Zarna Garg just for Laughs

Zarna Garg is all in for mom jokes and Truth Bombs at Just for Laughs

After building her career between TikTok and NYC’s Comedy Cellar, winning Kevin Hart’s Lyft Comics series and scoring an Amazon Prime special, Zarna Garg is arriving triumphant on comedy’s biggest stage this month.

It’s pretty ballsy to call your first standup comedy special One in a Billion, but that title fits Zarna Garg perfectly. 

Having immigrated from India to the United States, the New York-based comedienne has gone from being a regular at the Comedy Cellar to getting her own aforementioned standup special on Amazon Prime, being named among Apple TV+’s gutsiest women in comedy and winning Kevin Hart’s Lyft Comics series, to name a few. 

Having a strong social media following hasn’t hurt, either — Garg has more than 728,000 followers and 100 million+ views on TikTok and more than 673,000 on Instagram. Her hilariously relatable comedy — which touches on topics like being a mother of three, her experiences living in America as an immigrant and dealing with one’s in-laws — will be on full display at this year’s Just for Laughs. She’ll be featured on Just for the Culture, happening over five nights at Club Soda, as well as hosting her own show, Truth Bombs, for two nights at le Balcon. These will mark her first-ever appearances at JFL. 

Dave MacIntyre: Have you been to Montreal many times before?

Zarna Garg: I have visited, yes, for tourism, before I was even a comic. Not having anything to do with comedy, I’ve been to Montreal a few times. 

DM: What comes to your mind when you think of the previous times you’ve been to Montreal?

Zarna Garg: It’s very cool. It’s very chic. I feel like Montreal is like a Canadian Paris. Easier than Paris-Paris — a one-hour flight is great! (laughs) In general, I think that the food is outstanding in Canada. I was just in Vancouver for a month shooting a movie, and it was the best — everyday food, but it was so good. So much better than anything I eat in America. I’m sure I’m going to get in trouble because I just said that.

DM: I mean, we’re a Montreal publication. You can shower us with as much praise as you want!

Zarna Garg: I mean, you deserve it. Honestly. It’s such a fabulous city. Beautiful, so charming. I think I was in Old Montreal years ago walking through a little bit, (and in) the stores. Just lovely. I mean, look, I’m Indian. We don’t go skiing. Montreal is a good fit for us. We’re not looking for the mountains and the dangerous stuff. We don’t even care about the whales and the things that people go to watch in other parts of Canada. That’s not what we do as a people. We’re just happy to walk around and breathe your free Canadian air!

DM: Yeah, too bad the air quality was the worst in the world here just a couple days ago.

Zarna Garg: I know! You know, it’s funny because I just told everybody I was so excited to breathe air in Vancouver. I sounded like a crazy woman saying that. But I think you know what I mean, because the Canadian air is so clean. The next day, the fires and the process started. So maybe I should be careful before I say those words! (laughs)

DM: Yeah, or at least definitely keep an eye on the air quality monitor. A couple days ago, I did not leave my house at all because it just was too hazardous.

Zarna Garg: You know what’s crazy is that the Indians living in New York… they would smell that (and) it smells like we were in Delhi. (laughs) We’re so used to that air back home! They’re like, ‘Oh, it feels like we’re back home!’

DM: So you’ll be part of the Just for the Culture Show, as well as hosting your own show, Truth Bombs. What can people expect from these shows?

Zarna Garg: I call it “clean-ish, family-friendly humour.” There may be a naughty word here or there, but it’s mostly family stuff — husband, wife, children. I have three kids, so I’m always yelling at them. That’s my main day job. I try to find the humour in the things that I do with them, because otherwise I’m going to lose my mind. I’ve already maxed out on the drugs! (laughs) I don’t know if you’re a parent, Dave, but if you are, you’ll know exactly what I’m telling you.

DM: I’m not a parent, but maybe one day I will understand!

Zarna Garg: No no no, don’t do it! I tell everybody, what a mistake! I wish they came with a return policy. Don’t do it. You find out entirely too late what a big mistake it is.

DM: My dad is actively discouraging me from ever having kids, so maybe I’ll never find out.

Zarna Garg: Exactly. Your dad needs to come to my show. He’s going to love it. It’s all family stuff. People have told me that when they go to my show, they feel like they just took a quick trip to India.

