“I’m a religious comedian. It’s very trendy to be an atheist in comedy, but I believe in religion,” Sharul Channa declares in a place I now can’t name because the Singapore-based comedian has already broken all the rules by bringing this up and, through the course of our chat, also confirming that durian tastes better than a blowjob. Now she can’t be associated with half the people who originally wanted to be tagged on this interview. So let’s just say we’re… sitting.
Channa has been in India this month with her new comedy special, Pottymouth, covering a cool 11 cities in 34 days over the course of her tour. She’s married to comedian Rishi Budhrani and hates being asked what that’s like. But before we can get into it (and we do, eventually), I spot a tattoo of Krishna on each of her arms, and now we’re talking about religion.
I actually believe in every religion. So all. <Channa points to a ring on her finger with symbols that represent all the major religions> I am into religion.
What about it?
I love the fact there is some sort of man in blue, holding a flute just… randomly playing this flute and giving you good advice.
Advice? What drugs are you…
I mean honestly… the Bhagwad Gita, I am reading that… I am into this whole meditation and spirituality… I think it keeps me grounded, it keeps me real. And that’s what keeps me going.
So religion in itself is grounding for you?
It is. But it depends on how you interpret it, because there are a lot of interpretations of religion—so it depends on who you go to, what you want to believe in… I recommend every comedian read Autobiography of a Yogi. It just changes your mind. I just made my first trip to Uttarakhand and met my guru. And I am going back to see him. I love it.
You have a guru, amazing.
I mean I haven’t asked him. Like this trip, I am going to ask him if I can be his disciple. ’Cause there is no formal conversation.
Is that how it works?
No, I don’t know. I’m going to try, I am gonna ask him. What do you even say?
“Can I open for you?”
<Laughs> Can I…? I think that it’s linked. As comedians when you’re on stage, it has happened to me a lot of times, when you’re 100% present in the moment, material drops into your mind… from the universe.
I see. When you’re on stage, material drops into your mind from the universe…
Yes! It does! What happens many times when you’re performing is that you go off on a tangent and stuff just starts flowing. I have spoken to Zakir [Khan] about this, and he was like it happens to him as well—where you’re in the moment that ideas start flowing. I totally believe in it, it’s totally spiritual.
[All this] is not in fashion. Comedians are more like ‘I’m an atheist, I believe in nothing’. I feel like I believe in everything.
Speaking of trendy, ever tried therapy?
Once, last year. I did three-four sessions. I was going through a really bad phase. This is when I was trying to move out of my in-law’s place. So I needed therapy for that.
What’s the best thing she told you?
She told me… um, what did she tell me? You know when you’re fucked up, you’re not really listening/registering anything. You just want someone to talk to you. There are things you can’t tell everybody because you’re in the public eye. I just wanted to talk to someone who’s not going to judge me. I think everybody should go to therapy.
Do you talk about this phase of your life in Pottymouth?
A little, yeah. It covers being a woman, covers marriage, it covers emotional cheating, it covers travel stories, funerals…
You said you hate being asked what it’s like being married to a comedian…
Yeah, I hate that! Because I’m like, it’s a normal relationship, we’re just in the same profession.
So you don’t talk in punchlines all the time?!
Ok, really? As a couple, we are very tight only because we became comedians later. But it’s what other people do/say [that can get to you]. Sometimes they’ll be like, “Oh your husband’s funnier”, or “Your wife got a better opportunity.” So when people do that, that’s the biggest issue. But we’re just best friends together.
Does it help that you’re in the same profession or is it just the worst?
Maybe if I were not with Rishi, my initial days would have been more difficult. Maybe. When you’re a woman in comedy a lot of people try and hit on you… so I think I feel more protected with him around, and also it’s a stronger brand.
At home, nothing is off-limits. If I broke up with him now, it’d be very difficult for me to date a normal guy. Same for him also, I think… because we joke everywhere, including in bed.
Sex is funny?
Oh boy. It depends who comes first? <chuckles> That really depends. It’s usually me. If I come first, then I can make fun of him. Horrible, riiight? Horrible! <laughs> Or, like, sometimes to put him off, I’ll suddenly ask him how his aunty’s Diwali tarts business is coming along. And he’ll be like, ‘why must you speak about my aunty?!’ aaand I can turn around and go to sleep. Comedians don’t need to say they have headaches.
How long have you been married?
Aah…this is weird. We got married in the mandap four years ago. On paper, six years ago. And we’ve been dating for 13 years.
So I was [initially] like uh, I don’t want to get married. But then ok, we got married on paper. Then it was ‘let’s do the whole wedding because of our families’ thing, but I don’t like the Indian wedding. But ‘what if you get pregnant?’ [they said]. And I am like, but I don’t want have kids… <sigh> never mind.
What was the worst thing about your wedding?
The wedding itself was the worst thing.
That you didn’t want to have an elaborate affair?
More like there were gate crashers, the food was over, I was so hungry on the mandap, I was like I need to have idli and one of my friends got idli and my mum was like you can’t eat idli on the fucking mandap and I was like…
…then get me shots?
Yeah, right. *eye roll* You know you can be very liberal, and have an education and everything. But when the wedding happens everyone will tell you your place in Indian society […] I don’t think the ceremony itself is misogynistic, it’s all the cultural things that come with it.
Anyway, so every time I get pissed off, I talk about it, right? And then I get over it. So made a show about it, Sharul weds Sharul—everything I hated about my wedding, I just vomited it there and moved on.
