Wringing Laughs Out of Truckers in Boise: The Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest Returns

When he started working as an IT consultant, Sanjay Manaktala traveled a lot. He would find himself in Iowa or Wisconsin, and  bored in the hotel, he would head out to perform at comedy clubs.

This isn’t something that everyone might do when they find themselves in a strange city with some free time. But Manaktala has loved comedy since he was a teenager. Needing just one more CD to complete the offer of 10-for-a-dollar, he ended up with the cool-looking guy in a tux. That was Chris Rock, and it was the only CD he ended up listening to.

Now Manaktala is one of 50 comedians featured in the Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest, 11 days of South Asian comedians from nine countries who will appear in cities around the Bay Area, including San Francisco,Berkeley,  San Jose, and Livermore.

After first getting onstage in his 20s, getting maybe “one laugh for every eight shows,” Manaktala started to get more comfortable. And he noticed he gained more confidence in his work as well after being able to wring laughs out of truckers in Boise. He took a job, which sent him to India. You might think that would mean the end of his comedy career, but comedy legend Don Ward, who started the Comedy Store in London, had just opened a club in Mumbai and took Manaktala under his wing.

Manaktala, who describes his comedy as “observational,” says he looks forward to performing in the Bay Area and the connections he makes at the festival, meeting people who want to go perform in India, for example. With comedy, they’re not just making people laugh, they’re commenting on issues like feminism and censorship, Manaktala says.

“A woman might get harassed on a bus, and some politician will say she shouldn’t have worn a short skirt,” he said. “Then we’re like, ‘Oh, we gotta take this guy down.’ ”

Comedy is a way to connect with people who may not share your opinions, says Abhay Nadkarni, who co-founded the festival with Samson Koletkar.


Sanjay Manaktala (Courtesy of Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest)

“If I’m doing a show at a conservative room, and it looks like there’s no common ground, there really is,” he said. “There’s a lot of gray zones, and I’m able to make these people laugh who would completely disagree with me off stage. When they laugh, it’s like they agree with you.”

Nadkarni, who works in film production at Dolby Labs, started the festival with Koletkar in 2014 after a conversation about the growth in numbers of South Asian comics, and how most shows only had one or two comedians of color. The first festival had four shows with 11 comics.

Nadkarni loves the response.

“It’s very cool to see people have such a good time at these shows — they laugh and cheer and go wild,” he said. “There’s a sense of connecting to people and a sense of community.”

That’s important for comedians, Nadkarni says.

“It’s a very tough profession, and you’re doing gigs alone,” he said. “This can help build camaraderie. The arts don’t get enough respect. If you create a sense of pride and community, that can change the thinking about arts.”

Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest, Aug. 11-21 at various locations around the Bay Area, for more information, please go here.

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