Making the radical left laugh | Comedy | Chicago Reader

Making the radical left laugh 

Monkey Wrench host Arish Singh and collaborator Basim Usmani on political comedy, Trump, and why you can't trust white liberals.

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click to enlarge Arish Singh at Pitchfork 2018's Book Fort - DAVID PROCTOR HURLIN
  • Arish Singh at Pitchfork 2018's Book Fort
  • David Proctor Hurlin

By many accounts one of the smartest comedy acts to have emerged in Chicago in recent years comes from a man who first came to prominence by calling out then-candidate Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry—at a Trump rally. That Arish Singh turned out to have not only correctly identified a key aspect of the presidential agenda early on, but to have maintained a sense of humor despite it, is rare. On Monday, March 4, he welcomes musician and videographer Basim Usmani to his variety show, Monkey Wrench, at the Hideout. Usmani's new project, an Urdu- and Punjabi-language goth band called Bubble Ghum, will play, and the two performers will debut a new collaborative project. The Reader got in touch before the show to get the scoop.

AEM: So what can audiences expect from your show on Monday?

BU: Bubble Ghum will be debuting some new songs, and collaborate on some (dark) comedy with Arish.

AS: Basim and I will be doing sketches together, but since we live in different cities, and this is our first time performing together, we scaled it back to a few short collaborative installments. Basim and I are hoping this show and the collaborative sketches it features might give us the groundwork for doing a touring show that combines music and comedy. But right now, I'm just excited to be getting to perform together in person after kicking around the idea since we first connected in 2016.

The sketches we'll be doing draw from conversations we've had over the past year about politics, comedy, and issues of South Asian identity. Some of it's just absurd, dark comedy we find funny, but some of it digs deeper into South Asian identity than you might typically see in comedy. There is commentary on U.S. militarism in South Asia, India's Hindu nationalism-a strain of political extremism in India that's subjected India's minorities to ostracism and a lot of violence-and the frustrations of being a South Asian-American with radical politics in this climate where you're stuck between the fearmongering of the right and the timidness of the white liberal establishment.

BU: #GothsAgainstHindutva

AS: Some of those topics may sound too heavy to take on in a comedy show, but there's a lot of contradictions and absurdities involved in them, many of them centered around powerful people, and we feel all that deserves to be satirized.

One thing that came out of our conversations that shapes these sketches is how the scope of South Asian-American comedy can feel kind of restricted. There are more South Asians doing comedy in America than ever before, and a lot of it is really great, but the emphasis on relatability and playing to a comedy-club audience can kind of water down what you can talk about. Don't get me wrong, we'll definitely be sticking it to the whites, but maybe we'll do some stuff that cuts deeper than mocking how much kale they eat.

AEM: Is punk dead? Is comedy?

BU: If punk needs to go, sexual assault and enabling harassment are valid reasons. There were good reasons to cancel it in the 80s. I like to think punk is applied to [Usmani's other band,] The Kominas as something we brought back in a new form. Bubble Ghum is undead (undead, undead) Postpunk, however.

AS: I think it's more about careers going dead, justifiably so, rather than comedy itself being dead, but I can understand how people would lose their taste for comedy in general with several prominent comedians' rapes, sexual assaults, and misconducts being exposed. Perhaps all this coming out will lead to people being more turned off by stand-up and lead to a decline of the stand-up boom that started in the early to mid-2010s, but that's a bubble that will pop regardless, and it's a more than worthwhile price to pay for victims being heard, and in some cases, receiving justice, and hopefully, changing the culture around sexual violence in comedy as an industry.

As far as a more general disenchantment with conventional stand-up, and with punk for that matter, I think the DIY nature of what Basim and I do might hold a unique appeal. The best comedy and punk have been driven by the freedom of going DIY, being able to put personal expression and creative control before marketability, and that's something that resonates strongly with what Basim and I both do. A South Asian goth music act like Bubble Ghum that features songs in Urdu and Punjabi doesn't really scream commercial success, but Basim went ahead and did it on his own because it mattered to him and he made some really compelling music.

For me, I like doing political comedy, but I'm not really interested in doing the kind of stuff you see at a standard "hashtag resist" comedy-club show. I actually want to take on the ridiculousness of a lot of the people who turn up for that stuff. The upper-middle class, mostly white professionals who despite living through the Iraq war, through the financial crises, who've got ample evidence of how indifferent this country it is to the people of color it impoverishes at home and slaughters abroad, believe the system is fundamentally good and it will get on the right track once we get rid of Trump. Instead of the act these people are primed for, one where I go up and talked about my racist encounters with airport security, I want to talk about that kind of racism. There really wasn't a show out there to talk about this stuff, so in 2017 I started Monkey Wrench. With the help of my coproducer, Julia Dratel, and like-minded comedians, we cultivated an audience for it.

AEM: Two years of a live comedy show is a long time. Why do people come back to Monkey Wrench?

AS: This particular Monkey Wrench with Bubble Ghum does feature mostly performers of color, but that's not a focus of each and every show. We want each show to be diverse and to highlight women, PoC, and queer performers, but what I'd say sets Monkey Wrench apart is that it's a live comedy show with not just diverse lineups, but that it's a show explicitly geared to the progressive and radical left. This goes for the comedy featured on the show (we do have individual stand-ups doing their own thing, but we balance it against explicitly political comedy created by myself and other comedians that we regularly feature), the activists and journalists we do live interviews with, and the causes we give our proceeds to.

