When Samson Koletkar, a California-based standup comedian, stood on stage at the San Jose Arena in 2006, for his first real gig, he realized this is what he wanted to do in life. “I was not willing to get off the stage,” the computer scientist told News India Times. Mumbai-born Koletkar, aka Mahatma Moses, says he’s the only Indian Jewish standup comedian in the world. “And I have 5,999 potential competitors – that’s the number of Indian Jews. If anyone tries to come up, I’ll take them out,” he jokes.
Koletkar is just one of about a score of well-known Indian-American male and female comedians who have come up in the last decade. It’s not unusual now to find them on small comedy stages or like Aziz Ansari, cracking up a packed Madison Square Garden audience. They travel the world and many of them are booked up a year in advance, going by the bookings on their websites.
Rajiv Satyal, also from California, had his biggest audience of 17,000 when he took the stage before the arrival of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Silicon Valley for his speech to the diaspora at the SAP Center Sept. 27, 2015. He was also part of a group of Indian-American comedians the State Department sent on a tour of India. He credits the rise of Indian-American comedians to the democracies in which they live and where their families hail from. “Indian-Americans are the product of the largest, most powerful democracies. I call it “Free Speech Squared”,” he told News India Times. “There’s a sort of outspokenness in our community. We are different from other Asians,” he contends.
Truth To Power
Indian-American comedians have flourished over the last 10 years and Hasan Minhaj’s bold and scathing stand-up routine at the April 29 White House Correspondent’s Dinner caps their achievements. “Comedians speak truth to power,” says Koletkar, and those interviewed for this article gave an unqualified thumbs-up to Minhaj, a product of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” — saying “He killed it.” (See The Washington Post extracts from Minhaj’s speech). Minhaj, an equal opportunity critic like most comedians, directed his stinging remarks not just at the presidency, but also at liberals, the media, immigrants, outsourcing, and American society in general. The White House Correspondents Association described Minhaj as “a brilliant comedian.”
Aparna Nancherla, former staff writer for “Late Night With Seth Myers,” who has appeared on “Inside Amy Schumer” and hosts the podcast “Blue Woman Group, put up her snide dig at President Trump tweeting like him in the early hours of the morning May 4 — “trumpcare pre-existing condition: being alive.”
Known for decades as a model minority, this community churned out doctors and engineers, and then investment bankers, IT giants, astronauts, professors, management gurus, not to mention dominant motel and hotel owners, political strategists, and state and national lawmakers. So it was almost predictable that with time they would invade the quintessentially American stand-up space. Over the last decade, they have worked everything from small comedy clubs to packed arenas, catering to both South Asian and mainstream audiences.
They include Aziz Ansari who has lashed out more than once at Donald Trump, the candidate, and now President, on the issue of Muslim profiling. This January, however, when he hosted Saturday Night Live, it was with a contemplative opening speech reaching out to Trump supporters and opponents alike. The standup comedian, actor, author and movie-maker, was born and brought up in South Carolina and from his account, was a couch-slouch with a keen and quirky eye on humanity. He grounds himself in the reality of his Indian-American family in his first sitcom series Master of None. Season two of the same comes on Netflix May 12, and its anything but the expected with Ansari traipsing around Italy to gourmandize.
Among the outspoken critics of current administrations, is also Aasif Mandvi, a long-time comedian and actor, who gained even higher visibility from his appearances on The Daily Show. He recently led the April 26, “All-Star Deportation Jamboree” a tongue-in-cheek references to President Donald Trump’s alleged anti-immigration policy. Bringing together some of the “coolest” names in music and comedy, Mandvi said, “to support The ACLU and IRC (International Rescue Committee), and their crucial efforts to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees.”
Raj Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar, even if a fictional character, is considered the most-watched Indian on American TV in The Big Bang series. A close second on television, and then Netflix and Hulu, would be Dr. Mindy Lahiri, played by Mindy Kaling, in the romantic comedy The Mindy Project. Originally from Massachusetts, Kaling wrote for and acted in the popular series The Office, and went on to have her eponymous show.
