Q&A: Zarna Garg gives comedic voice to Indian American mothers

Rising South Asian stand-up comedian Zarna Garg is known for her humor around immigrant parenting and the Indian American cultural divide. She has been featured on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and is the creator of “The Zarna Garg Family Podcast” and her first comedy hour, “One in a Billion.” 

Garg will perform her show, “Practical People Win,” at Bing Concert Hall on May 11 and 12. The Stanford Daily sat down with the comedian and her daughter, Zoya Garg ’25, to speak about her career, Indian American life, parenting and more.  

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Hi Zarna and Zoya, thank you so much for being here and taking the time to talk to me today. Zarna, when did you first realize you were funny?

Zarna Garg: I still don’t think I’m funny. I’m genuinely yelling at everyone around me, and I don’t understand why no one is scared of me. I’m trying to fix lives here but no one takes me seriously. 

TSD: What’s your take on the role of humor in society?

Zarna Garg: Comedians talk about things that make people uncomfortable, things you would shy away from in everyday life. It’s the comic’s gift to make light heavy topics. For example, we really should be talking about how Stanford should not be offering degrees in some subjects. Those kids are not going to be earning any money to recover their tuition. 

Zoya Garg: Says a comedian, says an artist, says a woman who is getting paid to write jokes!

Zarna Garg: I will not discuss the ironies of life. Not everyone can be Zarna Garg. Let us be a little more realistic in our dreaming.

TSD: Speaking of degrees, Zarna, you have degrees in finance and law. What was the journey of sacrificing those degrees to be a stay-at-home mom, which is very much a full time job, to now tour as a comedian?

Zarna Garg: We have a podcast where we recently did an episode on a mother’s guilt. It’s uncomfortable for many women to talk about what they have had to sacrifice for their families. My husband and I are an immigrant couple. When we had kids, we couldn’t figure out how we could both have careers and still keep these kids alive somehow. So, I decided I’ll stay home, support my husband and be with the kids. But 16 years of being with the kids full-time, I learned something: I’m not that into them. I like being a parent, but I hate the job of parenting. I know I’m not supposed to say that but like, you know… If people don’t like what they read in my interview, just say I’m Priyanka Chopra, okay?

TSD: Will do. Zoya, I read that you encouraged your mom to start this career.

Zoya: When we were growing up, my mom would talk about how she wanted to pursue a career again. She shuffled in and out of different business ideas, including matchmaking and a toothpaste company, but what stuck was how funny she was. For her birthday, my brother and I decided to get her onstage. Indians don’t consider stand-up comedy to be a real job, but we knew she had an amazing talent for it and now she’s just taken off completely.

TSD: I love how you see this version of your mother that you want her to fully realize. Zarna, how much of your jokes about being a strict Indian parent are faithful to real life and how much are inflated for comedic effect?

Zarna and Zoya Garg: Oh my god, they’re deflated! 

Zarna: If I told you the truth, there would be so much trauma. You couldn’t even handle it (laughter). Indian parents now are very aware of the reputation they have, so we try to be American about it. We let the kids play the sports or whatever, but it’s a constant tug of war between what we really want and what we pretend we’re okay with them doing. 

TSD: Zarna, what are your dreams for your kids?

Zarna: Here in America, they like to say “think outside the box.” I say no. Stay in the box. All the kids who stayed in the box became doctors, computer people, accountants. The box is great, let me give you a pillow and a blanket to stay in the box and be comfortable in it.

TSD: What do you think, Zoya?

Zoya Garg: I want to be an entrepreneur like my mom. I think what she built is so beautiful, I love that she is chasing her passions. I have no idea what that will look like for me, but the dream would be to get to a place where I love what I do as much as she loves what she does.

TSD: In your comedy sequence you explore this divide between two different worlds: the “first world” and the “third world.” How do you think this contrast shaped your parenting and your comedy?

Zarna Garg: I think it’s very poignant. Here in America, you will do life threatening things just for fun. “Because we’ve run out of every other thing to do, let’s just throw ourselves off a mountain.” Whereas everywhere else in the world, people are preoccupied with trying to stay alive. Survival instincts need to be so sharp; no one would even dream of taking these chances. 

Plus, you have to be realistic. Could you imagine if Zoya went skiing and fell down in the snow? Somebody’s going to think she’s a tree. She’s brown. No one’s even going to notice a human being. And, why are you creating more problems for these paramedics? 

TSD: Zarna, can you paint us the picture of you at Zoya’s age?

Zarna Garg: At 21, I had already been living alone for a couple years. I was almost done with my law school then and moved to New York for my first job. I found my own husband, on my own, via an online dating site. So Zoya, with her existential crisis, with her food hall and poetry class and haikus, I can’t take her seriously.

TSD: Zarna, do you wish your parents parented the way you did?

Zarna Garg: You only have to worry about your kids if they’re out in the world doing stuff. 90% of my life was sitting at home being with my parents. My kids don’t realize how much freedom they have. I wish my parents allowed me a little bit of freedom. 

I lost both my parents very early in life. When you lose that, you don’t have a safety net anymore, which is why I think I’m a little more cautious than the average parent.

Zoya Garg: She’s very overprotective. I never got to go skiing or have any sleepovers. Even in college, she tracks my phone and if I’m not in my room by 9:30 p.m. she starts calling all my friends, my RAs and even my advisor, which is very embarrassing for me. 

TSD: I know it’s midnight in India, where you are, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Will you tell us a little bit about your show which is coming to Stanford next week? What would you want to say to people coming to see it?

Zarna Garg: The show is called “Practical People Win.” It is my second comedy hour. It includes musings on American life, Indian life, the immigrant experience. It’s my view on how life should and could be. My desire to help my audience win. They’re going to leave feeling so empowered.

TSD: Thank you both so much. Zarna, I look forward to seeing you very soon!