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Today you might know Sunthar V. as a தமிழ்-Canadian-Tamil comedian and the founder of The Tamil Comedy Club in London. Maybe you’ve seen some of his hilarious Reels and TikTok videos - shout out to Colombo Karen. Or you’ve caught an episode of a jamtalks podcast, or attended a show he’s hosted.
What you might not know is that just 4 years ago, he got on stage for his first standup performance.
It was at an open mic as part of New Normal Comedy, a show created by Thurka Gunaratnam that celebrates artists from the 2SLGBTQ+ & BIPOC community.
And it was a long time coming. To his friends and family Sunthar has always been a comedian.
But in his experience comedy clubs seemed like places that were geared toward mostly white audiences, and mostly white performers. The only place a brown person, let alone a Tamil person, seemed to show up was as the butt of a joke.
When it came to Tamil comedy, there was tons of content out there. But there was always one group of people or another being put down to get the laugh.
And Tamil stand-up didn’t really seem to be a thing. Like with other Tamil creatives, there wasn’t as much of an appreciation - or willingness to pay - for the work as there was with mainstream performers.
Add to that, at a time when Sunthar wasn’t yet open about his sexuality, he felt he had to hold himself back.
"When you are hiding a big part of yourself it’s hard to be genuine on stage. And it would have been hard to find success without incorporating my queerness – that’s every part of me. It’s not just about love and sexuality."
Enter the New Normal Comedy show. Sunthar took to the stage for his first set and didn’t look back. Once he got that first laugh and saw people appreciating his story and the craft he was hooked.
From there he met other comedians producing their own shows. Over the next 6 months he featured in over 50 of them at comedy clubs in Toronto, doing 5-10 minute sets at each.
"One of the very first stories I shared was coming out to Amma and relating that to an everyday, very Tamil experience to show that they’re not that different. If you’ve experienced a queer experience you’ve had a Tamil experience."
Over this time his very own show “HOME” started to take shape. A Tamil centric show. One that allowed him to be his full self, just as he would be at home. One that was catered to all Tamils instead of making any of them the punchline.
"I’ve gone through many of the journeys that Tamil people in the diaspora my age have gone through - immigrant parents, intergenerational trauma, the protests, community building and gathering. And it’s so important for me to find ways to hold on to these stories and tell them. Because if we don’t they disappear."
He describes the process of putting a show together as being similar to creating a music album - you create songs and bits and you test them out. And then weave them together in a way that feels somehow connected.
The very first “HOME” was in Scarborough, a suburb in Toronto, in April 2019. Sunthar produced, hosted and headlined this show along with other comedians as guests.
It was the first time queer Tamil comedy was brought to Scarborough where Sunthar was born and raised. A place he says where he had some of his best, and worst experiences, as a queer person of colour.
Sunthar hosted a second “HOME” in Scarborough, to another sold out crowd. And from the proceeds of both shows was able to make one of the largest individual donations to the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP) - to Tamil programming.
"From the beginning it’s really been a grassroots movement - friends, family, friends of friends. It hasn’t been some commercial success that marketing dollars brought about - people come because they genuinely want me to do well."
He then took “HOME” to New York in September of 2019, co-producing the show with his friend Thivya and selling it out to rave reviews from the community there as well. Taking the show to another city helped him see how universal a lot of experiences were, and that the jokes resonated with a Tamil audience far beyond Toronto.
As an added bonus, Thivya was able to spin off the show to create a series called “Saniyans In New York”. And for Sunthar that deepened his investment in elevating Tamil comedy.
"This isn’t just about me. It’s about how many comedians punching up that I can create space for - especially those underrepresented in mainstream Tamil spaces. How many comedians not making homophobic, transphobic jokes and being proud of their Tamil identity. How do we get an Eelam Tamil comedian (who we can all be proud of) on the global stage?"
Around this time Sunthar started thinking about making a move to a bigger city. In Toronto he’d gotten a lot of traction within and beyond the community. And he wanted to see how things could play out abroad. So by November he was off to London.
“My target audience is Tamil people in the diaspora. I do that because I love the idea of performing without explaining context. I jump from Tamil to English and I don’t have to explain because I’m fluent in both. With a Tamil audience it’s me being my full self.”
With no connections, other than a few social media contacts, he started to settle in and signed up for a comedy competition in March 2020. But of course it got canceled. And Sunthar needed to find another way to tell his stories and work on his craft through the pandemic.
He started creating content on TikTok and Reels, getting a lot of views and positive feedback for how he was capturing the Tamil diaspora experience. The feedback came from as far and wide as Canada, the U.S., Malaysia, South Africa, Chennai, and Singapore.
