Gandhi Tells Jokes
Soon, I’m gonna release a series of videos in which I play Gandhi. As I ran this by a few friends, almost everyone thought it was a great idea. Buuut… a few pointed out some potential pitfalls. As such, at the risk of being defensive, I decided to get out ahead of it by writing this.
Years ago, I met Brian Patrick Mulligan, an impersonator/impressionist who did a spot-on Dick Cheney at an event where I did standup in my hometown of Cincinnati. We got to know each other pretty well, so one day, since he also does a mean Winston Churchill (Is there another kind?), he suggested I dress up like Mahatma Gandhi. The idea was to record a series of funny conversations between Churchill and Gandhi. I loved the concept but we’ve never really gotten it off the ground. Boy, was he right…
What They Might Say
So, what’s the problem? As far as I can tell (and there might more more we haven’t considered), it’s four-fold… and yes, it would be quite ironic if, in my attempt to avoid trouble, people in the first group get pissed by my simply stating the concerns of the second group.
The Far Right, mostly fundamentalists, won’t take kindly to the depiction of Gandhi in any but a historical light. They won’t want him telling jokes in the modern world. Indeed, I was sitting at GQ India’s offices in Mumbai, working with the team to flesh out my script for hosting the Men of the Year Awards. I proposed a Gandhi joke, but immediately, people said to not even go there. So, I certainly have some semblance of this concern. Then again, my Hindu bona fides are pretty strong.
The Far Left, mostly feminists, now believe Gandhi is a problematic figure, mostly due to his treatment of his wife, Katurba, and allegations of misdeeds with girls and women. (To be clear, I don’t believe all women’s rights issues are necessarily Far Left. I consider myself a feminist, which of course is someone who advocates for equal treatment of women and men. I’d take it a step further and add this applies to the entire gender spectrum.) To paraphrase, yes, Gandhi might’ve liberated India, but at the expense of hurting those close to him.
It might resemble a minstrel act in which White people are laughing at Brown people’s expense. It was a White man who made the observation that I could play Gandhi.
It might be a bit hacky, a là Seinfeld. “It offends me as a comedian.”
What I Say to Them
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
– Not Gandhi
I spoke at length to a Zoomer influencer with 500K+ followers on Instagram. I’ll protect her identity, but suffice it to say that she articulated the concerns of Group 2 quite well and she approved of my perhaps making this Gandhi’s long-lost younger brother instead.
My wife and I landed on Mo Gandhi, mostly because of its ethnically ambigous nature. (Though I found Craig Gandhi (like Craig Christ) and Wayne Gandhi (the other Great One) quite amusing, we wanted to steer clear of an overtly Western name so as to not arouse the concerns of Group 3. It was a happy accident that Mo could actually be short for Mohandas, but that wasn’t the intent. And to the extent that it’s an abbreviation, it’s almost funnier in that the parents gave up on finishing his name.)
At the end of the Zoomer influencer convo, I asked pointblank if she felt I should simply not do it. I’m editing this a bit for clarity but this should capture the essence:
“Are you considering me ‘forewarned,’ even though there isn’t another kind of warning besides the fore kind?” (“Is there another kind?”)
“No, I don’t think it’s that serious. I’d speak to your manager/agent first, but if you’re gonna do it, go for it. Don’t half-ass it. But are you ready to deal with the consequences?”
“That’s tough to answer since I don’t know what they might be. But in short, yes. And I think people will support an artist if they believe the artist has thought it through and has a greater purpose in mind.”
And I have and I do. First off, yes, I agree I should go all-in if I’m gonna do it. I had another Zoomer influencer (handle also concealed and with 100K+ on Instagram, so his advice is clearly worth only one-fifth of hers) say he liked the idea and that he could see a modern Gandhi jumping in and giving hot takes on hot topics. I love that idea, but I’m starting off by telling clean street jokes because that’s about as “dipping your toes in the water” as it gets.
These videos could get three views and then this post is moot. But if they do gain some traction, perhaps there’s a place in this world for Modern-Gandhi-as-Social-Commentator.
Group 4 is easy to address: if you’re going out there and playing to the top of your intelligence, which nobody has ever accused me of not doing, then you’re fine. Eddie Murphy addresses this in Raw, when Bill Cosby (heh) tells him to clean up his act:
I was so mad I called Richard Pryor’s house up. I said, “Yo, Richard, Bill Cosby just called me up and told me I was too dirty.” Richard said: “….Whatever the f*ck make the people laugh, say that shit.” He said, “Do people laugh when you say what you say?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you get paid?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, tell Bill I said: ‘Have a Coke and a smile and shut the f*ck up… the Jell-O pudding-eating motherf*cker.’”
Group 3 ain’t so tough to do either: I’m old-school so laughs are laughs. Yes, I hope this resonates with people across races. And it seems to:
When I dressed up as Gandhi for Halloween, it was disproportionately Black folks who stopped me on the street to ask me for selfies. The obvious reason is the straight line we can draw from Gandhi to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and of course from Henry David Thoreau to Gandhi).
