Before stand-up comedian Sureni Weerasekera sat down for her interview at Free Speech Movement Cafe, she got in line for an iced caramel latte. She said she knew the man working behind the counter.
“Oh no, not you,” the barista said, just as Weerasekera approached the front. The pair had a vague, ambiguous exchange — they needed to talk “about something.” They both chuckled as Weerasekera made her way toward the tables.
The world may never find itself on the inside of that story, but Weerasekera is happy to share about her life — she does it every other Thursday night.
Weerasekera started performing stand-up at age 17 and came to UC Berkeley as an American Studies major, thinking she might focus her thesis around the sociopolitical impacts of comedy in American history. She’s now a junior, but she ended up taking this semester off. Instead, she’s pursuing a deeper exploration into stand-up comedy and launching her own show called Certified Fresh — initially weekly, now biweekly — at the Red Tomato Pizza House in Downtown Berkeley.
Before diving into stand-up, Weerasekera had been a vocalist but didn’t find her experience fulfilling.
“When you mess up a note in singing, either no one notices or no one really cares, but with stand-up, if you fuck up a note or a joke, everyone notices — the stakes are higher but the reward is a lot larger,” she told The Daily Californian. “Stand-up is a lot more thought-provoking, and I felt like I could do so much more in terms of the types of social changes that I want to do through stand-up.”
The social changes she discusses are wide-ranging. She tackles issues that are personal to her, including what she describes as the oppressive nature of South Asian culture. She also opens discourse on intensely relevant subjects, such as school shootings.
“Comedians, they’re these weird outliers of society, where like they can kind of get away with a lot,” she said. “When you kind of code it in this humorous way, you’re able to talk about stuff that’s really harsh but break the tension.”
But Weerasekera’s greatest achievement comes in the form of the show itself. Her lineup, which changes biweekly, is defined by its variety — not only in identities, but in styles of humor. A typical lineup for Certified Fresh represents a broad spectrum of different races, genders and sexualities, with performers’ sets conveying diverse tones and personalities.
Her March 15 show was no different. For every bubbly anecdote about sexuality or drug use, there was a deadpan one-liner about race or mental illness. A sizeable audience filled the entirety of the Red Tomato to see Weerasekera and the seven comedians who would follow her. In the corner of the pizza parlour, a small square stage jutted out from the corner in a way not unlike Pride Rock.
Weerasekera delivered humorous quips about the meaning behind her first name, an analogy between iPhone and Android products and male and female genitals and, perhaps most cleverly, how protest chants written by white people are doomed to fail because white people have no rhythm. She leans on the metal bars that enclose the stage, suggesting an ease with performing typically uncommon for someone still fairly fresh to the game.
“It’s kind of hard, because I’m figuring out who I am as a person while I’m developing as a comedian,” Weerasekera said in her interview. “I don’t know a lot about myself or about the world. I can only talk so much before sounding like I don’t know anything.”
But even with limited life experience, Weerasekera notes she’s already achieved significant growth in her career.
“I fell into the trap a lot of new comedians fall into when they first begin — you’re so drunk with freedom, you just want to say everything,” she said. “It doesn’t help you to be a good writer, because you’re relying on shock to get a response. If you can get that same response out of a joke that has no profanity, no risque topics, that’s fucking funny.”
So she steered her focus toward developing stronger technical writing skills, leaning more into observational humor than shock value. But more importantly, she writes jokes for herself, ones that she knows are both funny and truthful.
“I think overall, when people walk away from the performance now versus when they first saw me, … they know what I stand for, and I think they have a better idea of who I am,” she said.
That’s not to say, however, that the process doesn’t backfire. Comedy allows a unique freedom to speak without censors, and that can come with consequences.
“There’s definitely been times when I’ve said a joke, and I’ve offended everyone in the room,” said Weerasekera. “It made me reassess, because in life, you’re going to keep learning — ideally you will keep learning until you die — you’ll keep re-adjusting. I like to send the best, clearest message I possibly can.”
With that in mind, Weerasekera refuses to let high stakes deter her and isn’t afraid to tackle particularly difficult subject matters. In fact, she takes a solid stance when it comes to one of comedy’s oldest debates: Are there some topics that are off-limits?
“Anything can be joked about. I’m a firm believer in that… Avoiding a conversation about something isn’t going to help the problem — you’re just making it harder to talk about, because everyone’s butthole gets real tight,” she said.
According to Weerasekera, her rule of thumb for controversial topics is fairly straightforward. The punchline of the joke should always ridicule those in power, not victims or survivors. It ties back into her greater mission — empowering diverse voices and calling out bullshit.
“When you see a comedian, you’re going to go see an opinion from someone,” she said, sipping on what was left of her latte. “Whether or not you agree on that point of view, that’s up to you, but they present it, ask a question, they start a conversation. And that’s why I admire comedians so much. I’d love to be that one day.”
Shannon O’Hara is the special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected].