More Than Just A Laugh: ISKCON Comedian Yadunath Dasa
Performing at ISKCON’s annual Festival of Inspiration this May for the seventh time in a row, professional comedian Yadunath Dasa is a ball of energy and edgy humor. His distinctive New Jersey accent booms out over the sound system as he simultaneously plays on the audience’s familiarity with internal ISKCON quirks and throws them unexpected curveballs, plunging them into waves of hysterical laughter.
Perhaps misguidedly, I expect to interview the same character—someone loud, gregarious, and delivering an incessant flow of punchlines.
What I get is a Yadunath who looks the same as he does onstage—small and wiry, smiley, and at 47, possessed of eternally youthful features. But this man is also thoughtful, almost quiet, careful in his answers and very genuine, both in his general attitude and in the depth of his feelings for spiritual life. “When I’m on stage, I have no qualms about being ‘big,’” he says. “But it’s a little uncomfortable for me when people want me to perform offstage too. Sometimes devotees will say stuff like, “I’m not letting you past here unless you tell me a joke.” I usually tense up when that happens, because I don’t have any back-pocket stuff. I don’t really tell jokes, like ‘a Hare Krishna and a Buddhist walk into a bar.’”
Born Joe DeGise II in New Jersey, where he still lives, Yadunath started his theater career early, putting on shows for his grandparents. He learned acting through improvisation in high school, creating an improv group afterwards with high school friends as the cast and his acting teacher as director. During the group’s moderately successful five-year run in the nineteen-eighties, Joe landed a day-job at a warehouse. He worked his way up to become head of the shipping department, settled into the comfortable security of a regular paycheck and forgot his dream until one day he finally snapped out of it. “What am I doing here?” he thought.
Quitting his job to pursue theater, he got a part-time position as a waiter—“Y’know, to fulfill the whole actor/waiter cliché.” In 1993, he joined Chicago City Limits, the longest running comedy revue in New York, leaving his waiter job a year later to try to make a full-time living as actor. However although he scraped in a modest living for two years, the money wasn’t quite enough, and Joe found himself on unemployment.
Spirituality and Joining ISKCON
Joe’s parents had instilled in him strong faith in God, and although organized religion put him off, he turned to spirituality in the void his joblessness had left. Considering every path valid, he would sometimes chant the Catholic prayers he’d been brought up with, and at other times the Hare Krishna mantra which he’d heard George Harrison of his favorite band the Beatles sing.
As his interest in spirituality grew, he accepted an invitation to a meeting with Mata Amritanandamayi, known also as “Amma” or “the hugging saint.” Famous for her humanitarian work, she was known to have healed and inspired thousands of people around the world simply by hugging them. Joe felt that she had some potency and began going to see her every time she visited New York. Finally, he was told that he could write a question and hand it to Amma, who would not answer it in person, but later in her own mystical way. Not sure what to expect, Joe wrote, “How can I get closer to God?” and handed it to her.
Six months later, he was reading one of her books when a mention of Krishna made him pause. Back in the early eighties, he remembered, his girlfriend at the time had got talking to a Hare Krishna devotee who gave her ISKCON's books Chant & Be Happy and Search for Liberation when she told him that her boyfriend was a Beatles fan. Back then, Joe had read them and thought they were cool, but they hadn’t impacted him in a profound way.
Now he searched to see if he still had them. Sure enough, there they were; and this time, they resonated deeply with him. He searched for ISKCON devotees, and eventually in May 1996 he discovered them at the Towaco, New Jersey temple. “When I got there, two devotees were sitting outside at a table,” he recalls. “The older one said, ‘Hare Krishna, can I help you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was wondering if there was someone I could ask a few questions to.” That was when the devotee turned to the young student next to him and dramatically delivered the words that changed my life: ‘Get Mahamuni.’”
Personable and friendly, Mahamuni served Joe some sacred “prasadam” food, spent ninety minutes expertly answering all of his questions, and then invited him to visit the temple again for that weekend’s “Sunday Feast.” “My prior perception of Hare Krishnas had been one of somewhat vapid, robotic types who stood on street corners and handed out flowers,” he says. “But the reality changed all that—the philosophy was deep, comprehensible and logical, and I developed strong relationships with the people.”
His interest continued to snowball, and by the end of the year, at thirty-four, Joe had become a Hare Krishna devotee.
Breaking The Comedy Resistance Barrier
Although Joe continued working as an improv comedian, he resisted performing comedy within ISKCON for a long time. “Due to immaturity, I separated the two in my head,” he says. “Spiritual life—serious, comedy—silly.”
