By Neelam Pahal
Hello, welcome to a space full of puns, bad jokes, non-judgement, but also radical self-acceptance, healing, growth, and compassion. I’ve come a long way in my self-discovery, most notably moving from a passive communication style, to an aggressive communication style, and finding the balance of finally being an assertive communicator.
Stand-up comedy has been a huge tool for me in finding my assertive stance, for a multitude of reasons. Growing up around conservative family members, I always felt bound by the shackles of oppression, verbal + emotional abuse, and constantly feeling worried about what other people will think of not only me, but also my family, as a result of who I am. As a South Asian woman, speaking up when other family members were in the wrong, asking questions, expressing myself in unique ways, and joking around were seen to be disrespectful and inappropriate. My cousins, aunt + uncle perpetually tried to mould me into the version of myself that only they accepted and could control, purely a conditional love. When they moved to the lower mainland, I finally felt free to slowly unlearn what I’d been conditioned to believe – that I am not worthy of love + acceptance if I don’t conform to other’s beliefs. After years of feeling lost, unloved, anxious, and low in my self-worth, I had found a tool to cultivate and water the seeds that were covered in cement.
Now let’s talk a bit about these seeds – moving from oppression to self-expression, buffing out the dents in my identity, wanting the making of Puns to be my Jab, I’m Pun-jabi after all! When I first tried comedy in 2016, I shared a story of dining in the Top of Vancouver revolving restaurant. Picture this: the year is 2013, the city lights of Vancouver twinkling around, dinnerware and cutlery tinkling, hushed voices in this fancy dining establishment. We were there with several blood-relatives from my dad’s side of the family, and my dad was being his usual loud, jokey self. Queue my dad sharing a story of him helping bathe my grandpa after his stroke. Suddenly he tells us, “yeah, I took him into the tub and then I trimmed his balls!”. Not one single person acknowledged what he said, and my mom was trying to conceal her laughter while quietly explaining the inappropriateness of his joke. My dad loves to make raunchy jokes, and is the youngest in his family. I’m so proud of him for expressing himself even in the face of rejection, and he is my inspiration for trying stand-up comedy and developing my personal sense of humor. We both share this quality, which explains why I was the only person laughing at his story (once the shock of hearing him say “balls” in English and realizing he knows what “balls” are wore off).
The entire room was roaring when I shared this story on stage, and my dad looked up at me proudly. It was then I knew that I could find a way to connect with others around me, without being attached to the worry of what they might think. I finally felt the validation I needed that these stories are fun to listen to. It’s been quite the transition, moving from being afraid of sharing personal details to suddenly talking about my grandpa’s nether regions.
To me, stand-up comedy has been a way to share space with people who like to laugh, to make fun memories, meet like-minded individuals, and to learn about myself. Each time I’ve been on stage, I’ve been able to share real parts of my life, hilarious parts, and know that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves, to celebrate the moments that bring us so much joy, and just be a goofball. Despite dealing with anxiety and depression, I continually put myself in the spotlight, even when I’ve felt overwhelmed. I’ve done this because the fear of being vulnerable on stage, even while dealing with these mental health challenges, in front of strangers paled in comparison to the pain of abuse, rejection, and oppression that has been all too familiar to me from blood-relatives.
Now that I’m unafraid of standing on that stage, I’m working towards understanding myself on a deeper level, my perspectives on the world and life, and being honest in the comedic stories I share. I believe all people have the ability to be comedians – it’s about feeling empowered enough to know ourselves, break free from those chains of tone-policing, judgment, and fear of failure, and boldly go into these arenas where there is a lack of South Asian representation, where women aren’t seen as funny. The times where I write my set on the toilet 30 minutes before going on stage are over because now I’m ready to accept that I’m a comedian. I’ve spent tremendous time on the metaphorical toilet, releasing painful memory after painful memory until there’s nothing more left – it’s time to flush.
I’m Neelam and I work for the Crisis Centre for Northern B.C., in Prince George Canada!