By Sid Sharma
“Should we do the banner here?” Sam asks. Considering the foot traffic, he pauses for a second. “No, you’re right,” he tells his co-producer, Abhay. “This is better.” He then picks up the phone and starts a conversation in Hindi. With that issue resolved, the two turn to working out the sound.
This is how a comedy show comes to stage. But something special is going on tonight. This is the Desi Comedy Festival, a one-of-a-kind experience. In fact, it’s the only South Asian–driven comedy festival in America. And like all pioneering movements, it has that raw energy, that feeling that every decision seems pregnant with meaning and purpose. In other lives, they would have made great dentists or programmers. But here they are taking a chance and trying to give life to something brand-new. This is punk rock ethos applied to comedy with a South Asian twist.
Amid the craziness, I had a chance to sit down with Sam Koletkar (Pt. 1) and then Abhay Nadkarni (Pt. 2), the two producers, to talk about the festival, female Desi comedians, and the future of comedy.
Sid Sharma: All right, Sam, how did all this get started?
Sam Koletkar: We actually did this last year. Two years before that, I had produced another show called United We Stand Up, which had three Indian and two Pakistani comics, three females and two males on that lineup. We did two shows on the 14th and 15th of August during the two countries’ independence days. That kind of worked out decent, and that gave me the idea to some South Asian–centric stuff.
There are black comedy festivals, Latin comedy festivals, white comedy festivals, Jewish comedy festivals, and Middle Eastern comedy festivals. So there are all these festivals that happen—why not do something for South Asians? We are one of the most dominant communities in the country. We have a lot of money. Let’s take some of it back!
And there are enough Desi comics in this area that we knew that we could put the festival together. So last year, we had eleven comics on four shows, and we sold out all four. This was a big realization to us. “We could sell out shows!” And this year, we decided to expand. We took eight shows on in slightly bigger venues with more comics. One’s from Seattle, one’s from India, a couple of them are part-timing between LA and here, and others are all around here.
SS: In terms of the logistics of putting something like this together, it must be incredibly challenging.
SK: It’s definitely challenging, but it’s also fun. I would rather do this than sit at home and bitch and moan about how I don’t get good stage time or how I don’t do good shows. “Make it happen” is my thing, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six years. I’ve run shows here every week, twice a week.
That’s the part where you become a producer, you become a promoter, you become an advertiser, you become a marketer, and you become the finance person. You are all in one, and you do everything. You learn how to do social media promotions, how to deal with ticketing sites, how to deal with radio and advertisers. All of that plays into it.
The good thing about this festival is it’s a mix of various venues. So last night, we were at Punch Line, which is a comedy club. Last two shows we have are at a comedy club, Punch Line again. In the middle, we are doing Sunnyvale and Pleasanton, which are theaters. Proper auditorium-style seating with sound. They are also professional spaces with light, sound, and it’s really nice.
And we have this one, which is technically a banquet room which nobody thinks of as a comedy space. I actually got this idea when I was in Dallas, when they turned a conference room into a stage. Why not? For me, instead of going into these dingy bars where people are there to drink and not listen to you, I would rather create a place where people come watch the show, and that’s why we had fantastic audiences come in to watch the show.
Here we set up the chairs, do the lights, but that’s OK. You see all the comics are on their toes doing something. It’s OK that we have to do some work, but it’s going to make the show better, so let’s do it.
SS: I know you might have been asked this a million times, but can you tell us about how you got into comedy?
SK: The best answer to that question comes from my native language, Marathi. Translating it into English loses the punch. I always said that growing up as a kid, I heard about how smart people are, and as I grew up and realized how smart they really are, I decided to go talk about it. So that’s what really got me started. There’s just so much nuisance in this world that we have so much to comment on, and I guess I’m opinionated, and this is just a great platform for me to be up on stage and express myself.
I grew up in India, never saw stand-up live. Never thought I could do it. People mostly did mimicry, and that’s not my forte. I do more commentary. I got inspired by folks like George Carlin. He influenced me a lot. When I saw him do what he does, I went, “Wow, he can do all that?” When I started, it was that Russell Peters clip that went viral and gave everybody confidence that an Indian comic was a thing. That’s how I started too. Two years down the road, the comedy changed. George Carlin, Bill Burr, Jimmy Carr [English comic]. So when I went on stage and tried it, it was addiction. Either you’ll never go back up, or you can’t get off the stage.
SS: Are there any nuances to being an Indian American comic?
SK: The other big difference for me, not having grown up in America, was I had no references. When people would say, “Oh yeah, I love Richard Pryor,” I had no clue who that was. So every time I heard a name, I would go home and Google, YouTube, to see who they are and what they did. So my learning happened on the job since I didn’t have it in my childhood.
We knew Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy as actors on TV. We knew they were actors but never saw their stand-up. So stand-up as an art form is something unique to America.
SS: You mentioned India. I’m reading a lot about how stand-up as an art form is getting really popular there. What’s driving that?
It’s catching up in India [laughs]. I would actually love to go back to India because that’s where the boom is. There is so much demand and so little supply. That’s where being a full-time comic is more viable than over here. I have really thought about doing it here.
SS: Bill Burr said in an interview that India was going through the Lenny Bruce phase where Indians are trying to come to terms with this thing called stand-up comedy.
SK: Exactly. People are getting arrested, and there are backlashes. AIB, for example, is brilliant. I love what those guys do. I’ve done shows with a couple of them when I was in India, and it’s amazing how they have grown and how they have improved.
People seem to think that it’s a Western fad that Indians are trying to copy. It’s not. Everybody loves to laugh. It’s not that we never had satire or commented on politics. Hasya Kavi Sammelan was the original form of social satire in India, where you had poets doing rhymes and still commenting on politics of the day.
Now it’s more in-your-face, and Indian audiences tend to be introverts. We don’t like in-your-face-type comedy. And that culture clash is interesting to see. I keep telling my wife, “If I ever go back to India, be sure to have bail money ready because I’ll definitely get arrested for my comedy.”
SS: There are a lot of female comics on the lineup, more so than usual. How did that come about?
SK: That’s one more thing we are very conscious about. When I book comics, even for my weekly shows, I always look out for diversity. One good thing about the Bay Area is that there are already a lot of diverse comics here. It’s a little bit of an extra effort to book shows with a large variety of comics, but our goal is to showcase as many comics as possible.
Thankfully, there are enough Indian female comics, so we can showcase them. Hopefully, this provides other people to get inspired and do it as well, because 99 percent of comedians start because they know someone that did comedy. It’s always like, “Oh, I saw this person on stage, and I’m going to do that now.”
SS: Any advice you have for an aspiring stand-up comic?
SK, laughing: As a comedian, I want to say, “Don’t!” Comedy is amazing, but it’s like any other field, like art or sports. It’s tough and not easy. When I got into it, I was dreaming of performing in front of a thousand people in sold-out auditoriums. There are going to be really rough nights where you’ll tank and bomb on stage. You’re going to go through a lot of frustrations and angst. But if you stick it out, eventually, it should get better. I don’t want to say it does get better because I don’t know for everybody. If you’re good at it and you’re dedicated, opportunities come knocking.
I was always afraid of losing comedy. If I didn’t have this vehicle, what would I do with my life? Thankfully, comedy is so diverse. You could be an impressionist, improv, commentator, or anything in between. So there isn’t one single thing that defines success.
Do what you like. The hardest part is being original. But I don’t know if I have enough stature to give advice [laughs].
Showtimes and tickets are available here: http://www.desicomedyfest.com/