How two Bay Area comics created North America’s biggest South Asian comedy festival

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      As Abhay Nadkarni tells it, his first introduction to standup was through watching Seinfeld on TV in India some 20-odd years ago. 

      “At the end of the show, he would go on stage and give this speech. I was like, ‘What is he talking about? Is he singing?’’” the San Francisco-based comic recalls over video. “I didn’t even know the concept of comedy could be done that way, where you entertain people with your thoughts and your ideas, so I found it very appealing.” 

      The 14-year comedy vet joined forces with fellow Bay Area comedian and first-generation immigrant Samson Koletkar a decade ago. And so began Desi Comedy Fest, with the aim of both attracting more South Asian audiences to their shows and giving a platform to other Desi comics.

      “When we started in 2014, it was an experimental thing,” says Koletkar, who started his comedy career all the way back in the halcyon days of 2006. Also known as Mahatma Moses, he bills himself as the world’s only Jewish Indian comedian—or, at least, the only one he knows about so far. “There’s an Arab-American comedy festival, Latino comedy festivals, Jewish Comedy Festival—why don’t we have one for South Asians?” 

      Starting out as sporadic nights with all-South Asian lineups, the festival really made a splash in 2016 when the duo committed to doing 11 consecutive nights in theatres across North Californian suburbs—bringing the show closer to families who didn’t want to (or couldn’t) go downtown on a weeknight.

      Since then, Desi Comedy Fest has only gotten bigger: it’s toured all across the United States, as well as through India. Per Nadkarni’s confusion over Seinfeld, the standup comedy scene in India is younger than in North America and has different cultural roots. They two had no idea how their work would be perceived.   

      “That was the first time we were in a reverse situation, where we had been doing standup in America for so long,” Koletkar recalls. “How do Indian audiences relate to us now? Are we too Americanized for them? That was a fantastic experience.”

      It’s far from just South Asian audiences who come to pack the house, though. As Koletkar points out, Bollywood is the largest movie industry in the world. Similarly, crowds at Desi Comedy Fest tend to be diverse: anyone who’s up for a good time and for hearing from some under-represented voices in North American comedy.

      The heterogeneous audience has even resulted in some touching moments, as people from different histories find common ground.

      “I’d never seen Indians and Pakistanis laughing in the same room before,” Nadkarni says with a wry smile. “I would argue, that’s the biggest highlight for me from doing Desi Fest; we only see them in the context of cricket matches … It’s very unique, as part of the show, to see that we do have these shared experiences that help people bond.”

      The duo’s upcoming show at Just For Laughs Vancouver marks Desi Comedy Fest’s first venture into Canada. The suitably styled Desi Comedy Fest—On Tour sees three other comics joining them on the bill: former Vancouverite (now based in the Bay Area) Alisha Dhillon; Toronto upcomer Amar Singh; and local rising star UK Shah. 

      While the duo have shared the stage with Dhillon before, the other two are new faces for them. That’s pretty typical: there have been over 150 comedians on the different iterations of Desi Comedy Fest. The rotating lineup demonstrates the huge breadth of experiences within the South Asian community; comedians of all kinds with different religions, backgrounds, immigration stories, heritages, and comedy styles have appeared on the bill. 

      “We didn’t realize that the landscape of Brown comedians is growing,” Nadkarni adds. “We’ve gone through this cultural zeitgeist of comedy, exploration, and self-expression…and it’s getting more and more nuanced.”

      Some of that might be attributable to the mainstream success of South Asian comedians who’ve hit the big time—be it Russell Peters’ long-standing influence in Canada, Hasan Minhaj’s break-out special Homecoming King in 2017, Aparna Nanchera’s steady ascent through TV, or Lilly Singh’s online stardom. 

      “We thought we had run out of comedians by 2016—like, how many more South Asian comedians are we going to find?” Koletkar reflects with a laugh. “And every year, there are 100 more that pop up.” 

      Desi Comedy Fest—On Tour at JFL Vancouver 

      When: February 20, 8:30pm

      Where: Biltmore Cabaret

      Admission: $25, available here