Padma Lakshmi Has Always Been a Comedy Nerd

Padma Lakshmi. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Movement Voter Project

Padma Lakshmi has emerged as an unlikely curator of comedy. In the wake of Louis C.K.’s return to comedy clubs last year, the Top Chef host tweeted a very solid recommendation list of her favorite comedians to direct more of our attention to:

Lakshmi’s list didn’t include a single white man, but it did include many Vulture faves. Soon after, she hosted a comedy show in Brooklyn (produced by Sue Bohlen and Vulture senior writer Jesse David Fox) featuring a lot of the talent she big-upped online. The event raised almost $20,000 for the Movement Voter Project. It also endeared Lakshmi to the Who’s Who of New York comedy. The crew is putting on another show, aptly titled Padma Puts on Another Comedy Show, tonight. This time the money will be going to the National Network of Abortion Funds. “I paid them in pizza and Champagne,” Lakshmi told Vulture. “So I’ll probably do that again this year. That seemed to work well.” Hot tip: When Padma Lakshmi wants to win the favor of comics, she goes to Roberta’s. She recently spoke to Vulture about cheesy Harvard guys, why funny is better than pretty, and why Lizzo is so hot right now.

When did your comedy fandom begin?
I always loved listening to comedy, even when I was in high school. I had a Joan Rivers album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? It’s her on the cover in a fur coat and diamonds. I remember listening to that album [so much] that I knew it verbatim. And I really have a lot of admiration for comedy. It’s the hardest art form, as a performer.

Why is that?
Because every crowd is different, and comedy is subjective. And it’s just a scary thing to be up there with nothing but your words. The thing I love about [putting on comedy shows] is that it allows me to be on the edge of a career that I never had the confidence to have, but have always been deeply curious about.

I love that your first comedy love was a woman, and at the time one of the only ones with any sort of prominence. What do you think has come from the art form being opened up more for women, queer people, and people of color?
I think it makes comedy accessible to more of us. We’re hearing more jokes and funny stories about the diversity of life. It opens the door not only for other people to work in that space, but also opens the door for many, many thousands more people to laugh.

You’ve spoken before on Las Culturistas about your love for Ali Wong.
I found her very refreshing because she was quite honest in her comedy, in that she railed against some parts of Asian culture. But on the other hand, she found opportunities to laugh at herself in her comedy. She’s totally a part of that culture, and she has internalized the same norms and cultural prejudices that she was railing against. She’s kind of snarky about how her family likes her husband because he’s a Harvard graduate, even though she pulls in more money as a comic. And yet she mentions [his Harvard degree] so many times. There’s this joke that I’ve always had with my family that you can always tell how cheesy a Harvard grad is by how fast they work it into the conversation that they went to Harvard.

Oh God, that’s so true.
Rather than saying “I went to school in Boston.” Cambridge, I guess, would give it away too. It could be MIT, but that’s a brag too.

As another Asian person, I really identified with a lot of her comedy. But even when I didn’t specifically identify with the comedy, it was really funny. And just the sight of this woman — very little and very pregnant, being explicit about her own marital sexual practices — sent me over the edge. And since then I’ve gotten to know her a little bit, and she’s every bit as funny in person.

Who else are you a fan of right now?
One of the comics that we have [on the Bell House show] plays her girlfriend in Always Be My Maybe — Michelle Buteau, who I originally had found through watching 2 Dope Queens. She was very funny about the challenges she faces of course as a woman of color, but also for marrying an immigrant, and how the rules are different for white immigrants. All of those things appeal to me.

Some comedians, like Patton Oswalt, are really into food and are big fans of chefs. What’s it like to be between those two worlds of mutual admiration?
It’s a kick. I’ve always admired comics. I admire anyone who’s witty. When someone calls me funny, it’s a much greater compliment than when someone calls me pretty. I always say that beauty is skin-deep, but boring is to the bone. You can do something about pretty, but someone who’s dull you really can’t do anything about. I’m quite flattered that someone like Ali Wong did a movie about being a chef, and she kind of name-checks me. That was a huge coup for me. I think it’s much harder to be a comic than it is to be a chef. Obviously, it’s physically draining to be a chef. But to write your own material, to have material that is universal enough to sustain you through a countrywide tour, is pretty impressive at any level.

What role has social media played in your comedy discoveries? Are you finding a lot of people on Twitter?
Some of them. Benito Skinner, I had seen mostly on Instagram. I think he goes by @BennyDRAMA7, and for a long time I just called him Benny Drama. I had no idea what his last name was. In other cases, like with Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega, I think I saw them on Seth Meyers’s show one night. Dulcé Sloan, I’ve also watched intermittently on Trevor Noah’s show. I think she’s fantastic. She’s really funny, and she plays this kind of archetypical opinionated African-American woman fantastically. She cracks me up. Pat Regan I find really funny and offbeat.

I want to give you an opportunity to weigh in on some recent comedy controversies. First, the intersection of cabaret and comedy. It’s really having a moment in New York, but some more traditional comedians are a little miffed at the format. So, is singing comedy?
Singing absolutely can be comedy. When I sing, it’s pretty darn funny. And not in a good way. I think that’s totally fine. Comedy is whatever inspires laughter. I don’t think anybody should be “miffed.” Being miffed about something tells me that you feel left out of it or you’re not able to compete. But I don’t want to slag off anybody.

There’s always that question of what is or is not stand-up comedy. Like last year’s Nanette debacle.
What’s Nanette? 

Hannah Gadsby had this special where she used stand-up comedy to critique stand-up comedy, more specifically self-deprecating humor.
Did anybody laugh?

Yeah, people laughed.
Then it’s comedy.

Do you find yourself using self-deprecating humor to navigate spaces?
I don’t think I have to use self-deprecating humor because I’m not that funny. I don’t think of myself as funny. I think that I try to be funny. It is my lifelong goal to try to be funny and win the appreciation of others by having them laugh at my jokes.

You have to make sure the self-deprecation is authentic and not false modesty. Because truth is funny. There’s humor in truth, there’s humor in pathos, but it has to be authentic.

A lot of the people that seem to excite you do self-aggrandizing humor. They joke about how they’re amazing, and that gives people watching them license to feel good about themselves, if they feel represented in the comedy.
Yeah, I think it’s wonderful. I love that. I think that’s why Lizzo is having a moment, too. It’s not just in comedy. For so long, many of us didn’t feel like we had permission to be proud of who we were. So now that we have taken the right to do that, of course we would use it in our art. In our writing, or our comedy, or our music — whatever forms we work in.

A little birdie told me you took UCB classes a while back.
Yes! Yes, I did. And I’ve been meaning to go back. My schedule is kind of topped up until January. I’m really wanting to go back. I did a lot of improv in college because I was a theater student, and I really missed it. So a few years ago, I just sort of enrolled myself. And I got past the first three weekly intensives. I think I did even perform; it was so much fun. Recently, I did ASSSCAT, and that was really fun too. There, I just had to be a raconteur and tell a story. And then they riffed with their improv based on two or three words from what I said. It was so much fun.

Padma Lakshmi Has Always Been a Comedy Nerd