By Shaki Sutharsan
As I sat near my cousin who was grading the exam papers of the class she was a teacher’s assistant in, she nudged me over on the couch and put her computer into my lap. “You have to see this,” she told me excitedly, opening up YouTube in another tab. “These guys are hilarious.”
I watched as she clicked on a video titled “THE GREAT KOTHUROTI DILEMMA.” I braced myself for the five cringey minutes of someone wearing a cheap wig, putting on an exaggerated accent and acting the part of their ‘Stoic Brown Dad’ whose slapstick comments serve as the punch line of the unfunny jokes.
Instead, I spent the next three minutes watching a hilariously scripted sketch featuring a Tamil dad, his son and a case of missing kothu roti. For those unfamiliar with kothu roti, it’s a glorious dish that’s a staple in the Tamil community, made with chopped-up roti, stir-fried with spices, curry, herbs and meat or veggies.
The dad spoke entirely in Tamil while his son spoke in English—a common characteristic in many immigrant households. In fact, that’s how I’ve communicated with my parents for most of my life—in a smooth mixture of English and Tamil that several multilingual families may be familiar with.
Immediately after I watched the video, I took my cousin’s laptop over to my dad. “You need to see this,” I told him, repeating my cousin’s words from earlier. My mom then came over to see what we were laughing at and I played the video for them again. She giggled when the “dad” realized his kid ate not only his beloved kothu roti but also his Necto, the Tamil equivalent of—which is possibly better than—Diet Coke.
Basement Reels, the channel behind “THE GREAT KOTHUROTI DILEMMA” has made over a hundred videos since launching in 2015. The channel was founded by Tharshan Rajendiram and Krusan Sivanayagam and has amassed over 80,000 subscribers.
“Comedy has no boundaries”
When I was younger, I found myself desperately grasping onto humour that relied on people making fun of their brown parents. It was the only thing I felt I could relate to, even if it was in some small, needy kind of way.
But now, together with my family, we’ve steadily made our way through most of the Basement Reels sketches over the years. Some tackle topics like premarital sex, being a part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community and mental illness—topics that I’d never seen addressed in a Tamil perspective before. Not only do these comedic videos bring light to important issues in a digestible way but they also help people to connect in many ways.
Rajendiram says he started the channel in 2015, when he graduated from the public administration program at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). He immigrated to Canada when he was eight years old, fleeing genocide and war in Sri Lanka. “When I came here, I struggled to fit in. I didn’t know the language. I was learning the ABCs in grade three,” Rajendiram says with a laugh. He vividly remembers sitting in the back of his Grade 3 classroom with his ESL teacher, learning the alphabet while the other kids were listening to their usual lesson at the front of the room.
It wasn’t until his middle school drama class that Rajendiram discovered that there was a way he could connect with his peers—by making them laugh. “Finally, there was that bond we created—the audience and me—and I finally felt like I fit somewhere in this society…in this puzzle.”
Comedy has become a way for Rajendiram to connect with his community. To him, this connection is most evident when Tamil kids and parents tell him that the same thing from a Basement Reels sketch has happened to them or that Rajendiram’s comedy sketches have helped them connect with their families through laughter.
The kind of connection that comedy brings can be as simple as watching funny movies with your family, or as large as a comedian performing to hundreds of people at a festival. Comedy is all around us and is accessible through various outlets.
“I finally felt like I fit somewhere in this society…in this puzzle”
One of Erwin Lau’s earliest and most favourite memories is watching comedy movies with his dad. Lau, a third-year performance production student at TMU, recalls those moments with a fond laugh, saying he still loves to think about the time he would spend laughing alongside his dad. Lau thinks one of the reasons why comedy brings so many people from different walks of life together is because it’s unrestrictive. “Comedy has no boundaries,” he says.
Lau has used comedy as a connective tool all his life. He sends his family TikToks that he finds particularly funny. He finds common ground with his Chinese immigrant grandparents by watching traditional puppet shows and immersing himself in the comedy that they would’ve been familiar with when they were younger.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Lau says school was pretty competition-heavy and intense. To relax, he took up improv in his free time through his school’s drama club. After moving to Canada in 2018, Lau says he didn’t understand a lot of the cultural references here and struggled to connect with people. But like Rajendiram, he quickly found that comedy is a powerful tool in bridging cultural gaps.
“I used comedy and improv to connect with [people] because it’s all based on what you make up,” Lau says.
Lau revamped TMU’s improvisation club and started organizing meet-ups last fall. The club is now called, “Yes, And?” and recently began hosting weekly drop-in sessions on Wednesday evenings at Kerr Hall. Before Lau, TMU’s improv club fizzled out of action when the pandemic started and most of its founding members graduated.
Laughter has been a vital part of all of my relationships
During the height of the pandemic when our interactions were limited to glitchy video calls and driveway meet-ups, my best friend and I communicated exclusively by exchanging memes. When I was anxiously waiting to be called into my doctor’s office to get my blood drawn, a notification from my family’s WhatsApp group chat of a silly TikTok my dad sent made my breath come a little easier. Laughter has been a vital part of all of my relationships and I have no doubt that it will continue to be.
So….improv club anyone?