Stand-up comedian Pooja Vijay was once performing at an open mic when a man in the audience cheered endlessly for her. When the gig got over, he applauded by saying ‘great mimicry’, assuming that Vijay, with her stammer, was mimicking a stutter.
Not really. “Like the Nescafe advertisement featuring a man with speech disorder that generated over five million views on YouTube, I am a stand-up comedian with an actual stammer,” says the 27-year-old Tamil woman based in Delhi. She probably is the only stammering woman comedian in India. For many, like the cheering man, a stand-up comedian with a stammer can be a rather unusual sight. But, Vijay is nonchalant.
She says it all began one day in 2015 on a whim. “A friend of mine was trying his hand at an open mic in Bengaluru. Watching that, I thought why not I do the same. However, at that point I thought about maybe a one-off. But, once I got on the stage, I actually got a few laughs. A few established comedians said I did well,” says Vijay.
Since then, she has been performing in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and, most recently with the Kochin Komedians in Kochi. She has been the opening act for many established comedians like Rajneesh Kapoor and Karthik Kumar.
Vijay does not, however, make it sound like a big deal. She says she has never considered her speech disability as an issue. “People keep telling me that I am very brave to get on stage with a stammer, but somehow I don’t see it that way. Yes, it does make me different from others, but I never saw it as something that held me back from anything,” she adds.
She agrees that people often get confused. “Most are perplexed when I go on with a stutter, but a lot of my jokes involve actively making fun of myself and the stutter. That way they feel comfortable laughing,” she says.
But not everything is a cakewalk. “I do get nervous before going up on the stage. I deal with it by just taking some deep breaths and preparing my material,” she says.
Vijay shares an instance where she had to leave the stage after nobody laughed at a joke she cracked. But, she wouldn’t just bow out. “You need perseverance. There will be days when you stand on stage and there are no laughs. But you can’t let that stop you. You need to go back and keep doing it,” she adds.
In an arena with a poor man-to-woman ratio, Vijay does her bit by hosting ladies open mics to encourage women to become comediennes.
“We have some amazing woman comedians. However, they are in a minority. A large section does welcome women in stand-up, but there are others who think women cannot be funny. Comedy is still a bit of an ‘old boy’s club’, and it can be hard to get your foot through,” she adds.