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Seeing India through a comedian’s eyes: Mike Harrington

Author: We The Expats
5 Minutes

Seeing India through a comedian’s eyes: Mike Harrington

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Born and raised in the US, Mike Harrington has always been familiar with standup comedy. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Hong Kong that he began performing. He now lives in Mumbai with his wife, and performs often.

When did you realize you can make people laugh? Was it accidental or something about your upbringing that led you to this profession?

I think I’ve always been able to make my older sister laugh. She always was—and still is—a reliably good crowd whenever I wanted to express a funny thought. I think I was around age 10 when I discovered the appeal of a wider audience by doing my first impression (of the school band teacher and his distinctly odd, and I thought humorous, way of laughing) for the other kids at school. But I never considered myself especially funny or thought that I would pursue comedy as an adult.

After encouragement from a couple of friends and a New Year’s resolution, I finally signed up for an open mic five years ago, and the journey began.

Your bio on Instagram says, Consultant by day, comedian by night. Can you describe the two and tell me which you prefer?

My day job is not exactly a laughing matter, though I enjoy the profession for other reasons. Comedy is a creative outlet that exercises a different part of my brain and embraces a different side of my personality. I like the juxtaposition. I don’t prefer one or the other.

You probably get asked this a lot, but tell us about your primary audience in India and your relationship with them on stage?

First, let’s step back and look at any comic’s relationship with any audience anywhere. We can view this as a simple transaction: the comic makes the audience laugh, and the audience’s laughter makes comic feel good. If the laughter doesn’t happen, then the onus is on the comic to improve the relationship.

My primary audience in India is based in Mumbai, where I usually perform, so its members live in this city and represent communities originating from all over India. My audience includes young professionals, established business leaders, aspiring actors, and fellow comics. I once opened for a Rajasthani folk artist at a farmhouse outside Mumbai. I’ve been the featured entertainment at a Bengali wedding function. I occasionally perform for fellow expats as well, most recently at a virtual Fourth of July party attended by the U.S. diplomatic and business communities in India.

Whether I’m talking about riding local trains and eating Indian food or drawing comparisons between India and the United States, I show my audience that I’ve been paying attention to life in India, and this goes a long way toward establishing rapport. Then I invite the audience to see life in India through my eyes, and therein lies the humour.

What is it like being a comedian who is a foreigner in such a diverse country like India? Was it difficult in the beginning?

I started standup as a foreigner in Hong Kong, where the audience at English-language comedy shows are predominantly foreign, so I developed material as a foreigner among foreigners. In India, I’m a foreigner among Indians, so I had to make adjustments. I converted the Hong Kong material to work in India by replacing local references. I wrote new material based on my experiences here.

The most challenging part, in the beginning, was not knowing Hindi, which was commonly used in other comics’ performances. Because their punchlines would be lost on me, I found difficulty in gauging the audience before it was my turn to perform. But I had my own edge: just looking different from everyone else in the room gives a comic an easy opportunity to crack a joke at the outset.

Whether I’m talking about riding local trains and eating Indian food or drawing comparisons between India and the United States, I show my audience that I’ve been paying attention to life in India, and this goes a long way toward establishing rapport. Then I invite the audience to see life in India through my eyes, and therein lies the humour.

 

Tell us something very humorous you often tell people about India.

I’d like to save it for the stage.

And, inspiring?

When I first visited India in December 2012 for a three-day business trip, a colleague told me that this would be “the beginning of a love affair with India.” Five years later, I moved here. I met my future wife in Mumbai the following year, and we were married in Rajasthan just before COVID gave us an extended honeymoon in the living room. Thanks to her and this spellbinding country, I wake up each day feeling inspired.
It’s been a love affair, to say the least.

Standup comedian Jenny Saldana once said, “It’s really hard to be ‘ON’ all the time. We struggle with our onstage persona and our personal lives.” How do you manage your three roles as a consultant, comedian, and Mike Harrington?

I imagine it would be hard to be ‘ON’ all the time, but I don’t expect myself to be. I wouldn’t dare say I can relate to Jenny Saldana or any other professional who is funny for a living. Sure, there have been times during business presentations when I started to think things weren’t going well because no one was laughing—even though the presentation wasn’t meant to be funny. And sure, I had a friend tell me that she didn’t like hanging out with me immediately following a show when I hadn’t yet turned ‘OFF’. And don’t get me started on people who ask me—after learning that I sometimes perform standup—to tell them a joke. But I cannot say that I struggle to manage these three roles you described. As I mentioned earlier, I like the juxtaposition.

Considering the quarantine, how comedians are making people feel better about life in such pressing times? Will there be a shift in responsibility for comedians in society?

When I was invited to perform for the virtual Fourth of July party, the organizers told me they thought that comedy would be a welcome relief for a group that had been in lockdown and dealing with this crisis in their personal and professional lives for the past few months. Laughter is good for our mental health, and audiences could undoubtedly use it during these difficult times.

Unfortunately, virtual performances are the best we can offer for now. Standup is often performed in front of patrons packed into small rooms with poor air circulation. If live, in-person performances ever resume before this virus is contained, I guess comics will need to get used to watching the audience smile with their eyes above the facemasks. I’m sure we’ll find the humour in that.

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