DM: You entered comedy after spending 16 years as a stay-at-home mom. At what point did it hit you where you realized, “Oh shit, comedy could become a viable career option for me”?

Zarna Garg: Well, it still hasn’t hit me. Is it? I don’t know when it becomes a viable option. Comedy is like the Wild West. I come from a world where everybody goes to college, goes to professional school, gets a licence and then you have a job or a business, right? I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m like, “Okay, let’s do a show. And if the tickets sell, great! Yay!” 

Every day is a new battle, the way I see it. I don’t think I ever think about, “Is it a viable option or not,” because I think that would overwhelm me. But I focus on how many people are having fun with me and are willing to go on that ride with me. As long as that number is growing and growing in real life and the digital space across the board, I feel like I’m doing something okay. I’m doing something right. 

I didn’t come into this through the traditional path. When I started comedy, I really thought a few of my friends would come to one show, and that would be the end of it. I didn’t ever in my life expect to be where I am right now. But the thing that keeps me going is that I stay largely ignorant of where I am and the status of the thing. It was a beautiful journey that brought me here, and I want to kind of pretend that that’s all this is. Is that crazy? I don’t know.

DM: No, no. I mean hey, life can be a series of weird and often serendipitous events, and look where that’s taken you.

Zarna Garg: Exactly! I think the reason I say that is because I know people who are always waiting. Will they get into JFL? Will they get that late night set? Will they get this? Will they get that? Not thinking about all that has helped me tremendously. I just focus on, “Well, 200 more people bought tickets today in Atlanta, so I’m doing something right.” They told their friends, and then their friends are telling their friends. So as long as friends are telling friends, and their friends are telling friends, I will have some sort of a career, I guess.

DM: Well, there you go. And it’s gotten you far enough that you have a special on Amazon Prime now.

Zarna Garg: Yes! I mean, I tried to hide it from my mother-in-law but that didn’t really work.

DM: You often joke about American life as an immigrant from India, as well as raising your three children. How do you find a balance between sharing personal stories and observations while also connecting with a broader audience?

Zarna Garg: You know, the big, beautiful realization of being in the digital space for me — especially through the pandemic, when my accounts really started growing — is that, even when I think I’m sharing my personal story, it seems to resonate across the board. The first joke I posted on TikTok was about how I’ve never said “I love you” to my husband. That’s a true life experience of mine. I really thought I was the only person on Earth who had never said it. But that joke went viral almost overnight, and millions of people have since come forward with all kinds of experiences and their own anecdotes of the things they do for their spouses and partners. Saying “I love you” is not as widespread as I thought it was. 

Everything is a balancing act. I want my material to resonate in a broad way. But what I have found is that, even my smallest, most detailed experience seems to find an audience across the board. The frustrations of raising a daughter or having a daughter who’s dramatic, the joys and the pleasures of having a very handsome son — the world seems to relate! (laughs) I also work a lot. I work six, seven nights a week. If I love a concept or a joke, but it’s just not resonating, I’m very harsh. I will take it out. I’m doing comedy to serve my audience. If it’s an experience that’s not speaking to my audience, I’m not precious about it. I’m not writing these jokes and performing for my own personal jollies. 

I’m constantly trying new material. I’ll give you an example: I really, really wanted to make jokes about fathers-in-law, because my father-in-law in real life is a comical character. But it just gets no reaction from the audience. I can say the craziest thing about him, and no one seems to care. And yet, if I say nothing, and just say, “I spoke to my mother-in-law today,” it immediately pops. I don’t know what it is!

DM: You were recently profiled as one of the gutsiest women in comedy by Apple TV+. What does the word “gutsy” mean to you in terms of comedy?

Zarna Garg: You want to know the honest truth? To me, it means “dumb.” I didn’t know I was being gutsy. I would’ve had second thoughts if I knew I was being gutsy! (laughs) I wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer or path-breaker and all those words. I was just trying to work. 

The thing is that, when you’re living under a mountain of diapers and formula and baby stuff for as long as I was, you just assume that the world has moved on without you. You just assume that everybody is doing everything, everything has been done and you’ve just been sidetracked. So when I came out from under that world, and decided to do comedy, I didn’t really think about whether other women like me are doing it or not. I was just trying to get something going. 

