Standup comedian Akaash Singh, dressed in black, holds a microphone up to his face, against a dark background.

Comedian Akaash Singh says we’ve all been ‘Gaslit’

Writer Ali Latifi talks to the comic about his latest special, controversial jokes, and being a voice for "the middle"

Akaash Singh's stand-up special "Gaslit" is available on YouTube now.

Still frame from "Gaslit"

Words by Ali M. Latifi

In his new stand-up special, Gaslit, comedian Akaash Singh set out to speak to an audience he says make up the “the largest segment of America,” but who often go unheard: people “in the middle.”

This is not to say the 39-year-old comic has lost his edge. Over the years, Singh and his best friend and fellow comedian, Andrew Schulz, have interviewed everyone from North Korean defector Yeonmi Park to former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and controversial radio personality Alex Jones. And he isn’t about to start pulling his punches now. Yes, he does make a few quips about the stigma attached to dad jokes and admits to not knowing what non-binary means, but Singh still swings for the fences. Throughout Gaslit’s 75-minute runtime, Singh uses his material, which veers from wedding costs to abortion to vaccines to police brutality as a way to question and dissect some of the biggest cultural conversations of the day.

Calling on his own experience as an Indian American who went from growing up in Texas (and his ability to pull off a Southern accent) to co-hosting a highly successful podcast in New York, Singh takes on the hypocrisies and hyperbole of liberals and conservatives alike.

Basically, how we all have been so gaslit.

“Normal people are made to feel crazy now for not sharing the opinions of the crazy,” Singh says by phone in New York. “I feel very much in the middle, and I wanted people who feel how I feel to feel spoken for.”

This mindset Singh kept referring to throughout our conversation is also very much in line with his first stand-up special, 2022’s Bring Back Apu, which saw him make a case that The Simpsons’ iconic though much-maligned Kwik-e-Mart entrepreneur and father of eight was in fact, one of the few full-fledged characters in Springfield, rather than the caricature some of the biggest South Asian media personalities had labeled him as.

Singh says his defense of Apu likely persuaded few, if any, critics to rethink their view of the character, but that was never his intention. “I know some industry types didn’t love it, but that’s not the point,” Singh says of the response to the special. “I did think a lot of people agreed with me, and I wanted to show them that there is an alternative in the entertainment landscape.”

It only takes seven minutes and 30 seconds for Singh to land at a “water-shed moment” in Gaslit, and it too centers around a part of South Asian culture and identity that Singh says has been far too denigrated by Western outsiders: arranged marriage. “America brainwash[ed] us about [arranged marriage],” Singh says after excitedly cheering on a couple in the front row of the audience who proclaim that is, in fact, how they met. “We all bought into that propaganda, ‘That’s so barbaric,’” Singh says, affecting a voice full of sarcasm and disdain.

To many, including other prominent South Asian comedians, Singh’s stance will come off as anachronistic or problematic, but really, it’s very indicative of what his whole career has been predicated onan unapologetic embrace of his culture.

Rather than pointing out the peculiarities of his culture for cheap laughs, or going to great lengths to prove that he is like every other American kid, Singh insists on proudly proclaiming his Indian-ness. “I know where my roots are from, and I’m gonna do my best to let everyone know I’m proud of us,” Singh says.

That pride goes beyond his reclamation of arranged marriage.

In fact, his show opens with a performance by UTD Laksh, the University of Texas at Dallas’ competitive Bollywood-fusion dance team. When Singh does arrive on the stage he is rocking a denim jacket created by Rastah, a Lahore-based brand, that reads “If not now, when,” in Hindi.

Though Gaslit does feature jokes about gender identity—“If four dudes in here can name nine genders, I’ll suck all your …”—a topic that has brought even some of the biggest names in comedy very close to cancellation, it was an off-hand joke about Sept. 11 that has led to claims that Singh is “villainizing Palestinians” at a time when 32,000 civilians have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza.

The 17-second bit refers to the weather in Minnesota, global warming, aerosol cans, and a debunked video of Palestinians allegedly celebrating after the Sept. 11 attacks. As an Afghan and Muslim American who was living in Northern California at the time of the attacks, I personally felt the joke was off-putting and unnecessary (his first Sept. 11 joke, as part of his opening crowd work, was far better).

When asked about it, Singh says he was surprised by the characterization of the joke that was filmed in September.

Looking back at the reaction, Singh says he feels that younger people in the audience may have completely misconstrued the premise. “My wife was 9 when 9/11 happened and she thought it came off like I was blaming Palestinians for 9/11, and that’s not it at all,” Singh says.

Though the incorrect interpretations of the joke caught him by surprise, Singh says sometimes, that’s just comedy. “If you have faith in the joke and the idea, and overall, there’s enough context to it, you just have to roll the dice” and hope people understand.

“If you have faith in the joke and the idea, and overall, there’s enough context to it, you just have to roll the dice” and hope people understand.

In the end, Singh says the special, even with its controversy, is part of a much larger trajectory.

Over his decade-long career, Singh says he has always tried to stay true to himself and his people, while continuing to strengthen his comedic chops. Even if that meant self-financing the special, putting it on YouTube (rather than a streamer) and turning to a partnership with the fantasy sports betting website PrizePicks to help offset the costs.

“I bet on myself,” Singh says.

Singh may have been alone on that stage, but he says it was the support of his wife, Jasleen, that pushed him to film and finance the special, which he says is full of material that is “much more natural” to his voice. “She said to me, ‘The industry has never really validated you, don’t start looking for it now. Just do it yourself.’”

Now that the special has garnered more than 1.4 million views, Singh says he’s happy to have taken the independent route. “You just try to remember over time, things shake out, and who you are will become clear to people.”

Published on April 1, 2024

Words by Ali M. Latifi

Ali M Latifi was born in Kabul and raised in California. He has been reporting from Afghanistan, Turkey and Greece since 2011. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, TIME and VICE News.