“In the community, I became “Sunthar V the comedian”. A lot of my content online is about being Tamil - not just about being queer. And that’s intentional. It gains traction. It allows me to be known for my artform first, and invites people in from all walks of life. When my videos get forwarded around, to aunty groups and uncle groups - whether they know it or not it’s queer visiblity. My standup is often very different. I delve into life experiences, dating, sexual experiences and the challenges of queer Tamil life.”
And what happens when people learn that Sunthar is queer can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some people are unfazed. Some get weary about openly laughing or appreciating his work. Some go out of their way to send hateful comments. While others send encouraging and heartfelt DMs on how much it meant to see someone openly queer at a show, or how much a TikTok or Reel was uplifting after a hard day.
Fortunately as the pandemic began easing up, Sunthar has been able to get back to stand-up and create more opportunities for people to learn and laugh together. To challenge the idea that any one person’s story is the only story and learn more about the diversity within the community.
Sunthar is also part of the jamspot series team, which highlights Tamil musicians and artists. He hosts the jamtalks series with artists to delve into their journeys, personal lives and ambitions.
In November of 2021 he hit the stage again, this time to launch The Tamil Comedy Club. A monthly, open-mic night in central London. Since then there have been six editions of The Tamil Comedy Club, during which a space typically filled with non-Tamil audiences gets taken over by a Tamil one instead.
Featuring Tamil performers who are mostly from the UK, The Tamil Comedy Club offers an inclusive space to those who want to give stand-up a try. And gives attendees an experience that’s somewhere between a TED talk and a comedy show.
“My belief is that anyone can be a comedian. You have to be able to stand in front of a crowd and present. But everyone has funny moments or serious moments that could be funny. It’s about storytelling and working on the craft.”
Like Nina who did her first ever set at The Tamil Comedy Club in November of 2021 and then got an international booking in Switzerland just this past April.
More than creating the platform for these aspiring comedians, Sunthar also takes the time to coach them. He’s run free workshops to get young people thinking about writing comedy and stand-up. And prioritizng supporting women and queer folks, Sunthar shares tips on how to write, goes through material and offers guidance on how to write punch up comedy.
“I try to teach them how to write comedy through a different lens than traditional Tamil comedy which has typically been misogynistic, homophobic, and/or transphobic. To explore how we can create Tamil comedy, Tamil contextual comedy that makes more people in the room laugh. You want everyone in the audience to experience joy from your artform.”
Since its launch last November, The Tamil Comedy Club has sold out every show. And even though it’s just a few editions in, it’s already attracted returning high profile attendees like Pritt, Sahi Siva, Dhee, and music producer Santhosh Narayanan.
“It was a surreal moment for one of the greatest music directors right now to come through and say this is an amazing space I’ve created. Within the independent artist scene as well there seems to be a recognition of the importance of the culture being created by The Tamil Comedy Club and support for that.”
This past month Sunthar also brought “HOME” to London. Between the following he’s built by regularly creating and posting content, to the networks he’s built in London, he was able to sell out the show within 48 hours.
“I do shows in London and people say oh, Toronto is so progressive why would you leave. I guess, but that wasn’t always my experience. We’ve moved the needle on some things, but my experience isn’t every queer person’s or transperson’s. There continues to be examples of how the community lets us down. And if I can help push the community into another era of stronger acceptance and inclusion - that would be something I could be proud of.”
With all this going on you might be surprised to hear that Sunthar somehow still juggles being a full-time marketer. Looking ahead, he hopes to be able to make comedy his full-time pursuit, play bigger venues, go on tour and have his own special.
“But it’s balancing out that self-doubt and fear that any Tamil/refugee child has of abandoning the stable job to work on something you really like, regardless of momentum. I’m always scared to be a struggling artist.”
He admits sometimes he also falls into the traps of jumping too far ahead or comparison. It can be hard not to think about what next or why yet another comedian that’s getting laughs by punching down is making it.
And then he comes back to one of his biggest motivations - his younger self, and others like him who need to see this kind of nuanced storytelling.
“Young Tamil people, queer or not, are dealing with a crisis in terms of the amount of pain they carry and the inability to express themselves even in front of their closest people. I think a lot about that and at the end of the day it’s thinking about what I needed when I was younger and what so many others do now that keeps me going.”
And that’s something we can all get behind - the Tamil community, in the homeland, and diaspora endures more than enough pain. We all deserve spaces like The Tamil Comedy Club where we can feel at home, unapologetically, and exactly as we are.
Curious to learn more?