Spotlight: The Irrepressible Subhah Agarwal

Subhah Agarwal is a comedian, writer, and actress who first made a name for herself in New York City’s grueling open mic scene, where she became renowned for her strong joke writing and relentless work ethic. In 2013, the PBS documentary series Modern Comedian documented her diligent open mic process, which entailed writing for hours every day and honing material at several mics every night. She has since been featured on TruTV’s Comedy Knockout, where she was also hired as a writer, and on MTV and Comedy Central. She currently writes for The Jim Jefferies Show and performs all over the country. Subhah was gracious enough to candidly discuss growing up Indian-American in the suburbs, negative versus positive motivation, and why New York City clubs are so much fun.

WICF Daily: What prompted you to start writing and performing comedy? I have this weird hunch that stand up wasn’t necessarily what your parents had in mind for you.

Subhah: Ha yeah, stand up was definitely not what my parents wanted. They would’ve preferred a doctor with a sense of humor.

I grew up in a small suburb where I was bullied like crazy (probably didn’t help that I was one of two brown kids in the neighborhood) so my parents just let me assimilate to try and fit in. We moved to a bigger suburb and this was the first time I was around Indian kids in my school. This particular high school had race cliques (the Indians all hung out, the Koreans were another group, etc. etc.) and the Indians didn’t like me because I was “too white” and I didn’t really fit with the white group so I felt really alone. This was the time Russell Peters clip went viral in the Indian community. I thought that if I could be like Russell the Indians would finally like me and if I was funny I’d just have friends. I ended up falling in love with comedy for other reasons but that’s how it started.

WICF: Besides your obvious skill, you’re known for your work ethic. How do you prevent burnout and remain focused on improvement?

Subhah: I wish I had a positive answer to this but a lot of my work ethic is fueled by deep insecurity and dissatisfaction with what I’ve achieved. When you grow up in a household where you can bring home a 100% on a test and your mother asks why you missed the extra credit question, you become unhappy with anything but perfect. Unfortunately in any artistic pursuit there is no such thing as perfect so you’re just left striving for something unachievable. It’s kind of a torture device of my own creating.

I’ve tried to change that but it’s hard. I try to focus more on the things I love about comedy and let my motivation come from being inspired by the incredible work of my peers. I’ll see a sketch or a script so perfectly structured and developed and I’ll want to make something just as amazing. I know it’s going to take a lot of work to get that skill set so I keep going. However, shifting from negative to this positive motivation has been something I really struggle with.

WICF: What are some of your favorite clubs/rooms to perform in across the country?

Subhah: There’s nowhere I love doing stand up more than in most clubs in New York. I feel like the audiences are sharp and diverse. They’re also more open to dark comedy— probably because they’ve been beaten down by the city.

WICF: What advice would you give women pursuing comedy professionally?

Subhah: The only advice I have is work hard, don’t be a dick, and understand that the entertainment industry is not a meritocracy. No one deserves to get anything. To me, things are too chaotic for me to believe “deserve” even exists in this context. Just work hard because it’ll make you better and you’ll get to create and put things into the world that you can be proud of.

Also diversify— it helps to develop any other adjacent skill set like acting, writing, or directing. Making it on stand up alone is very rare. I think it’s best to have a wide variety of skill sets developed so if an opportunity opens up, you’re ready.

WICF: How can people keep up with your work / find you online?

Subhah: You can find me on the following platforms:

Twitter @subhah

IG @subhaha