When I performed my political solo show, The Man in the Middle, I saw a ton of people pull out their phones to take pics+vids, many of whom themselves Indian.
Ben Kingsley liked it. I don’t mean “liked” as in an upvote on social media. I met ol’ Ben at the LAX Delta Lounge. We had a full-on conversation for 10 minutes and I showed him the pic. I asked him for a photo but he politely declined. I asked if it’s because it’d open the floodgates for others to ask and he said that was exactly it. Still, the man who won an Oscar for portraying Gandhi loved it — and let’s not forget Kingsley is half-Gujarati.
I've made a few Gs playing Gandhi on Cameo, where I get hired to record messages for people (birthdays, celebrations, etc.). I’m hired mostly by Brown and White people.
Finally, when I posted it on Instagram, I got nothing but praise, which all makes sense. If not us, then who? If someone is gonna claim Gandhi, it better be an Indian.
As far as the interests of Groups 1 & 2, I’ll say a few things. I learned early on that Gandhi probably abused his wife, which has deeply bothered me for decades. If that’s true, it’s to be taken very, very seriously; his legacy should rightly take a hit. In no way, shape, or form do I condone that. Indeed, it undergirded my thoughts on a question my roommate-at-the-time Hasan Minhaj loved to ask: “Can great men be good men?” (Years later, when I turned around and asked him the same during one of our interviews, he seemed to have settled on an answer given his new experiences: “Yes, I’ve seen first-hand that the legendary Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are fundamentally kind people.”)
But it’s widely known that Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs are assholes. That said, I think the question was intended for more lofty historical figures like MLK, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and of course, Mahatma Gandhi.
Though we must hold these men accountable for their faults, foibles, frailties, flaws, faux pas, failings, and f*ck-ups, this is more fraught than it seems at face value. For one, People of Color role models are few and far between in Western popular culture. So, tearing down statues of MLK presents its own set of problems. We also must judge men by their era. We can simply dismiss our Founding Fathers because they owned slaves. But in this post, I’ve dropped a couple of hints that I’d be coming to the greatest movie monologue of all time. Note the line I marked in bold:
You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, SAVES LIVES. You don't want the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like "honor.” “Code.” “Loyalty.” We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said "thank you,” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!
In the end, Jack Nicholson’s character is wrong. And our moral standards have evolved so that it actually does matter how you “provide it.” But for most of the 20th century and before (like, most of human existence), it didn’t. And so, since most PoC in India and in the USA can express ourselves due to the very work of Gandhi and King, it’s quite easy to sit here in judgment. Bharat and America would quite literally not be democracies with full rights for minorities if they didn’t do the work.
When TIME Magazine named its Person of the Century, there were three finalists: FDR, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. They went with Einstein, those Jews. (I would’ve voted for him, too.) So, realize that Gandhi is our dude. He’s a monumental figure that did more for the human race than any of the people trying to cancel him.
Is it worth the pain inflicted to a few? Yes, it is. We’re talking about well over a billion people who now live better lives due to Gandhi. If you disagree, then I hope you don’t listen to Michael Jackson’s music. Maybe you don’t. OK, then I hope you don’t use a smartphone. As the very problematic Louis C.K. wrapped up his Oh My God special with this meditation on cell phones…
“That’s where human greatness comes from is that we’re shitty people, that we f*ck others over. Even today, how do we have this amazing microtechnology? Because the factory where they’re makin’ these, they jump off the f*ckin’ roof because it’s a nightmare in there. You really have a choice: you can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other or let someone suffer immeasurably far away just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube while you’re takin’ a shit.”
That’s what humor does: makes noble points in the language of the commoner. And this is why I’m portraying Gandhi. As an Elvis inpersonator on some 1980s sitcom (maybe Hogan Family??… OMG, I was right. Valerie was an interation of the same show, starring a young Jason Bateman) said, “I’m not an Elvis Impersonator. I’m an Elvis Invoker.” And so it is with me: I’m invoking the spirit of the Mahatma. His most famous quote is…
Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.
And this is the change I wish to see: as comedy so often does, to comfort the uncomfortable and make the comfortable uncomfortable. As John Amos’ character said in Coming to America, “This is America, Jack.” We’re all on the same level and nothing is sacred. And I won’t be held hostage by the Far Left and the Far Right. I remain the Man in the Middle. I believe in calling our heroes out for their shortcomings; I do not believe in cancellation.
We all need to lighten up, which I can say since I weigh a little over 100 pounds. Guess Gandhi could say the same. After all, there’s nothing we can’t joke about: it depends what the joke is. Who’s the subject and who’s the object?
This one’s been part of my act for a while now:
“Of course, Gandhi was Gujarati. He was walking around saying, ‘India should be free!’ But since he was a Guju, he was just talking about the price. The next thing you know, we have independence.”
And I’ve gotten zero blowback on that one. You know why? ’Cause that shit is funny.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian. He resides in Los Angeles. And you can find his latest project on TikTok and Instagram with the handle, @GandhiTellsJokes.