Folks looking for a standard comedy routine, with traditional setups and punchlines, laced with sarcasm or mocking tones, won’t find it with Krish Mohan’s anecdotal storytelling and observations. Taking an approach and style more like a humorist essayist, he builds up to reveal funny sides of powerful truths.
“There’s a point to what I’m saying and I think that’s an avenue comedy can take that’s not encouraged a whole lot right now,” he observes. “I think it’s important, especially now—if you want to have a message in your comedy—to take the risk and have a message in your comedy.”
The self-proclaimed “comedian and social vigilante” uses subtle humor to connect and challenge audiences to engage in issues: politics, religion, civil rights, hypocrisy, stereotypes and clichés. He even encourages people to talk to him after a set if they disagree or have more to add. And the audience will be able to do just that with Mohan at the Juggling Gypsy on Tuesday, December 4, as he tours through Wilmington with “Empathy On Sale!”
Mohan started stand-up comedy when he was 16. At the time he took a more traditional approach with his sets but admittedly lacked substance.
“They were really short jokes in the traditional sense with a setup and a punchline and character-driven thing behind it, or they were about TV shows or something like that,” he explains. “I didn’t have too many of my beliefs formed yet, and on top of that, I didn’t really know how to tell a joke in the context of stand-up comedy. It takes a little while to learn all of that stuff.”
Mohan’s work took a more purposeful and political turn about six years ago with an epiphany that came right after graduating from college and entering the open-mic arena in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. Expectations were placed upon him early on by seasoned comics, who thought he should cater to stereotypes, whether about himself as an Indian American or others.
“That always kind of bothered me a little bit,” Mohan says. “To them, the expectation was essentially to validate stereotypes for people—because if you don’t validate the stereotypes then people get uncomfortable. That’s not what I was—that’s not what anybody was, people aren’t stereotypes. . . . That goes for the LGBT population, Indian people, black people, white people, whoever it is.”
Rather than taking easy punches at caricatures, Mohan started addressing ideas of hypocrisy found in everything from politics to religion. He found comfort in building up social commentary with comedy.
“People like Joel Osteen always talk about being true to, God but they’re the ones who didn’t read the lessons that He apparently wrote,” Mohan quips in one bit.
A lot of “Empathy On Sale!” is derived from the 2016 election and how divided and polarized things have become. But he doesn’t just spout “Trump-bashing” jokes.
“When it comes to political comedy, there are people who are dipping their toes into [it], but a lot of it is just, ‘Let’s make fun of Trump and the Republicans,’” Mohan continues. “It’s not really digging into deeper issues or learning about nuances within those issues. . . . “[‘Empathy On Sale!’] is about understanding we’re all on the same team, and the people we need to be up against and pushing to give us human rights and civil rights . . . are the ones who are the enemies, not each other. We on the ground need to work together for a more progressive world.”
Mohan doesn’t set out to give a lecture about his views, issues or current events; it’s more about getting people to drop their defenses through comedy in order to start communicating about them. He chips away at what people tend to vehemently disagree on (gun control, immigration, healthcare, anti-war commentary, etc.) to get to the core of each. Something he says involves empathy, compassion and understanding of the opposing side. Even fellow progressives criticize him for “going easy” on conservatives sometimes.
“It’s coming from a place of love and not aggression,” he clarifies. “It’s not me saying, ‘What you believe is wrong.’ It’s a matter of, ‘Hey, this is my point of view’ and maybe I can make you laugh, think a little bit differently and at least start a conversation.’”
He says it may take audiences a while to warm up to this style of comedy. And it didn’t come easy.
“I went through a lot of failure for a period of time,” he says with a chuckle. “But talking about bigger, heavier topics is very difficult when you’re not telling a joke to begin with—you’re just kind of spewing facts. I think people can get bored with that.”
Now, whenever Mohan sets out to write a show, the hardest part is identifying a jumping-off point. He works toward comforting the audience first, in order to talk about big ideas and issues.
“If I want to address something as large as the military industrial complex,” he explains, “[and] that’s a very large topic to address, it might take me 10 or 15 minutes to gain the audience’s trust.”
He dives into immigration from a personal experience. Mohan came to the United States with his family from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, when he was 8 years old. He’s since found himself in a strange world, wherein he’s a first-generation immigrant but also not—he wasn’t born here but came at an age where he doesn’t remember much about life outside of being a U.S. citizen.
“I kind of don’t fit into any sort of traditional box,” he notes. “Addressing that stuff is the easiest way to get people to know [my perspective].”