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Comedian Ambika Vas on Cross-Border Comedy, Political Satire & the Universal Appeal of Trump Jokes

By Maanya Sachdeva 9 September 2020

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Two years ago, Ambika Vas quit her cushy finance job on Wall Street to pursue a full-time career in acting and comedy. Having lived and worked in ten countries (but she’s travelled to 75, Vas tells DeadAnt), from Africa to Turkey and Singapore to France, Vas returned to the United States in 2018 to focus her energies on making it in the entertainment industry. Now based in Vancouver, the comedian with a soft spot for sketch and improv styles reports for Cyrus Broacha’s The Week That Wasn’t (TWTW), as the show’s foreign correspondent. Given that she created Around the World with Ambika—a sassy breakdown of news stories from around the world for an American audience obsessed with Donald Trump—she’s right in her element on a political satire show. DA caught up with Vas over a Zoom call to chat about the cultural influences that shaped her comedy, her worst on-stage bombing experience and her attempt at bridging distances by telling jokes.

How did The Week That Wasn’t happen?

When COVID started, obviously I wasn’t doing any stand-up comedy, so I just decided to start making a few of these comedy news videos; I used to do a show like that in LA (Around The World With Ambika). Then, basically because my parents were bored and sitting around with nothing to do and a little bit depressed, I asked them to start starring in the videos and they in-turn asked their friends to star in the videos. It was just this silly thing we were doing to stay in touch and have a little bit of fun. In the meantime, someone sent my video to Cyrus and he really liked it. He just said tell her to call me. [When I did] he’s like, hey, I really loved your video—do you want to be on this week’s episode?

Tell us about Around The World With Ambika.

When I moved back to the US after I quit my job in finance, I was watching the late-night talk shows and they were all talking about Trump, Trump, Trump. I’d just come back from living abroad and seeing all these different places, and so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to come up with a show where we talk about everything except Trump.’ I like doing characters and accents, so [I thought] we’ll start out by just doing countries that I’ve spent a lot of time in. When I was discussing this idea with a friend, he said there’s a festival in New York in two months, let’s sign up; if we get in, then you have to do the show. I got in and realised I had a month to write the show and put it all together. That was when I tested it for the first time, before I started developing it a bit more. I did a new version at another festival, and then another till I got to Vancouver. And then I just kind of left it because I was doing stand-up here. Then this [TWTW] happened.

What is your favourite thing about satire? Can you tell us about your writing process?

I like it because the news is interesting and there’s always something new to give me inspiration because otherwise I don’t know what to write about. One thing that has been tough is that the news stories recently have been so ridiculous (especially with Trump) that I can’t even make fun of them. It’s already too outrageous. So, the first thing would be finding the right news story that you can find an angle on. Once I’ve decided on the angle, I think about what references I can make that [in the case of TWTW] Indian audiences will understand or be familiar with. It’s like a math equation, actually.

Who are the comedians you’re inspired by or whom you regularly watch and follow?

I love The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, that’s my favourite and I watch it every day. I love John Oliver. You know, I watch all of these shows but they come more from stand-up comedy backgrounds and I started out doing acting, sketch comedy and improv. So, when I was thinking about the idea [for AWA] and brainstorming it, I was inspired by Tracey Ullman who does amazing characters and impressions.

Vir Das is definitely someone I look up to because he’s also moved around and I feel like he is the first Indian comedian that I’m seeing bridge the gap; he’s appealing to Indian audiences and to foreign audiences. I loved the For India show because he is speaking to things that we understand but also explaining them.

It’s interesting because obviously there’s different styles of comedy and when it’s observational things, it’s less interesting for me. I like to hear the story about the person. I think Ali Wong is hilarious. I think she’s great.

How would you say audiences in LA, London and Vancouver, for instance, are different?

In Vancouver, people do tend to be much more politically correct, and there’s not as much diversity in the comedy scene here. I think there’s one other Indian that I know who is doing comedy regularly here, whereas in LA or London, they know a lot of Indians because we’ve been a part of the culture for a while. That’s one thing—their familiarity with Indians, because the way it works with comedy is that for you to get the joke, we have to have some common understanding or references.

And what about the industry side of things?

In LA, you can watch a 100 shows a night. You can watch celebrities performing. As an audience member, it’s amazing. As a comedian, it’s terrible because it’s so hard to get time and there’s so many people and it’s very, very competitive. In Vancouver on the other hand, there are fewer comedians and shows. So it’s a great place to develop. As a comedian, you get more time on stage.

What was your worst on-stage bombing experience?

I used to have this bit where I would talk about how I don’t like babies. I start out by asking, “Oh, does anyone in the audience have a baby?” and this one guy says, “I do.” I replied, “Great, because I fucking hate babies.” He responds with, “Oh, I used to have a baby,” and he was trying to be funny but obviously the way it sounds is that the baby is dead. The audience went silent and there was no way to get back up.

You’ve said comedy can be an effective way to raise cultural awareness. Tell us a little bit more about how that figures in your work.

There are a few different directions that I’m working in. There’s stand-up, which I think is the one that I’ve done the most in Vancouver, where I can talk about the cultural aspect [of moving around or growing up as an Indian in the United States, for example]. I’ve also written two scripts that I’m trying to put out there and, in those, I have characters from lots of different countries and you see the kind of nuances of those cultures. In stand-up, I just tell the story of my life and where we moved, like moving from India to Texas. Through that, I think people are learning stuff about India that they didn’t know, or what it’s like as a foreigner. There’s usually some component of a cultural misunderstanding or something in there that people can kind of understand.

At the beginning of AWA, you say “since I’m Indian, I figured, rather than entertain you, I’m going to educate you.” Why?

I think it all started when we moved from Texas to Iowa and I was almost always the first Indian person anyone had ever met. I felt like I was always having to teach people about India. Then I lived in places like Cyprus where, again, people didn’t have any idea where I was from. I was born in Newfoundland, Canada before my family moved to New York six weeks later. When we moved to Bombay, that was also different. So I’ve always been different, and I think this whole new style came from that. Just realising that I was different.

Moving to Texas in the early 90s was a huge culture shock. There was no Slumdog Millionaire, so nobody in Texas knew where India was. They would all speak to me in Spanish because they thought I was Mexican. It was all of the stereotypes you can think of. Obviously at the time it wasn’t great but, looking back on it, that’s probably why I’m a comedian, because I have all these experiences.

How different is it to perform for TWTW’s predominantly Indian audience?

So the funny thing is that with TWTW, I’m doing so much Trump material even though I started my Around The World show because I was sick of everyone else doing Trump material. The reason I’m doing it is because I realised that India is not inundated with comedians talking about Trump and he’s been doing stuff every week that I that I have to make fun of. I always send TWTW’s bits to my parents beforehand to check if people in India are familiar with the subject. Since I’m not there, I don’t know what people are paying attention to.

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