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Desi Comedy Fest Aims to Unify South Asians Through Laughter

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Priyanka Wali performing a set at 2017 Desi Comedy Fest.
Priyanka Wali performing a set at 2017 Desi Comedy Fest. (Pixelchazer)

For about a decade now, South Asia and its diaspora have been experiencing a live comedy boom. YouTube sets and Netflix India specials have popularized the once exotic act of stand-up for a Desi audience and launched the careers of a generation of young, hungry comics.

The attention on live Desi comedy hasn’t come without consequences: recent high-profile court cases and arrests of comedians who wade into religious or political issues have dramatized the fault lines that rip apart South Asia today. Bridging that divide is the reason Samson Koletkar, an Indian Jewish comedian, co-founded the annual Desi Comedy Fest with fellow comedian Abhay N in the first place.

“We all like to laugh. We have some common things that we can laugh about,” says Koletkar. As a further symbol of solidarity, he chose the dates of Independence of Pakistan and India, August 14th and 15th, to host the stand-up nights.

Now in its eighth year, the festival’s mission has grown beyond its initial purview. “When we started in the beginning, it was all about Indian and Pakistani comics. Then we started finding and booking Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Iranian. We sort of expanded all over, even picked up Middle Eastern comics, East Asian comics. And we sort of kept diversifying, because what we eventually realized is there is a lot of diversity within ‘South Asian.’ There’s a lot of mixes.”

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The 16-comic strong line-up for this year’s Desi Comedy Fest reflects that commitment to diversity. Ayanna Dookie is Indo-Trinidadian-American, Feraz Ozel is Pakistani- and Afghani-American, Sofie Khan is Pakistani-Mexican-American, just to name a few among the multicultural, multihyphenated assemblage.

None are household names yet, but that’s exactly what appeals to Koletkar. “What we are focused on are the comics who are still underground, who are under the radar. You’ve seen them on Comedy Central. They’ve won competitions and performed around the world. They write for late night. They’re really good working comics, it’s just that they haven’t broken through.”

In previous years, Desi Comedy Fest was a week-long bonanza with shows up and down the Bay Area. During the pandemic, Koletkar has been forced to scale back operations to two socially distanced, outdoor venues: Gasser Garden in San Francisco and the India Community Center in Milpitas.

As for ticket sales during a pandemic, “the response has been slower than usual,” Koletkar says, though Friday’s shows have already sold out. “People are skeptical. We get that. So we’re trying to just do it and keep the fun going. This year is all about keeping our sanity, and then hopefully things get better and we can go back to the big fest again.”

Desi Comedy Fest runs from Aug. 13–15 in San Francisco and Milpitas. Masks and proof of vaccination required for entry. Details here.

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