Read__5 December 2019

Abby Govindan on her journey on finding herself through comedy.

In the spring of 2015, I enrolled at Fordham University as a pre-med student. Armed with  Texan southern hospitality I was dewy eyed and optimistic, excited to see what New York City had in store for me. Life had other plans. My life took a dark turn in the spring of my freshman year when I fell head over heels for the man who would leave a lasting mark on me. After enduring prolonged sexual assault from a man I thought I loved, I felt broken. Most nights, I would wake up in a cold sweat from my seemingly never ending nightmares and warily look over at my nightstand, where a bottle of Vodka and packs of sleeping pills would stare back at me, taunting me. I relished the idea of peacefully falling asleep and never having to wake up again. If my mental health was a rope, it was on its absolute last nylon strand preventing me from crashing to my death. I had to force myself to find motivation in the smallest things, like “At least wait until after you watch the next Marvel movie before you swallow all those sleeping pills” or “You can’t kill yourself without knowing whether or not Kylie Jenner is pregnant.”

In October of 2017, I sat down by myself at a crowded Starbucks in Manhattan and watched what felt like the entire city of New York pass me by outside an adjacent window. I wondered if anyone knew they were so close in proximity to a dead girl walking. I was eating one meal per day to sustain myself. I had largely withdrawn from social events and I had been in the process of writing sympathy letters to my family for when they found my body, apologizing for leaving them so soon. My eyes welled up with tears when I realized I was trapped in a purgatory of my own making: too scared to end it all but too agonized to not consider it my only option. I felt like I was floating for a brief moment before a heavy feeling overcame my chest and I had a panic attack at the sudden realization that I would no longer be alive in a matter of days. As I rapidly unraveled in front of a million strangers, I reached for my laptop to seek out my only remedy for panic attacks at the time: an episode of my favorite TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. 

In comedy I found solace. Every episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine felt like a warm embrace from a longtime friend. Episodes of The Good Place gave me the fuzzy happy sort of feeling I had forgotten how to feel otherwise. I watched stand-up comedy to forget that I was totally alone in the world and to find laughter in my darkest moments. I felt a sort of connection to these comedians. They may not have known who I was, but to me they were my closest friends. John Mulaney talked me down from an anxiety attack. Ali Wong made me laugh after a particularly traumatic Tinder date. Aparna Nancherla showed me that in our pain we can find humor. As I recovered from my panic attack, still sitting in Starbucks (probably looking like a maniac laughing through my tear-streaked make-up) I realized the answer had been in front of me all along. I closed out of YouTube and immediately enrolled in comedy classes.

I watched stand-up comedy to forget that I was totally alone in the world and to find laughter in my darkest moments.

Comedy has been my cornerstone for as long as I can remember. Although I’ve harbored an undying love for it from a young age I never really considered it a career option. I used to sneak my dad’s laptop to my room and watch clips of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey under my covers, laughing at jokes I only kind of understood at the age of 9 and very careful not to wake my parents up. I stayed up late at night watching clips of Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters until my eyes were red and the sun was up. In high school, I would always arrive to class early and use the extra time to watch clips of Donald Glover or Amy Schumer on my iPod touch. My whole life, I’ve acted out hypothetical stand-up sets in the shower using my hairbrush as a mic, a practice that I only found out recently isn’t a universal experience. Despite my infatuation with comedy performance, I could never move past the expectations that I felt were set in place for me: Indian girls don’t do comedy. They become doctors and engineers and IT professionals, they make their family proud. 

All first generation Indian kids are always fighting against the mold – they’re expected to be smart, reserved, and modest. However, I always felt especially out of place in the Indian community in Houston. I tried, though. I vividly remember long nights in high school where I would stay up trying to memorize calculus concepts, depriving myself of food and sleep because I felt that I hadn’t earned them. I’d only end up feeling defeated and stupid when I didn’t get the stellar grades that seemed to come to other Asian kids so seamlessly. By 16, I was known for being a bit of a snark, which didn’t endear me to the adults in my community. I never shied away from an opportunity to give any adult who crossed me a piece of my mind, a practice that was frowned upon. 

Around this time, I was dealing with conflicts at home as well. My parents, who are very important and active figures in the Houston Indian community, wanted me to be a docile Indian girl. They wanted me to take classical Indian dance classes, stay in Houston for college, and study medicine or engineering; a picture perfect heiress for their political legacy. I did none of those things. As my relationship with my parents frayed, I’d sooth post-argument panic attacks with clips of stand-up comedy from Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu, or Aamer Rahmen. These sharp-tongued South Asian comedians made me feel better about being unapologetically myself. They were not ashamed of their heritage, in a sense they were strengthened by it. It felt empowering to hear them tell jokes about their own identity. Comedy seemed like the only welcome place for me.

When I started comedy classes at Caroline’s School of Comedy in Manhattan, it felt right. Something about doing stand-up was so familiar, like the stage had been waiting just for me for 20 years. For the first time in months I felt something I thought I had lost forever: joy. There is nothing greater than the adrenaline rush that comes with making a room of hundreds of people laugh. Over the course of the next few months, I was fortunate enough to perform comedy all over the world and meet like-minded people who also used stand-up as a means of emotional coping. I finally felt like I had a community that understood me. 

Something about doing stand-up was so familiar, like the stage had been waiting just for me for 20 years.

And then, seemingly overnight, I went viral. I liked to tweet. Most indie comedians nowadays have to have active social media pages to find fans. I’d had moderate success before, posting a few tweets with a few hundred followers. But one particular tweet did well and suddenly, my follower count shot up. It was unbelievable to see how many people not only resonated with what I had to say but who were also genuinely rooting for my success. Indian girls from all over were sending me messages thanking me for giving a platform to the Indian American experience, messages I was sending to my own idols not long before. With the help of Indian student organizations across the country, I was able to go on a college tour for comedy at the age of 21. This past March, two Hollywood managers messaged me to say they thought I had a lot of comedic potential and asked if they could represent me for TV writing. It’s incredible to be in the midst of your own rise and to be aware that just a few months ago, I wasn’t here. And just a few years ago, if I wasn’t honest about what I wanted, I might’ve fallen off the edge of the world. 

I’m not quite where I want to be yet, but I’m getting there. These past few months, I’ve met celebrities, gone to red carpet premieres, met federal politicians, traveled the country doing comedy, worked with some insanely talented people, and gotten a chance to tell my story on my own terms. I’m not particularly special or different, I’m just a normal girl who had a little bit of help chasing her dreams. This all happened because a few thousand people on the internet thought I was funny and, eventually, a few important people agreed. As I continue to strive to reach my goals, I would do anything to travel back in time just to tell 9 year old Abby that, quite literally, anything is possible. Even an Indian girl doing comedy. 

Written by abbygovindan