By Deepika S
You might know Sumukhi Suresh from the fun web series The Better Life Foundation, about a group of young people trying to run an NGO, released in June 2016. You might know her from her own just-released creepy web series Behti Naak, the “untold story of an uncouth girl with unbearably runny nose”. Perhaps you know her as Anu Aunty from The Enthu Cutlet’s 2014 music video based on a book by Varun Agrawal, or from her YouTube videos made with Richa Kapoor, or her Indian classical renditions of ‘Boom Boom Boom Boom’ or ‘My Humps’. Maybe you’ve seen her in a live performance with The Improv. And if that still doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you’ve heard about the recent rollicking women-only show at The Humming Tree in Bangalore, the first instalment of Suresh’s new travelling show Disgust Me: an hour of jokes about booger, itchy groins, sex and other yucky things to which only women (including the female staff at the venue, who suddenly found themselves filling in as bouncers and bartenders for the night) were allowed. (More about that sex toy-filled night here)
We met the Bangalore-based comic between flights and Bombay trips and bandhs to ask her more about her hilarious new show and other naughty stuff that she’s up to.
How did Disgust Me start?
Last November or December, I did a show at the UB City amphitheatre. I remember I was doing my set — I do a standard set that includes my usual observations, fairly clean, maximum there’s like a cuss or something — and I improvised something on blow jobs in between. I noticed that the men liked it, they were laughing, but the women were like, “We don’t know what she’s talking about.” I don’t know what got into me, but I asked a woman sitting in front of me, how can you look me in the eye and pretend you’ve never given someone a blow job? She kept looking around her and saying no no, and finally she just walked out — not angrily, just pink in the face.
That’s when I realised, if you put just [women] in a room together, I think they would laugh more [at dirty jokes] or jokes about our everyday experiences.
In terms of the stuff that you’re writing, does the fact that you have an all-women audience open up more stuff for you to say?
Yes and no. I’ve said the same stuff in front of guys, and the men that I’ve run this material by — because most comics are men — love it.
The blow job joke, whenever I do it, if there’s an equal number of men and women, the men are way more receptive [mimes a woman trying to be dainty and proper]. But if you put the women together…. my first trial show was in March. Eighty-five women at Ladies Club…oh god, they were so good! There was this mob at the back, and they were so rowdy. Women talk back: in the Bangalore show, when I was talking about being horny on your period, this girl in the audience called Aarti was pretending she didn’t know what I was talking about. I said “Fuck you Aarti, I know you’re horny,” she said, “Fuck you back, I know when I’m horny.” One girl brought her mother, and Aarti brought her mother-in-law, bloody badass bitch.
It’s an all-women show so they can come, enjoy it, laugh to their hearts’ content. And I know this will open things up. Now when they go to a dirty comedy show with a mixed audience, they will allow themselves to laugh and enjoy it.
There are 22-23 year old women who have fun at my show and love the fact that they can laugh about something gross. It’s a personal milestone for me — when I was 21-22, I was all, don’t come near me with anything disgusting. I still can’t handle poop jokes. But I’m like, fuck it, I have to get over this mental thing of “This is disgusting and I can’t laugh at it.”
I remember one woman stopped me at a supermarket, and said, “Can you turn it down a notch?” Someone asked me if I was doing this to “empower” myself, or “empower” women. But everything need not be a social movement.
Where are you taking this show to next?
Ya, I did, but now things have changed. That one-hour show didn’t feel like a one-hour show. I can show you my diary, I have 30 topics in it, with 2-minute bits written on each. But I completely underestimated the crowd interaction, which I thought would be for 15 minutes. I forgot the fact that you’re dealing with a bunch of women — and they love to talk. Not in an interfering way, I loved how interactive it was, it was like a being at a kitty party…no, not a kitty party, but like one of those nice iced-lemon-tea lunches where you chit-chat… Out of my 30 topics, I did only five or six and I was shocked when Pooja [Pooja Sampath, the executive producer for the show] said it was time up. Now people are asking me if I want to do a 2-hour show, but I think I shouldn’t. You [the audience] should leave wanting more.
After the Bangalore show, I got a crazy number of enquiries from people who want to attend. In Bangalore, at the end when I did my last joke and got my last laughs, everyone was still sitting there, going, “And then and then? Tell, tell more?” But actually the show was over! I didn’t even get to deliver my ending punchline.
But you know that moment in the show when I said no one has ever gone down on me? [Suresh told the audience that as a “chubby girl” she didn’t like having people go down on her. The audience shouted back in horror, to berate her in unison.] They became like my moms, “How can you not!” Apparently some women in the back were talking to my friends, and said, “Poor thing, she must be really young. She doesn’t know the happiness!” And there were some chubby girls who told me later, look, we get where you’re coming from, but if the lights are off, nobody cares! Everyone was very concerned though. They were like, no no, you must do it, we must arrange this for you, as if they had become my mom.
