Chicago-based comedian Arish Singh is a member of the Sikh community, but the particular view he brings to his stand-up and life in general is not necessarily the one he thinks people typically identify with the religion.
“I’m sort of Sikh the way Steve Earle is Texan,” Singh says. “There’s a variety of things that a lot of people, when they hear about Sikhs or know that I’m Sikh, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a warrior culture. Can I see your sword?’ or ‘You’re a brave people and you fought in the military,’ and stuff like that. And yeah, that is a tradition of Sikhism and part of the culture, but there’s also all these other elements to it. They’re social critics, they’re people [for whom] social justice [is] a key idea in the faith. Things like that I represent.”
Singh makes his Asheville debut at Fleetwood’s on Sunday, Feb. 25. At the show, Singh will wear a turban — something he hasn’t always done but has returned to as more of a personal philosophical statement.
“The political climate we live in, there’s this idea that … you know, like, why not just make everything easier for everybody else and don’t wear a turban or don’t have these outward signs of your faith or your culture?” Singh says. “That’s not only going against what Sikhs believe in, but I do think that also goes against the whole culture of freedom of expression that’s part of American history that I identify with deeply.”
While Singh references his Sikh background in his performances, he doesn’t pitch himself as a Sikh comedian. However, he respects people who do, namely Canadian comedian Jasmeet Singh, who performs as JusReign. “I always look at him as a very good example of someone who takes real comedy and also takes his Sikh background and brings it together in a way that’s really interesting and compelling and not tacky,” he says. “But that’s just not so much what I do.”
Instead, Singh takes more of an absurdist approach to highlight contradictions in modern society. He says the old Chicago term for that comedy heritage is “weirdo,” and it is one he wholly embraces. Working within that style, and due to the current volatile times, his jokes have veered more political.
After the 2016 presidential election, Singh says he felt dejected by Donald Trump’s win and the sense that people of color and different faiths felt ostracized by their fellow U.S. citizens. He was also let down by the absence of outlets or a place within the Democratic Party to put people’s anger and frustration. He feels the Democratic Socialists of America picked up the slack, and he supports the group’s efforts to enact change not merely for the next election cycle, but the next 20 years. Social issues such as wealth inequality, police brutality, universal health care and an overall investment in the working class are especially important to Singh and feature prominently in his stand-up.
“That’s not always what people want for political comedy. They want you sort of rallying for the Democrats or rallying against the Republicans, and mine is more, ‘Our country is very messed up, and we need to go deeper into how messed up things are,’” Singh says. “I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff to point out that are deep contradictions that are funny and also sad. There’s a lot of poignant stuff you can bring up, but also it’s not always what people want for comedy. It’s not necessarily what they want to put on late-night TV.”
In the wake of the election, Singh participated in a few anti-Trump comedy shows but felt they wound up being largely vacuous. He and his fellow comedians were vocalizing their views to primarily centrist Democrats and pandering about the Trump administration’s inadequacies — topics that didn’t feel new or interesting and, more importantly to Singh, weren’t effecting political change in a deeper way. In turn, he created a live monthly show called Monkey Wrench that allows like-minded comedians to take strong stances, promotes the political left and raises funds for activist causes.
“People turn toward ‘The Daily Show’ or ‘Pod Save America,’ things like that for more of the traditional Democratic Party line that was built up under [Barack] Obama,” Singh says. “I want to see a culture that goes a different direction, that goes further to the left. So building that culture, and other people are working toward it, too — I just want to be part of that. I do think this is an important moment politically [and] socially, and I don’t want to pass that up.”
WHO: Arish Singh, Harpreet Ess and Liz Greenwood
WHERE: Fleetwood’s, 496 Haywood Road, fleetwoodsonhaywood.com
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 25, 8 p.m. $7 advance/$10 day of show