Tensions between India and Pakistan were extremely high in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The impact of the violence was felt throughout the Indian and Pakistani diasporas — especially among those with loved ones back home — as long-simmering enmities boiled over.
Samson Koletkar, a Mumbai-born San Franciscan and technologist, was just beginning to dip his toes into the world of stand-up.
“I was sitting here helpless, not knowing what I could do,” says Koletkar, who now bills himself as “the world’s only Indian Jewish standup comedian.” “I figured, the least I can do is try to bring Indian and Pakistani people together for a comedy show and to laugh with each other.”
That show sowed the seeds for what in 2014 would bloom the Desi Comedy Fest — the biggest South Asian comedy festival in America, and one of the largest annual comedy events in the Bay Area.
This year it’s back at a COVID-safe scale, with socially distanced seating for five Bay Area shows. The first shows are 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. on Aug. 13 and 14 at Gasser Garden, an outdoor venue in downtown San Francisco, with about 100 tickets available per show. Shows on August 14 were originally scheduled at an indoor venue in Oakland, but plans were changed to decrease spread of the COVID-19 delta variant.
The largest show will be 7 p.m. Aug. 15 at the India Community Center in Milpitas. About 400 seats are available. Tickets are $30 to $50, with VIP seats front and center available for $75.
Koletkar is proud to say this year’s 16-comic lineup spans gender and religious identity, and features performers from all over the United States and Canada. The majority are of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan descent, though Koletkar notes several are mixed-race and one — Comedy Central Roast Battle contestant Anna Valenzuela — is Latina. The rest of the recently announced lineup is Koletkar himself, Feraz Ozel, Sofie Khan, Tanveer Arora, Abhay, Richard Sarvate, Ayanna Dookie, Vishal K, Janesh Rahlan, Dauood Naimyar, Arjun Banerjee, Priya Guyadeen, Ehsan Ahmad, and Subhah Agarwal.
The show’s content will be less crude than most stand-up comedy, but it definitely isn’t for kids. “There is a joke about how, in America, there’s a distinction between whether you’re a dirty comic, a clean comic, or a TV-clean comic. Beyond TV clean comes Indian clean,” Koletkar cracks. “It’s not like we’re squeaky clean — it’s not a PG-13 show — but in that sense, 16-plus is the recommended age.”
Limited food and drink will be available at the shows, so it’s recommended to eat dinner before. Audience members must show proof of vaccination, either physical or digital. Tickets are at desicomedyfest.com.
This story has been updated to include that the August 14 show will now be held at Gasser Garden in San Francisco. The scheduling change was announced August 4.