Serious acting, however, was not off bounds, and after meeting ISKCON guru Bhakti Charu Swami, Joe landed the role of an early follower in Abhay Charan, Bhakti Charu’s multi-part TV series on the life of Srila Prabhupada.
But it wasn’t until he travelled to India for the first time that his “comedy resistance barrier” was broken. When Dhanurdhara Swami, whom he was accompanying, introduced him to everyone as “Joe, a famous comedian in New York,” devotees wanted to see him perform; and finally, he gave in, putting on an improvised scene for ISKCON temple residents in Mumbai. The response was so enthusiastic that he went on to teach improv workshops at ISKCON’s Mayapur and Vrindavan schools, then perform sketches at annual events in honor of Dhanurdhara Swami. The subsequent outpour of encouragement and appreciation from Dhanurdhara and others made him begin to see his talent as a service to God and His devotees, and gradually Joe became more comfortable with using it within ISKCON.
His spiritual comedy breakthrough came a few years later, just after his initiation as Yadunath Dasa by Bhakti Charu Swami. In 2003, second generation devotee and actor Gaura Vani, who had appeared with Yadunath in Abhay Charan, asked him to play Festival of Inspiration in New Vrindaban, West Virginia. This was a great honor—FOI was quickly becoming one of the most sought-after events in ISKCON, three days of top-flight education and entertainment where members could recharge their batteries.
It was the largest ISKCON audience Yadunath had performed for so far, and their response to his sketches and fifteen minutes of stand-up was also the wildest, most open-armed yet. Yadunath was thrilled—especially when the show appeared on PAMHO: Artistic Expressions of Gratitude, a DVD featuring the festival’s best—and when organizer Malati Dasi invited him back the next year.
More than Just A Few Giggles
It was after his 2004 performance that Yadunath experienced another major turning point in his spiritual comedy career. His show that year included three sketches, one of which, Kanishtha Madness, depicted a fanatical devotee distributing books to the public in an exaggeration of what Yadunath calls the “1970s ISKCON hard sell, in your face model.”
The morning after the show, ISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Dasa approached him. “What you’re doing is necessary for ISKCON’s growth—you’re helping us to mature as a society,” he said. “We weren’t able to laugh at ourselves for the longest time, but now you’re forcing us to look at how silly we can be and in so doing, you’re helping us to grow up.”
The words touched Yadunath’s heart, and for a few moments he simply stood there, stunned. He had never thought of his act that way before. “Wow, that’s a lot deeper than just grabbing a few giggles,” he thought. “Maybe this could be a valuable contribution to our society, rather than just comic relief.”
Yadhunath and wife Beth in front of the temple entrance in Alachua, Florida
With this new outlook in mind, Yadunath found other positive side-effects his comedy could have, such as healing. “Humor has the power to heal in a way that’s not hostile or aggressive,” he says. “When approached with humor, people aren’t put on the defensive and are able to hear things about themselves much more easily than if they were told straight up.”
Yadhunath’s shows also often contain moving moments of spiritual inspiration. “That’s when my comedy is at its best, but it’s not usually something I can plan,” he says. “When it happens, it’s a gift from Krishna.”
At Yadunath’s 2009 Festival of Inspiration performance, for instance, one of his sketches, wherein a telemarketer calls a temple, ended with the telemarketer agreeing to buy a Bhagavad-gita. “Let me take your address down,” says the devotee, “And I’ll send it right out.” Yadunath hadn’t thought of this as a laugh-line, so he was surprised when the audience immediately burst into rapturous laughter and applause. “They were so happy because the devotee had turned the tables on the telemarketer, and now she was going to get spiritual benefit,” he explains. “They showed me something I hadn’t even known was there.”
Perhaps Yadunath’s most well-received sketch is The Horse Race, a short piece depicting the race between a spiritual seeker’s setbacks and his boosts. “And coming up on the outside rail is Chanting Hare Krishna once again, Chanting Hare Krishna still in the race,” the announcer yells in typically intense fashion. “But creeping up on him is That Darn Sex Desire. There’s Pride and Lack of Humility running neck and neck. And look! Pulling out in front, there’s Oops I’m a Fanatic! Passing on the inside is Devotional Service. But hot on his heels are Spiritual Life is Too Hard, Dark Night of the Soul, and My God Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me!”
“I’m very grateful for that piece,” Yadunath says of it. “Although it’s only three minutes long, people have told me that the journey it describes is uplifiting—it seems that the struggling soul is bound to fall from grace, and then the announcer calls”¦”
“But wait! Outrunning the entire pack, from out of nowhere, here comes Prabhupada’s Mercy! Prabhupada’s Mercy now rushing the field, and he seems to be bringing Love of God with him, too!”
