17 February 2024.

Tickets available here from Q Theatre

To learn more about participating in the next cohort of PACSA (Laughs), fill out this EOI, contact Jess on Facebook, or visit jess-karamjeet.com


Header image: Elisa Bonnafous

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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