'Stand Up Planet' Follows Jokes To Serious Global Issues

May 11, 2014
Originally published on May 28, 2014 7:45 am

Terrible things are everywhere — and so is laughter. The documentary Stand Up Planet, premiering on TV May 14, features comedians in India and South Africa confronting very serious issues.

"Comedy is one of those few things where you can discuss those things," says the film's host, Hasan Minhaj.

Minhaj, a Los Angeles-based comedian, says the goal of the project was to follow the jokes in to people's lives.

"I think the best comedians have that bravery and courage to say, 'This is what it is, this is unfair, that's not cool,' " he tells NPR's Arun Rath.

For the project, a comedian from South Africa and another from India performed in Los Angeles at the Laugh Factory comedy club.

Aditi Mittal is one of only three English-speaking, female comedians in India. Soweto-born Mpho Popps brings awareness and laughter to the realities of the AIDs epidemic in South Africa.

"They did great," says Minhaj. "Everybody at the show at the laugh factory, they loved them."

Minhaj says he was thankful for the opportunity to put a spotlight on comedy, and important causes.

"I think the way comedy is represented on screen is it's either all fart jokes — and it's just laughter for the sake of laughter — or it's one of those things where it's just kind of very preachy, very heavy-handed," Minhaj says.

"I think this project was one of the few things I've done in my career where it bridges that gap, and we dance in both circles."

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If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. It's been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. It seems that's true across the world.


CAVISA LEDIGA: As a black guy we do kind of blame apartheid a lot. You know, you have a guy with a headache, you'd be like, hey, what's wrong? I think it's apartheid.


RATH: That's Cavisa Lediga performing in South Africa. He's one of several comedians featured in the documentary "Stand Up Planet." L.A.-based comic Hasan Minhaj is our onscreen guide to the "Stand Up Planet." He takes us around the world to find comedians confronting very serious issues with comedy.

HASAN MINHAJ: There's all sorts of terrible things that happen around the world. And comedy's one of those few things where you can discuss those things.

RATH: As Minhaj told me, the goal of this project was to follow the jokes into people's lives.

MINHAJ: To show that a comedian on stage in India talking about sanitation or in South Africa talking about HIV and AIDS awareness, if you follow the joke into their lives you can see that like, oh, these things aren't just contrived in joke books. This is real life. I think the best comedians have that bravery and courage to say, oh, this is what it is. This is unfair. That's not cool and everybody in that moment collectively the crowd is, like, yes.

RATH: Let's start off with the first stop on your trip which is India. And I think a lot of people have this idea of India, well, it's a big democracy so there must be free speech.

MINHAJ: Right.

RATH: Not so much.

MINHAJ: Not so much. I met two amazing comedians, one named Tanmay Bhat and the other was Aditi Mittal. And Tanmay has one of the most popular podcasts in India.


TANMAY BHAT: So what are we discussing on today's episode? (Unintelligible) he's in custody right now for 14 days....

MINHAJ: It's not even like it was, like, very lude or crass. It's controversial in the sense of the institutions that it was mocking and the institutions that it was criticizing that it got pulled off of iTunes India. That didn't stop them. They uploaded it to Sound Cloud and to other third-party upload sites where people could still get that content. And that was really cool to see that.

RATH: Now you were - I thought this was pretty brave of you, you decided to perform there.


RATH: We have a little clip of your performance.


MINHAJ: I got off the plane, they said, hey. There was a guy, his name is Rog, he'll pick you up. I'm in (bleep) India, man. How many Rog's are there? I come out. There's 97 brown dudes, sir, sir, sir. Well, don't, I can't - I'm going to believe all of you.

True story.

RATH: Yeah, but they...

MINHAJ: True story.

RATH: ...they seem to go for it.

MINHAJ: Yeah, man. When I took the stage, man, I'm not going to lie. Like, I was just shaking. You know, growing up in the states there's this part of me that's like, man, I'm Indian. Like, this is where I belong. And as soon as I got to India and I had to go to the bathroom in some places, I was, like, man I am American.

RATH: Boy, do I know what you're talking about.


MINHAJ: Bring me to Jamba Juice. I love air conditioning and Starbucks. And then I would check myself. I was like, Hasan, you were going to the bathroom in this hole. You are doing it. Man up.


RATH: So you decided to - you were going to bring a comic from each of the countries you visit. With India you went with Aditi Mittal.

MINHAJ: Aditi Mittal.

RATH: Tell us about her.

MINHAJ: Aditi is a comedy superstar over in India. She's only one of three female English-speaking comedians in India.


ADITI MITTAL: Do you know the vagina beautification industry? They want our vaginas to (unintelligible). They want our vaginas to be (unintelligible). How we do that (unintelligible) laws?


MINHAJ: Aditi (unintelligible) she hears this. She doesn't like it when I call her a female comedian. She's like, well you're a dude comedian. They don't call you pineal comedian. Like, don't call me that. And the work that she's doing is transcending gender and race. And it's making people think about gender rules in India and stuff like that.

RATH: And the comedian that you brought from South Africa...

MINHAJ: Mpho Popps.

RATH: He actually - he grew up in Soweto.


MPHO POPPS: Africa as a whole, we have a big HIV/AIDS problem, right? And I believe that one of the roots of this problem is that we're not honest with each other. Like, if a woman could come up to you in the beginning of a date and say, yo, hope you got those condoms, right. If you could be honest in the beginning, we'd be better prepared.


MINHAJ: HIV and AIDS in South Africa is one of those issues where everybody has a loved one or someone that they know that's had to hide it. And he's talking about something really, really painful but he's making it so funny.

RATH: So you bring these two comedians, you bring Aditi and Mpho here to Los Angeles.


RATH: And they get to perform at the Laugh Factory.


RATH: How'd they do?

MINHAJ: You know what, man? They did great. Everybody at the show, they loved them.


MITTAL: I've been immune to traveling abroad sometimes, actually was the time when you meet this one person who's like, so tell me, like, for real, when did you learn how to speak English?


MITTAL: So now I could tell her that, you know, India has been under colonial roof for the past 200 years and that's why our entire private education system is based in English, but I'm, like, you know, on the flight.


RATH: They're funny.

MINHAJ: They're funny. They're (unintelligible) funny.

RATH: They're good comics.

MINHAJ: Yeah, they're really funny.


POPPS: I'm like, I thought skating on thin ice was a compliment.


POPPS: For years, for years. My mom would be like, so how's school going? Mama, they say I'm ice skating.


RATH: Hasan, you're a comedian so you're as skeptical and ironic and all those things as you can get.


RATH: Were you surprised by how this film by the end, it's pretty earnest. I mean, there's kind of an ironic earnest sweetness about the power of comedy by the end of this.

MINHAJ: Yeah, one of the biggest difficulties that I think the way comedy is represented on screen is it's either just all fart jokes and, you know, it's just laughter for the sake of laughter or it's one of those things where it's just kind of very preachy, very heavy handed. I think this project is one of the few things that I've done in my career where it bridges that gap. And we dance in both circles.

RATH: Hasan Minhaj, a great pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for coming in.

MINHAJ: Thank you for having me, man.

RATH: "Stand Up Planet" premiers this Wednesday nationally on Pivot and Link TV and in Southern California on KCET. It'll be up on after that.


RATH: You're hearing guitarists Rodrigo Y Gabriela warming up. They'll be playing a few songs from their new album in the next segment. Thanks to the acoustic guitars, a lot of people assume they're playing straight flamingo or Mexican music, but they got their start playing heavy metal, and you can still hear it.


RATH: The inventive guitar work of Rodrigo Y Gabriela in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


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