“When that line came, the entire audience simply exploded, showing their love and gratitude for ISKCON’s founder,” Yadunath says. “That was by far the most satisfying moment for me.”
Although Yadunath has received mostly positive responses to his shows, he has also drawn some negative reviews and controversy. Some have objected to his making fun of the GBC, ISKCON’s managerial authority, as it is a sacred organization appointed by Prabhupada. “I respect the GBC and its purpose and don’t make fun of any particular members,” he defends. “But it is in many ways a political organization, and therefore a prime target for some light-hearted poking fun. Being against that brings back the attitude that prevents us from being able to laugh at ourselves.”
Easily Yadunath’s most controversial and criticized piece is Bhagavad-gita As It Isn’t, a sketch that appears on the 2003 DVD PAMHO. In it, Yadunath and Beth—his regular co-star and real life wife—play themselves, a husband and wife comedy team about to put on a show. Following the structure of the Bhagavad-gita wherein Arjuna casts down his weapons and refuses to fight, Beth gets stage fright and casts down her script, refusing to do her duty and perform. The two then argue, addressing each other with such demeaning titles as “O Subduer of the Handicapped” and “O Master of Cheap Jokes.” Following similarly structured invocations to those in the Gita, they continue: “Of States, You Are New Jersey; of Intelligent Leaders You are George Bush.” Finally, as Arjuna agrees to accept his duty and fight, Beth agrees to accept hers and perform.
The first objection came during the rehearsal, when a young devotee approached Yadunath saying, “I don’t think it’s right to use this sacred conversation as a structure for a comedy sketch.” Yadunath listened to this comment respectfully and with all his heart, thought about it for a long time and discussed the matter with senior devotees. “I know what business I’m in, and that with comedy you can never get everyone to like or agree with you—so I’m open to sometimes putting some folks off,” he says. “But I do want people to tell me if I am being offensive to the Lord or his devotees, because I never want to do either of those things, and certainly haven’t set out to do them. I have edited out and changed some things after receiving advice in the past, and I’ve kept things in too. And respectfully, that’s how I’m going to play it.”
In the case of Bhagavad-gita As It Isn’t, Yadunath finally returned to the devotee who had objected and said, “I appreciate your feedback, but I’m going to go ahead and put on the sketch because I feel I’m not making fun of the original conversation at all; I’m just using it as a prototype.”
What’s more, the Bhagavad-gita As It Isn’t sketch has a personal resonance for Yadunath. “It’s about how going on stage and doing comedy is my dharma, my duty,” he explains. “After years of resistance to it, I’m now trying to dovetail it with Krishna consciousness. Even when I’m on stage at the comedy club in front of non-devotees, I still try my best to perform in the proper consciousness.”
Yet nothing will ever be the same as performing for devotees. “While I do my best to offer my non-devotional shows as service, it’s difficult,” Yadunath says. “But with devotee performances there’s a direct feeling that I’m serving the Vaishnavas, and that if they’re pleased my guru and the Lord are pleased, too.
“And besides, devotee audiences are the most generous in the world.”
Yadunath looks to the future of his spiritual comedy career calmly, with no huge ambitions. Besides Festival of Inspiration, which he has played every year since 2003, he has only performed at a handful of events, and few of these were public. “Most of what I do is very in-house,” he says. “One day, I would love to do more devotional material for non-devotees, but Krishna has not given me that material yet.”
As for in-house ISKCON performances, he’s keeping it simple, sticking with basic props, costume elements, and a temporary stage. He has, however, discussed collaborating with Prabhupada Memories producer Siddhanta Dasa to release a “best of” DVD with higher production values. “It’s something devotes have asked for many times, so we want to deliver it,” he says. “But we want it to look slick and professional, and that takes time. So watch this space!”
In the meantime, he has been invited back to Festival of Inspiration for the eighth year in a row, and hopes to be a part of the festival’s 10th anniversary in May 2010.
Yadunath’s ISKCON comedy career signifies the tail-end of a significant shift in our society. When he first began performing for devotees he noticed a strong thirst for something they had been deprived of for years. Today, more and more devotees are appreciating comedy and finding out that it’s okay, with projects like satirical website The Hing emerging from beneath the woodwork.
“Somebody once defined a cult to me as a group of people who are unable to laugh at themselves,” Yadunath says. “It dawned on me that by that definition, perhaps there was a time when we really were a cult. But we’re coming out of that now—in many places we already have. And I value and cherish being a part of that.”