And now you have ‘Pottymouth’. Is it called that because you’re upsetting everyone in Singapore with your material?
So I was doing this show called Happy Ever Laughter, which had a joke about a local newspaper. One of their writers was there to watch the show; this old Chinese lady who got really pissed off with me. So she called me a ‘potty-mouth’. When I read the papers, I said this is good, thank you… I think this is me and decided to call my show that. Because in Singapore, it kinda lets people know that this is my brand of humour. I will be swearing.
I just say bastard a lot. I say loudu a lot when I am here in Bombay. I love it. Kutti is my thing with my friends. I mean of course, I say those other words as well. I don’t mean it, but I do say them.
Is Singapore’s idea of being a potty-mouth different from the rest of the world? It’s so sanitised, I feel like the dirtiest thing there is the durian.
I love durian! It’s like a custard pudding stuck on that fruit! It’s fattening but it’s beautiful. You just suck on it. You can’t stop. I love it. It stinks… but if you’ve ever sucked dick, you’ll put it in your mouth. I mean nothing can get worse than that.
Are you ever hyper-conscious about being a ‘woman in comedy’?
Not in Singapore, at all. Also because I saw my parents—my father’s a chef, so I saw him in the kitchen, and I saw my mum out working (she’s a teacher), so I didn’t get to experience the gender difference much. I only realised it when I came back to India and I was here with my comedian friends, when some of the females would say it’s not very friendly or like maybe someone from London would say that the women don’t get spots at The Comedy Store…. and then you realise, oh fuck, things like this exist. If I spent enough time in India, I am sure that I will feel it. I hear about it a lot, you know.
About the Indian scene being intimidating for women?
Yeah, it’s very toxic.
I understand why they’re going through what they’re going through. And then of course when there’s a few people who do speak, they come across as loud and noisy and angry. What is that about, because of course people are going to feel like this.
Is that very different from Singapore?
Okay, Singapore—and maybe Malaysia as well—has one of the friendliest scenes in the market. And we have kept it that way. If you’re a visiting comedian, you’ll be made to feel welcome. Open mics are paid. There is regulation and it’s ethical. You can’t just start heckling comedians. Comedians have to be very healthy with their behaviour with other comedians. Yes, of course, a bit of bitching happens in every scene. But it’s a very controlled environment. And we make sure it’s healthy, and keep each other in check.
Also, because we have only one national paper, it’s very difficult to get on it. That means it takes you a long time to work your way up… if people in Singapore know you, that means you’ve worked hard. So it’s a longer route to fame than you have here. There is no way for you to get pompous in this field and then you shouldn’t either.
In other places, you know, papers get on it, and then YouTube… they get all this so fast that maybe somewhere I feel their craft suffers, especially with a thing like comedy. And then, of course, when you have managers… it’s not wrong to have managers, but then it makes you feel like you’re a star before you are actually a star.
Do you enjoy how intimately standup allows you to interact with people?
I mean, we break the fourth wall. You can talk to people, and have them talk back to you. So I think that other than the stupid jokes that we do, there’s an ability to speak about the thing that matters to you. Though the other school of thought is: oh, there is so much storytelling. When is the punchline coming? Why is it not setup-punchline, setup-punchline? But in a place where Nanette has happened, I think anything is possible.
Do you feel pressured to talk about ‘important things’ through your material, like, say, Hannah Gadsby did in Nanette?
[One] should talk about something if you actually believe in it; it should be your truth. The [larger] problem is that people think comedians are perfect people. We are not. Why do you expect your artists who are on stage to be perfect human beings? They are not. Also, India has [a lot of] star culture/celebrity worship, so we get put on a pedestal. (Why?)
If you’re a comedian, I think you need to be able to be relatable to people. If you’re a fucker or a bitch about this, then this can work only in this country. You go out anywhere else and throw your tantrum, people are gonna write you off and then that’s it, done. Be a good person.
Every comedian has their personal boundaries. What are your no-go areas/topics?
I just won’t insult people, indigenous people of any country, or the country people; I would never do that. I don’t talk about rape. I used to have a joke which was that my mum said don’t have pre-marital sex because if you do then when you die, you go up there, there will be a god who will shove an iron rod up your ass. But this was before what happened happened, right? So then I was just like, “Oh! Fuck! Delete this. Never. Talk. About. It. Again.” (Unless I’ve been through the experience myself, then maybe.)
And also any accidents that happen, I won’t do that. Sometimes comedians take off on some major accidents, like, “My sex life is like the Malaysian airline, it’s missing… ha ha ha” and I’m like nope. Stop it. It’s not okay.
What’s the big comedy goal?
I want to do Just for Laughs. I want to perform in all those big live theatres and everything. I have done Melbourne, China, and Asia is mostly covered. I have done a bit of London, I’ve open mics in the US. But I don’t have this thing about the West. I feel Asia’s the place to be for comedy now. I want to be that Asian comedian who does well in the market. It feels good when Vir [Das] does so well, Aditi [Mittal] does well…
In the meanwhile, why should we watch Pottymouth live?
I think you should watch Pottymouth live because if you have time and bit of money, you should contribute to a comedian’s wellbeing.
Or we could just wait for it to come online?
What if it doesn’t come online?!
Channa returns to India in February 2020 for Valentine’s Day with her comedian husband, Rishi Budhrani for their show, The Rishi & Sharul Show, which covers love, sex and marriage through comedy sketches. You heard it here first!