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The South Asian comedians who walked so Gen Z could run

A generation raised in the comment sections of Lilly Singh's and Jus Reign’s videos are having their turn in the comedic spotlight.
Photo illustration: Vertical strips with images of Jeremy Franco, Russell Peters, Abby Govindan,Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, Jasmeet Singh and Lilly Singh.
Jeremy Franco, Russell Peters, Abby Govindan, Mindy Kaling, Jasmeet Singh, Hasan Minhaj and Lilly SinghAnjali Nair / NBC News; Getty; Netflix

There was one particular overture that became a siren call to brown internet children in the 2010s.

“Waddup everyone it’s your girlllllllll Superwoman!” 

It meant a new video had dropped by Lilly Singh, at the time a niche YouTuber known by the moniker iisuperwomanii, who dressed up like her Indian parents and put on skits in her childhood bedroom. 

In the midst of a largely white entertainment landscape, there she was, speaking Punjabi and wearing her mom’s dupatta on a public platform. Her bits, titled “My Parents Do This,” “Sh-t Punjabi Mothers Say” and “Types of Siblings,” were not only the driving force behind many late-night YouTube binges, they were also the beginning of a new era in diaspora comedy. 

Feeling invisible and stuck between two worlds, brown Gen -Zers found safety in comedy. YouTubers such as Lilly and Jasmeet Singh, aka JusReign, were like older siblings to a generation of kids with identity crises, and their videos were the first time many felt understood. 

Those kids are now young adults, and that state of South Asian comedy looks far different than it did 10 years ago. There are more players, for starters, and the content they consume has grown up as they have. 

Lilly Singh’s videos are reminiscent of a time when the only South Asian representation in Western media was on niche corners of YouTube, and the spaces third culture teens had to commiserate in were mostly confined to the comments sections. But that’s not the case anymore.

Hasan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, even Singh herself are mainstream celebrities now, and those who grew up watching them are entering the comedy scene themselves. A fresh generation of voices is vying for the attention of the diaspora. They came of age on the internet, and social media is expediting their fame. 

“Some of the most iconic voices of our current generation are internet comedians who, in the ‘80s, and ‘90s, and early 2000s, would not have been given the same avenues of success as they are today,” said Abby Govindan, 25, a comedian who gained fame on Twitter. Now a successful stand-up, she opened for Minhaj on his tour this year. 

Era of the South Asian YouTube star

Before Lily Singh exploded online, becoming a household name and booking NBC talk show “A Little Late With Lilly,” she was ours, Govindan said. 

She remembers the early days. A decade ago, when she was 15, she was in Houston, probably tucked under the covers with her family laptop, quietly playing Singh’s videos late into the night. 

“I think every brown kid goes through this phase of hating the fact that they’re desi and then all of a sudden just loving it,” Govindan said. “I think Lily is the first time I saw an Indian woman doing something creative and unique and quirky.”

Lilly’s contemporary, Jasmeet Singh, brought similar energy to a slightly older audience on YouTube. Often dressing like his dad with an exaggerated fake mustache, he re-created the South Asian experience in skits like “Desi Parents and Birthdays” and “The Punjabi Wedding Breakdown.”

“It was all really relatable. He did exactly what my parents did,” said Inderdeep Kaur, 22. “I would show these videos to my classmates. …Watching them watching him, it really made me feel like, ‘Yeah, that’s my people.’ I finally get to show someone that’s Punjabi, that’s Indian. I just felt really proud. 

It opened the door to Gen Z’s first conversations about life and identity in the diaspora. 

“The South Asian people I grew up with, we were all collectively embarrassed of our culture and background,” said Ayaon Yadav, 21. “We didn’t really like to talk about it, and when we did, it would be in a very joking manner. Looking back, I think [the joking] was to cater to who we wanted to be at school, which were white people.”

Lilly's and Jasmeet’s videos helped break down some of that shame with humor, she said. 

“They were the first two faces, on different platforms, and somewhat different audiences,” she said. “But that’s the first time I felt like, Oh my gosh, there’s people that I can actually relate to.’”

The Indian accent comedy debate

South Asian YouTube comedians dominated their niche, and they quickly became viral. White people were suddenly watching, and in certain moments, they were laughing for the wrong reasons, comics said. 

“[Lilly] kind of set this precedent that if you’re Indian, being Indian had to be part of your schtick,” Govindan said. “A lot of comedians do that, me included. But that was the pitfall back then of being someone who was a minority — you kind of had to address being a minority otherwise no one really wanted to interact with your content.”