Some of the other Indian-origin comedians who have made it in America, include Russell Peters, an Indo-Canadian; Sugar Sammy, also an Indo-Canadian, born Samir Khullar, in Quebec, who delivers his routines in a mixture of fluent English, French, Punjabi and Hindi, and is booked through the year with shows in the U.S., Canada, and France, Arj Barker (Arjan Singh) whose website like several others, shows he’s pretty much booked up with performances not just in the U.S. and Canada, but also Australia; Hari Kondabolu, the Brooklyn-based, Queens-raised comic who the New York Times has called “one of the most exciting political comics in stand-up today.”
Listed on Comedy Central as a regular, Paul Varghese is a Dallas, TX -based standup, who reached the semi-finals in the Last Comic Standing 2 competition; Chicago-born Azhar Usman, a stand-up comic who plays on his Indian and Muslim background, and did the classic show “Flying While Muslim,” was described by CNN as “America’s Funniest Muslim,” and Georgetown University listed him as “one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World.” Usman has opened more than 50 times for rave stand-up Dave Chappelle.
Koletkar says his politics and humor has a prophetic quality to it sometimes. Being a techie going into comedy, he joked in early days, that Indians had taken over the tech sector, and comedy is next. “Instead of being a joke, it’s a bhavishyavani,” he said, not that Indians have taken over, but their rise has been “pretty rapid” in the last ten years, he adds. He was told America was the “land of opportunity” but when he came here he found it the “land of hype” he says. “For instance, when they elected Obama, they basically elected a half-white, Christian, male president,” he says with a “what’s the big deal about that” attitude. He also took a digs at then President Obama’s Nobel Prize, saying he got it for doing nothing while India’s Mahatma Gandhi did not. “With Trump, my jokes have become reality,” he said. During the presidential campaign, he joked that if Trump was elected, he would print out big motivational posters saying “When the whole world says you can’t do it – Believe in yourself.” And he lashed out at President Obama when he said American were smarter than voting for Trump. “Dude, did you forget who they voted for before you,” Koletkar quipped.
Satyal reels out more names including Paul Varghese, MONROK, Vidur Kapur, Raj Desai, Mark Saldana, Asif Ali, Papa CJ, apart from those already mentioned.
There’s also Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who found her calling in comedy. There are also Sikh and Muslim women comedians who have made their mark. And there’s Dan Nainan, who was booked to perform at one of President Trump’s inaugural balls.
Being a comedian is perhaps one of the toughest jobs one could take up, the hardest of the performing arts, some say. “In comedy, everybody knows what they find funny – you just go before the audience naked,” says Satyal. That is probably what attracts a new crop of Indian-Americans who have something to say about the system and its idiosyncracies.
Generally speaking, most Indian-American comedians lean left, according to Koletkar. “There’s more political stuff if it’s a right wing government in power,” he contends.
“With Trump (in office), the material writes itself,” says Satyal. And he said he also noticed that a significant number of Indian-American comedians had a “South Indian” heritage, and/or were Muslim. His old roommate Minhaj for instance, whose parents were from Aligarh. Or Usman from Chicago, Kondabolu from Brooklyn, Nancherla, Lahiri, or Ansari.
The future looks bright for Indian-American comedians. There’s a critical mass of comedians from the community and so many ways to get their message and content in the air with social media.
Satyal attributes the success of Indian-American comics to their parents and to the Indian-American community. “We have also had a lot of support from parents and the Desi community.”
But some fear the art form is being driven by a profit motive now. Gone are the days when it was fun to earn two hundred bucks a gig but they still did it. “It was never to make big money,” Satyal contends. “We had something to say – some thoughts to put out.” The newer crop he contends has “White Collar approach.” He has seen a “lot of copy-cats,” and says there is some amount of resentment within the Indian-American comedy world, a questioning of the motivation of newcomers. “We wonder, ‘are you even funny’,” says Satyal, who claims art is being lost to “craft”.