For comedian Radhika Vaz, nothing is off limits. Whether its riffing on why she doesn’t care for children, describing what she imagines Angelia Jolie’s vagina looks like, or pantomiming the way she rides on top of her husband during sex (now that she's older, her hips click) the 40-year-old Indian-born comedian is pushing boundaries.
On a recent night at the Producer’s Club, a hole-in-the-wall venue near Times Square, in a small, black-walled theater, Vaz took to the stage wearing a bright pink shirt to perform her latest show, “Older. Angrier. Hairier.” Her shtick is a raunchy, humorous anger focused on gender roles, aging, and the expectations and double standards that society has for women. One of the first topics during her 75-minute monologue was housework, a source of ire and conflicted feelings. She complained about the fact that it’s traditionally a women’s task, and yet acknowledged that it’s a job that she holds to tightly because she thinks she’s better at it than guys. Then there’s her husband, who feels the need to ask permission before cleaning anything. That subject, like basically every subject she touches on, comes back to sex: a clean apartment is tied to her femininity, she says, “because in my f--king head, my floors are my crotch. And if I have dirty floors, then you’re going to think I have a dirty crotch, and I can’t have that! Ok? My apartment must be guest-worthy at all times, so that you believe my crotch is guest-worthy as well.”
She moved on to riff about the different ways women and men view pooping, telling a funny story about taking a laxative so that she’d have a flatter belly, then unexpectedly spending the night with a boyfriend and in the morning trying to keep things clenched shut until she could make it to the bathroom. She followed up with describing her attempt to have the quietest, most explosive bowel movement ever. (Then, she says, she cleaned the bathroom.) Women are expected not to shit, she says, but men do it proudly, wherever they please. “They shit and they don’t give a shit,” she says.
Her thoughts on children—she’s not crazy about them, and went on a quest to find the perfect excuse not to have them—call to mind comedian Louis C.K., who has similarly riffed on the dumb stuff kids do. But while Louis C.K. approaches that topic from the point of view of an over-the-hill father, Vaz looks at it through the eyes of a childless woman, arguing that it’s unfair that having children is seen as a prerequisite for being fully female.
This is where Angelina Jolie’s vagina comes in. Vaz said she read a quote from the actress saying that Jolie didn’t feel like a woman until she adopted her first child. “If that bitch wasn’t a f--king woman [already], some of us are severely screwed,” Vaz said. “I always thought that if I could somehow rip Angelina’s panties off... I would find myself gazing on the world’s most womanly vagina. A perfect p--sy. A p--sy with an arch way, with beautiful exotic flowers cascading gently to the ground, a p--sy where light French music plays delicately in the background.” Vaz finds fertile ground in the space between what society expects of women, and what women—particularly herself—actually are, and what they actually want. Women are told they can have it all, but Vaz doesn't want it all: she just wants about two-thirds.
Throughout it all, Vaz—a slim, spritely woman with close-cropped boyish hair who brings to mind an Indian Peter Pan—puts her whole body into the show, gesturing, pointing, sticking out a hip, even raising a hand to the top of her head and wiggling her fingers to demonstrate what a birth-defected child with a hand growing out of its head would look like. (That bit had to do with the theme of substance abuse during pregnancy.) She’s a talented, expressive mimic, too, evoking the jibber-jabber of little kids or the low voice of her husband; and while I laughed throughout her performance and a subsequent interview, I was more struck by her expressiveness, her dynamism on stage, and the bold honesty and edginess of her material than I was with the ha-ha level of her jokes.
While phrases like “basset-hound labia” are edgy no matter who is doing the talking, the ante is upped by the fact that Vaz is a woman from India. Her material is “probably all surprising,” says Rajni Kurichh, a friend of Vaz’s. “Not only is it all surprising for an Indian woman to be saying, it’s kind of very unusual for an Indian woman to be comedian.” On top of that, “to talk about things like vagina, and to diss your in-laws... Do her in-laws know she does this? Do they know that they’re part of her skit? So it’s kind of a little shocking that way.”
Vaz’s writing and comedy partner, Nadia Manzoor, agrees. “I think it’s really provocative. For an Indian female comedian to be coming out and saying a whole bunch of stuff that still in a culture that’s very traditional—in terms of what a woman represents, in terms of femininity, in terms of playing the traditional gender roll—for her to be coming from that context and saying things that she saying, is quite politically radical, really refreshing. I haven’t seen any female comedian who says this kind of stuff, who kind of puts her balls on the table, you know, without any fear or shame, which is refreshing and amazing.”
An only child, Vaz grew up all over India; her father was a fighter pilot in the Indian air force. She switched schools a lot and had to make new friends constantly, a process that she says made her both insecure and confident at the same time. (She eventually found some stability when she went to boarding school.) Her parents, she said, weren't the type to shelter her from anything too adult, and her father had a record collection that included stand-up by Bill Cosby. The atmosphere in the household was "crude and direct." Her father especially, she said, had a knack for being provocative— he'd take the minority political opinion in a group just to be the odd man out—and her mom appreciated people who said what they thought. Plus, her father had a "juvenile sense of humor," she says. She and her dad could talk about stuff like "shitting and farting" for hours. It was impossible to shock them, she says: "If I knew something was a problem—like a girl saying the word ‘f—k’—I would say it to see what the reaction would be." When she didn't get a response, she knew she had to take her rebellion elsewhere.
After working in hotel sales and advertising, she moved to the U.S in 2000—because she was chasing a guy, the man who would eventually become her husband. ("I was the dude," she said, of the gender role reversal.) In New York City, she began taking improv classes, and then began writing and performing monologues from the point of view of different characters, and twisting her face or her body in different funny ways. It was a type of performance she loved.
Her previous show—which she has also performed in India—was incredibly crude, she says, as topics included how she lost her virginity as well as "p--sy farts." In this latest show, she said, her goal is to express the stuff that makes her angry and things she thinks are funny. "I don't know if I'll ever approach material thinking, 'What can I write to push a boundary?' I don't think I'll ever approach it that way. I'll always approach it from, 'this irritates and upsets me,' or 'this I think is really f--king funny.' And then, if it also pushes boundaries, awesome."
As for that subject of pushing boundaries and the uniqueness of being a female Indian comedian, Vaz seems a little ambivalent. She says that she didn't have any comedic female role models growing up in India, and found a sense of freedom by coming to the U.S.; she also concedes that through doing her show in India she's helped shatter some ceilings for female Indian comics, and gets a sense of happiness out of making them think about comedy differently.
But ultimately how you interpret her comes down to labels. "If you bucket me as an Indian comedian, who's a woman, yes then it's very rare. But the moment you take out the 'Indian' and the 'woman' it stops being that rare," she says. "Men have been talking about their balls and their penises and making jokes about it forever."