As it grew, and as it evolved, people started saying to me, “Oh, you’re such a unique voice! There is not a voice like you in this world!” And I was like, “There isn’t?! That can’t be right! There must be hundreds of Indian women doing this back home!” Then, as I realized that I literally am the only brown woman I know who does this — especially in a bindi and a kurta, ethnic clothes onstage — a little fear stepped in. You know when you’re the only one somewhere, you’re like, “Is there a bomb threat that I don’t know about?” (laughs) Like if you’re in an airport and you’re suddenly the only one there, you might be like, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t get on this flight.” 

The “gutsy” thing was a beautiful experience with the Clintons [Hillary and Chelsea]. I was honoured to be part of that group of women. But the truth is that I didn’t set out to do anything gutsy. It was all an accident. I didn’t even think of that. Now in hindsight, thank God I did, because had I thought about it, I may have gotten scared off. That’s the real truth. There are people in that series who wanted to change the world. I’m not one of those. I kind of accidentally fell into it.

DM: Speaking of gutsy, you were also recently interviewed on Fox News by Brian Kilmeade. What was that like?

Zarna Garg: Look, it’s Fox News. I kind of knew that I’m walking into the lion’s den not knowing much about what to expect, because I don’t really watch much Fox News. But I do accept and respect that a big population in the world — and certainly in America — watches his show. Brian’s team was extremely respectful, and invited me with a lot of love. We just talked about my comedy and its place in a conservative society. I was very comfortable having that discussion. 

I’m not a political comedian, so I don’t really get into the politics of it all. But I’m not so close to the idea that if half the nation is watching Fox News or his show, it’s my obligation to be out there and speak to that half, as well as the liberal half that you might expect to follow my work. The truth is that they have been so kind to me at Brian’s show, and at Fox in general. They’ve been full of support. They’ve extended all kinds of support to me, so I have nothing bad to say about them. Even though I went in with a little trepidation, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t know how it was gonna be, but it was perfectly fine. I said everything that I wanted to say, and I stayed true to my ideologies.

DM: What has winning Kevin Hart’s Lyft Comics done for your career so far?

Zarna Garg: It’s opened all kinds of doors, because that show was on TV. It became my first quote-unquote “TV Credit.” Otherwise, had I waited for late night and all of that — that still hasn’t happened.  Different shows have different agendas. Kevin Hart’s team was very forward-looking. I’m blown away by how they even knew who I was, and where to find me. I’m pretty sure they found me doing comedy for free on the streets of New York, in the subway, on the bus or under a tree. 

They found me during the pandemic, when I wasn’t cast at any comedy club. In fact, most clubs weren’t even open — I was just doing jokes for free as a community service exercise. But because they put me on that show, and that show was on TV, I was later able to use it as a TV credit to get into clubs. I don’t know, if that show hadn’t happened, how long it would have taken otherwise. Typically, the late night sets, they don’t really put people like me on.

DM: It’s a little hard to predict at times, especially in a pandemic.

Zarna Garg: Exactly. Kevin Hart’s show opened a lot of doors for me. It was the first time I did something competitively, but I completely did it out of my heart. I didn’t know what other people were doing. I just followed the directions they gave me, and I put on the performance that I could. When I won, it totally gave me a lot of confidence in my own abilities.

DM: What do you have planned for the rest of 2023?

Zarna Garg: My second hour is coming along — that’s the hour that I’m going to be running in Montreal, Truth Bombs. It’s really coming along. I’m hoping to take it all over the world, and maybe get a deal to film it. Fingers crossed. I’m on a beautiful journey. I believe it’s all going to happen, so I’ll just keep at it.

DM: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Zarna Garg: The one thing I am trying to do is get my mother-in-law put on the no-fly list. So if any of your readers have contacts in that space, can you please encourage them to connect with me? She’s the one person who’s going to bring down my career! I need somebody who can put her on the no-fly list, so she can stay in India and I can focus on what I’m doing here. ■

Zarna Garg performs as part of OFFJFL in Truth Bombs at le Balcon (463 Ste-Catherine W.), July 26–27, $32.50 and as part of the ensemble at Just for LaughsJust for the Culture series at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent), July 18–26, $58.50

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.