I got some amazing feedback — some women came up to me afterwards and said, great show, we’re lesbians, can you also do something for us? It hadn’t occurred to me at all, but they were like, come, talk to us, meet us. That would be great.
I was supposed to do this show in Bangalore, then Bombay, then Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi. Now I think I want to do another one in Bangalore, in October.
Next year I’m going to turn it up. [She says this with a glint in her eye.] I’m losing some weight so I can do pole dancing, like I’ll do a whole set while I’m on the pole. And we’ll put a pole for women to also try…
…Wait, you’re serious?
Yeah, I’m serious! There’s a Dutch comic who strips while she does comedy. That’s insane, I mean I can’t strip because I don’t have that kind of balls, but fuck, I’d put a pole on my stage, for sure.
I read in an interview that in the past you’ve worked in a children’s library, that you’ve been a chef, and that you’ve work in a food and water safety laboratory. Were you trolling the interviewer? All of this is for real?
Yeah, I worked for a children’s library called Hippocampus, and for their reading foundation as a storyteller, then I worked as a chef for ITC Gardenia. I was with a small government laboratory that did food microbiology, then I moved on to a certification company where I took care of food, water and environment safety. But I quit in November 2015.
You did that to focus solely on comedy?
What has life been like since then?
More than not having a monthly salary — salary of course is my biggest panic — I really liked my job. I didn’t like the place that much because there was, you know, the usual work politics, but I loved my job. Food has always been at my core, I studied food science. When I left there I felt very bad because I was part of the first few staff, I had built the microbiology lab, the chemical lab, I got money in, and when I left I was full emotional.
But I had to do it to see if comedy would work out, and what it holds for me. I’m glad I quit. I still miss the lab, though, and on Twitter you’ll still see me creepily cracking lab jokes.
All these jumps … and you’re only 29?
Yeah. I’m 28, I’ll be turning 29 in October.
I finished my graduation and moved to Bangalore because I was in love with a boy. Stayed here, comedy happened, so that’s pretty much it.
What happened to the boy?
[Laughs] Comedy happened. Some things don’t work out, and then better things come along, it’s a good thing.
After Disgust Me, you think you will get labelled a sex comic?
Don’t care. Didn’t care. That’s okay.
The thing about being a female comic where you’re doing your own show and you call the shots, so if I want to do a show [that’s not about sex] I can just organise one myself. What we don’t see is a lot of female comics doing the whole organisation thing. We’re still like, can we do it, can we sell out a show? That was my first worry with this, I thought I’d only be able to bring in about 50 people. That’s why I got Pooja Sampath in and that woman, she ran the show. And we got so many people in and I’m glad. We have to be thinking about marketability.
Plus it’s a private show and won’t go on YouTube. But if the word gets out, that’s okay, it’s just a label. I remember when I did Anu Aunty, I was tagged an aunty. Until last month I kept getting ads in which I was to be a maid or aunty. After Better Life Foundation it was the angry girl. Now after Behti Naak, people are like, what do we do?
But if the [sex comic] label reaches my mom’s ears, I’m busted.
Where do you get your ideas from?
My usual standup is very megalomaniac, to be honest, it’s a lot about me. It starts with personal experiences or problems, and then usually things that anger me. They’re usually very silly. I have anger issues about things like 19-year-olds having opinions, or as someone from a food background, with people who cook for three months and say, “I love cooking”. I have a friend who told me she makes “really nice pasta”. It was Sunfeast pasta. You should have a little shame in life, no? Arre, hostel mein we used to do better stuff, what are you doing?
It’s my personal experience, my improv background and my tiny peephole of hatred that makes my comedy… sad, but that’s how it is.
Who’s your favourite comic…in life?
In life? I’m a genuine Tina Fey-Amy Poehler fan. I love them. I love what they do, I love how awkward they are. But in terms of stand-up comics — it’s something I’ve only started taking seriously recently, watching clips on YouTube and all that — I’m genuinely in love with Ellen DeGeneres. You know there are people who are very impatient all the time, they look like this [Suresh makes her best impatient face], and she’s doing it every time all through her stand-up set, it’s like she’s forgotten her purse every time I time I’ve seen her. It’s such an interesting quirk. And Louis CK.
What are you working on currently?
Immediately, I’m doing another series like Behti. Behti Naak, now four episodes are done, I’m going to Bombay where’ I’ll shoot eight more. Disgust Me is on, Go Straight, Take Left [a comedy sketch show with Naveen Richard, her co-star from The Better Life Foundation] is touring, my personal standup is happening, and I’m doing another show that I might be writing next year, a funny cooking show on a grander scale (I’ve been cooking since, what, second or third grade? It’s my back-up plan for life) for which I’m looking to get money in. It’s like a mix of Come Dine With Me and The Kumars at No. 42.
My future plan is to have a YouTube channel that is super full of content. And write a web series for a man, which right now no one asks women to do. I don’t want to be in the series, just create it. And create more stuff for myself. Women can’t always be cast in other people’s videos.