We've done shows promoting and donating to groups like Organized Communities Against Deportation, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Moms United Against Incarceration, and last July we raised over a thousands dollars for No Cop Academy activists with a show we did with Felix Biederman of Chapo Trap House. Even at the shows where we don't have funds left over to donate because of expenses we have to cover for headlining acts, we try to have activist organizations, like Chicago DSA, set up tables to talk to the audience about actions they're working on.

The show with Bubble Ghum will be giving part of its proceeds to an organization fighting Hindu nationalist and caste bigotry, Equality Labs.

AEM: Basim, tell me about Bubble Ghum—the band and the name.

BU: Ghum is Urdu for "sadness." Bubble Ghum was kind of my way of acknowledging the dank, bass-driven feel of the music I loved as a teen goth. When I moved from Lahore to the burbs outside Boston in '99, my new friends at school burned me copies of [Bauhaus's 1983 classic] Burning From the Inside and [the Sisters of Mercy compilation] Some Girls Wander by Mistake. Back then I was listening to mostly Pakistani pop and rock. I hear it all in the Bubble Ghum album, which is called Brown Morticia and was released last Halloween. I like to think to think of it as the child of Nazia Hassan and Siouxsie Sioux. Death Disco Deewane.

AEM: Arish, you were kicked out of a Trump rally in Iowa a few years back, and became quite vocal about the then-candidate's rising anti-Muslim bigotry. How has your critique evolved since then?

AS: I don't think my critique has really changed. As I said then, the attempt by Republican presidential candidates, not just Trump, to politically capitalize on anti-Muslim bigotry in the 2016 election cycle was an incredible moment of moral bankruptcy for this country. It was basically a re-creation of the Islamaphobic atmosphere of the months after 9/11, but instead of it being stoked by just angry, ignorant individuals, it stemmed from a purely opportunistic, calculated move by powerful politicians. And that moral bankruptcy extends to Democrats, who just used the situation as a way to superficially package their campaigns for minority communities, rather than take substantial action to quash this onslaught of propaganda that put religious communities and communities of color at substantial risk of hate crimes.

One of the things Trump did that led me to disrupt his rally in Iowa was revive and circulate the debunked conspiracy theory that there were thousands of Muslims in Jersey City cheering when the planes crashed into the tower. I remember the hate crimes that happened in that area, in New Jersey and New York, and I remember how those sort of conspiracies theories played into all that and I couldn't believe someone with that large a platform was just reviving that with so little pushback.

Well, it came about a month before this year's Academy Awards that Nick Vallelonga, the screenwriter for Green Book, had written a tweet in support of Trump and that very conspiracy theory. And the news barely made a ripple. It's not necessarily surprising, but it underscores just how phony and empty our liberal culture is when the guy who wins Oscar for a movie about transcending bigotry in the 1960s was in 2015 affirming a conspiracy theory that amounts to hate-crime propaganda and it's just shrugged off. Zoom out further, past the conspiracy theory being totally baseless, the real threat of hate crimes, and just consider how ridiculous it is that America felt comfortable scrutinizing the behavior and ethics of Muslim-American communities when it's a country that spent the 2000s arbitrarily destroying Iraq, a Muslim-majority country. The bigotry we saw in 2016 reaffirmed to me-and I think a lot of South Asians and people of other diverse backgrounds-that you can't trust the white liberal establishment to protect you.

AEM: Both of you challenge cultural and subcultural norms in a range of ways that can only be described as "intersectional," underscoring and then playing against your own identities and backgrounds-often quite playfully. Tell me how you came to this set of practices, and why it feels interesting in an age when many are hitting peak frustration with identity politics.

BU: I've been releasing music since 2007, and many of my best-known songs are in Urdu and Punjabi. I sing in whatever language is natural to me, and hope it slaps, because I've been doing this for years. I know where my music plays, and I'm done making appeals to people who will write it off. I'm kind of hedging my bets that the brown kids who were into the punk will also be maladjusted enough to dig and buy my drum-machine music.

I've been blessed to be able to perform my music in cities like Casablanca and Karachi. I'm in a strange place, career-wise, because punk podcasts don't know who I am, but I get play listed on the BBC Asian Network every time I release something. I thought America was my career, but America turned out to be a hobby.

In the Muslim-American community there's a lot of pressure on young artists to make something functional, something that will dispel stereotypes and somehow alleviate the fear. I get it, someone shot an airsoft gun at the mosque by my house. The community was ready to buy some grave plots in Worcester, Massachusetts, but the town they were buying them from freaked out. We aren't welcome dead. But I think it's a lot of pressure, and it's hard to write songs/make art about fear that is that raw all the time. I sometimes find myself trying to write something more soothing than something so literal. My audience is mostly brown, often Muslim, and I don't need to underline all our problems for us.


AS: I think there is an expectation in comedy where if you're a person of color, especially when you come from a background not familiar to most Americans, to make your act one where you become this sort of ambassador for everyone with that background. There is definitely comedy I do that talks about being Sikh and being South Asian, but I've never been interested in being the "Sikh comedian." I'm not interested in that path where I'm trying to work my way up the ranks to one day have a TV show where I show people that Sikhs are "really, just like them." There is value to stuff like that, but it just doesn't speak to the comedy I personally want to to do. I don't want do an act that's ultimately grounded in how relatable I am to white liberals who want a surrogate token PoC friend. I want the freedom to be more absurd, more political, or just more out there than that crowd might be comfortable with. v

This interview has been updated to reflect that Usmani continues to play in the Kominas.

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