Desi Comedy Fest Showcases Expanding Universe of South Asian American Humor

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Fremont based comedian Samson Koletkar is one of the co-founders of the Desi Comedy Fest, running August 9-19, 2018 in venues throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. (Courtesy Desi Comedy Fest)

The Desi Comedy Fest has grown in recent years to become one of the biggest annual comedy events in the San Francisco Bay Area, featuring 32 comics in 11 shows region-wide.

Desi Comedy Fest co-founder Samson Koletkar says this all started nearly ten years ago in the aftermath of  "26/11," a coordinated series of terrorist attacks across Mumbai in 2008. 

Koletkar grew up in Mumbai, and although he long ago moved to the Bay Area, he kept asking himself what he could do to make the world a better place.  "What am I going to do as a comedian? The least I can do is get Indians and Pakistanis in the same room and make them laugh." He staged a couple of shows here that did just that.

Thus began his third career, after comedy and computer software, staging live entertainment. Then in 2014, along with fellow Indian-born comic Abhay Nadkarni, Koletkar launched the Desi Comedy Fest to create a showcase for South Asian talent.

It started small: four shows and a handful of comedians he knew, including a KQED Art's Woman to Watch and self-described nerd, Dhaya Lakshminarayanan.


Over the past five years, the Desi Comedy Fest has grown in terms of audience size and the roster of talent onstage. In 2014, roughly 700 people attended. This year, Koletkar and Nadkarni are expecting something more like 4,000, in variety of venues from Mill Valley south to Santa Cruz.

There have been as many as 54 comedians featured, but the festival has downsized to 32, finding that the magic number to allow each enough time onstage and reduce the number of logistical nightmares required every year.

Koletkar, who bills himself as "the world's only Indian Jewish stand up comedian," thrills at the diversity of South Asian talent he's able to book, in terms of geography, religion, language and personal experience.

He adds that he sees a sea change away from thickly accented impressions of family members, essentially getting a laugh at their expense. That’s grown stale for many first-generation fans, a large part of any Bay Area audience, especially in Silicon Valley. "They’ll come up to me and go, 'You don't do the same old stereotypically stupid jokes. So refreshing,'" Koletkar says.

The festival also pulls in talent now from across North America, like Azhar Usman, a burly, bearded Muslim Indian-American from Chicago who uses all of that in his act.

Given the Trump Administration’s travel ban, you won't be surprised to hear the majority of comics are American-born, and all reside in the United States. But increasingly, the Desi Comedy Fest is not limiting itself to South Asian performers. This year’s program also includes Filipino, Iranian, Japanese, Libyan and Syrian-Mexican stand-up artists.

Nadkarni, "the only Konkani [from the Indian region of Goa] comedian in this festival," adds there's similar diversity in the audiences as well, and he's not just talking about heavy South Asian representation in the South Bay. "In San Francisco, I've met white people with Indian names. It's the funniest thing!" He's referring to the children of hippies who converted to Hinduism.

What's on tap for the future? The co-founders say they'd be game to expand to the point where they invite white comedians, perhaps even John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Already, Nadkarni has joined LA-based comedian Richard Sarvate to spoof Jerry Seinfeld's series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The spoof is called Comedians in Rickshaws Getting Chai

The first episode was shot in India, but Nadkarni would like to try filming the second in the US. "If anyone has a rickshaw and they want to show it off, that'd be great."

Abhay Nadkarni entertains a crowd in Mountain View during Desi Comedy Fest 2017.
Abhay Nadkarni entertains a crowd in Mountain View during Desi Comedy Fest 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Desi Comedy Fest)

Desi Comedy Fest 2018 continues through August 19 at multiple venues. For more information, click here