Lilly and Jasmeet were part of an era where accents were the main medium for brown comics. They followed stand up successes like Russell Peters, another Canadian comedian who heavily relied on the Indian accent in his specials like “Red, White, and Brown,” which came out in 2008.

He is often credited as the first South Asian to achieve success in the comedy industry.

“Russell Peters is the reason that I’m a stand up comedian,” Govindan said. “I was in temple camp at age 9, and someone was like, ‘Hey, do you want to watch Russell Peters?’ And my whole worldview just changed.”

But acts like Peters’, Lilly’s and Jasmeet’s have started a debate that’s raged among South Asian comedy fans in the past few years. When is it appropriate to use a fake accent? When are we opening the door for racism?

If not for the Indian comedians before me who did use the Indian accent, I would not be where I am today. I have the luxury of choosing not to do it.

comedian Abby govindan said

Jeremy Franco, 25, a viral comedian who became TikTok famous under the name JezBreezy, says he does use the accent in his videos, in which he often dresses and acts like a brown mom. But there’s a marker between relatability and mockery that he won’t cross, he said.

“There’s a line between acting out these skits that portray stereotypes, particularly negative stereotypes, versus just sort of real world things that we go through,” he said. “You will never see me acting out a taxi driver, you’ll never see me acting out a 7/11 employee.”

Govindan chooses to forgo the accent in her stand-up, but she doesn’t judge anyone who takes a different path, she said. 

“I don’t do the Indian accent because I feel like, in a way, the punch line becomes the accent,” she said. “But if not for the Indian comedians before me who did use the Indian accent, I would not be where I am today. I have the luxury of choosing not to do it.”

Breaking into the mainstream

The late 2010s marked the national debut of Hasan Minhaj, perhaps the first mainstream, global success who spoke directly to a South Asian audience. 

“Every Indian person I meet asks me about Hasan,” Govindan said. “I went from an annoying internet fangirl to someone who opened for him.”

His first special, “Homecoming King,” centered entirely on the Indian American Muslim experience.

“Seeing ‘Homecoming King’ was insane,” Yadav said. “I was feeling seen, but I was much older and I had more lived experiences.”

Transcending the foundations of making-fun-of-our-parents comedy that dominated previously, fans said Minhaj’s stand-up hits on something deeper. He mostly steers away from the Indian accent punch line, but his jokes still land for children of immigrants, they say. He’s also not afraid to get political.

“Hasan doesn’t poke fun at his culture or religion as much as the other comedians that we grew up with, like Russell Peters, but he’s still funny and still has jokes that we can all relate to, especially as first generation South Asians,” said Anik Patel, 30. 

A new generation captures the stage and phone screen

A teenage Govindan watched as the minorities she followed on YouTube were held to impossibly high standards. Now, as a Twitter- famous comic, much of the same pressures are a daily reality for her. 

“I had to do a lot of growing in the public eye,” she said. 

She still remembers her first viral tweet, and the first one that got majorly hated on. Having amassed more than 181,000 followers in just a few years, she sees virality as something that can make one’s journey in the industry both easier and more arduous.

She rocketed to fame online, while before social media it might take years for someone to gain that kind of exposure. 

“I think it’s so amazing that 18- and 19-year-olds, who would otherwise have no chance at getting famous, are now going viral on TikTok,” she said. 

But at the same time, the internet records your mistakes for life, and bad jokes she told when she was 20 still pop up on her feed years later. 

“I’m jealous of comedians from the '70s and '80s, because they can tour with an entire show, and the jokes will never follow them,” she said. “It dies with the show.” 

Though standing on the shoulders of the YouTube comics she watched as a kid, her comedy has evolved. Her culture is a part of her comedy, just like it’s a part of her. But it’s not all of her, and it’s never the butt of the joke. 

She makes fun of her parents, but she also talks about dating, mental health and that one time in college when she emailed the KKK (it was for class).

“When I’m making content, I’m just making it about my own experiences, everything that I’ve dealt with,” Jeremy Franco said. 

He reminisced on his childhood waking up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to watch Lilly Singh videos on his parent’s dial-up internet. The world has changed drastically since then, but the most important element of comedy is the same.

Comedic spaces, whether physical or online, are sacred spaces. Brown kids in the diaspora find home base there. 

“It’s one of those things where, if you can’t laugh, you’ll cry,” he said.