Meet Zarna Garg: The Indian mother whose comedy is taking the US by storm

The comic, 48, has found a captive audience for her jokes about the immigrant experience and parenting

Zarna Garg released a stand-up special on Amazon Prime Video earlier this year. Photo: Zarna Garg
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“I just really, really, really needed to get back to working. My youngest (child) had just started full-time schooling. I was 43. I had been a full-time mom for 16 years. It’s not what I came to America for.”

It’s a tale as old as time. A woman’s search for identity in a world full of labels that didn’t quite fit. Wife. Mother. Middle-aged. Brown. Immigrant. Lawyer. But also, funny. “That one’s been a constant. It felt mine, even though I wasn’t thinking about it consciously then.”

What could have been a downwards spiral became the ladder Zarna Garg used to climb her way out of her existential crisis. And the not-quite-right labels have become the fodder that fuel her comedy. Today, at 48, Garg is remarkably a rising star.

In 2019, her debut screenplay Rearranged won at the Austin Film Festival. In 2021, she won Kevin Hart's Lyft Comics. In 2022, she was featured in Apple TV’s Hillary and Chelsea Clinton-hosted Gutsy series.

Her comedy special Zarna Garg: One In A Billion was released in May this year on Amazon Prime Video. Her roughly 750k followers on TikTok have helped rack up over a 100 million views on the platform and she has another 750k followers on Instagram. She recently launched her podcast, The Zarna Garg Show, featuring her family of five. She’s also just finished filming a movie, has written a script for another, is writing a TV show and is ready to film her second special.

A big part of Garg's appeal is her proclivity to joke about topics considered taboo in eastern cultures. Like mother-in-laws. Or the obsession with firstborn sons. Or, simply, sons, for that matter. “When we say don’t joke about your mother-in-law, we’re actually saying to women that no matter what she’s doing, you have to be respectful. I’m in this game to challenge that thesis. Brown women have a right to laugh,” she says.

Clearly, Garg is on to something. “I work relentlessly, deliver every time, and when organisers book me, it’s because I’m worth every cent.”

Relentless is one word for it. Ruthless is another. And Garg leans into it without coyness.

“Women have been programmed not to talk about money like it’s vulgar. I came into comedy with a very clear plan – if I touch it, it’s going to be the biggest thing ever. It was never about, 'I’ll do what I can.' The Zarna Garg comedy business looks for the straight line to money. I don’t care about being seen by 10 million people or meeting famous people. I need convertibility.”

This singularity of purpose dictates how Garg runs the show. “When you’re starting something at my age, you don’t have a minute to lose. I’m part of a community of … successful women entrepreneurs and I work with the best comics around the world. My mind is always taking notes from them, even if I’m just quietly sitting at the back.”

Garg's comedy journey may have started with a humble five-minute set on her mother-in-law at an open mic and going home to Google “What’s a joke?” but her goal now is anything but humble.

“I’m creating a hub – digital and real-life – where everybody who likes my kind of mom-style, family-friendly comedy can connect. I want to do TV, I love making my little social media videos and I love my podcast. But at the centre of it all is stand-up comedy because there’s really nothing like it for me,” says Garg.

At the heart of this is a rare feel-good, barrier-free vibe in a comedy ecosystem that too often rewards edgy over inclusive. “I don’t like insulting people for a laugh. It’s not wrong, it’s just not me," she says. "And I feel a debt of gratitude to American women. They pioneered the idea of 'this is your right' as a woman, to me, at least, because I came from a world where women were taught to adjust and settle. So it’s important to me that my audience – but especially women – goes home happy and feeling good about themselves.”

Updated: October 09, 2023, 6:54 AM