Desi Comedy Festival allows South Asian performers to reclaim the punchlines

Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

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At last, a room of brown bodies gathered together Aug. 13 at Freight & Salvage to celebrate the barriers the Desi community has overcome and embrace one another’s culture through humor. Desi comedians were finally given a platform at the 4th Annual Desi Comedy Fest to reclaim exhausted stereotypes after decades of serving as punchlines to jokes that exploited taxi-driving uncles and gas-station-owning dads. For once, it wasn’t a white comedian onstage talking about TSA, it wasn’t a middle schooler making fun of accents or high math scores — it was Desi comedians themselves.

But this isn’t the end.

Arjun Banerjee, comedian and UC Berkeley student, said in an interview, “Indians in media are on the come up right now, but there are still some things holding them back.” Thankfully, with 11 shows in nine cities, all celebrating South Asian comedians, the Desi Comedy Fest may be a good start — though the obvious discomfort following the early performances proved that there is still work to be done.  

As underrepresented minorities, many South Asian communities often compromise their identities in order to feel included. But the Desi Comedy Fest provided a platform for many marginalized countries to shine. It finally allowed comedians, such as Banerjee, to “talk about some things, that if (he) were white, (he) wouldn’t be able to talk about.” Though Banerjee admitted to having a “nebulous tie” to his culture, he also acknowledged that “comedy should be reflective of worldview.”

However, many of the comedians seemed uncomfortable taking full advantage of the opportunity, as it was clearly not welcomed by the audience. The few comedians who boldly dove into political jokes were quickly shunned. Groans took the place of the laughter that should have followed host Samson Koletkar’s jokes.

Fortunately, the comedians seemed unfazed and persisted — but this shouldn’t be the norm.

Maybe the audience would have reacted differently if the comedians were white. Maybe the performers and the material were too close for comfort. But it’s this tension that creates a space for stifled voices to assert themselves.

It may be inconvenient for a comedian to hold themself accountable to this cultural identity while performing, but the opportunity to represent an otherwise neglected country should not be ignored. In fact, another comedian and UC Berkeley student, Sureni Weerasekera, believes “tackling difficult topics is the job of a comedian. People are way more willing to listen to something if it’s in the context of laughing.”

Unfortunately, the latter didn’t prove to be true at the Desi Comedy Fest.

The audience actually seemed flustered by Weerasekera’s frankness as she unapologetically delivered her controversial jokes. But it’s crucial to get out of this discomfort to discuss — and eventually laugh — at the injustice the Desi community faces. If Weerasekera didn’t pioneer taxi-driver jokes, she would be surrendering her story for others to use. If Koletkar didn’t discuss his experiences with TSA, he would be inadvertently giving others the opportunity to speak on his behalf.

Comfort isn’t won with silence.

Desi comedians need to be loud like Dhaya Lakshminarayanan and use their voices to build bridges among the hyphenated-American communities. She was one of the few performers to successfully reel in the unsupportive audience that night, partly because she didn’t simply retell events like other rising comedians did. Lakshminarayanan added her own flair and truly focused on the presentation.

Because Desi culture isn’t widely known or understood, it’s easy to simply rely on the culture itself to seem humorous. But restating a community’s reality isn’t comedic. There has to be a creative spin on the issues faced — a voice to the struggles endured — so that the culture can be celebrated, instead of serving as an open target.

Though it’s undeniable that the Desi Comedy Fest is growing impressively, the producers and comedians must take more responsibility in demonstrating the cultural aspect of the event, and members of the audience should show more responsibility in supporting the comedians through that process.

If the South Asian community wants more visibility — if the Desi community wants to finally be taken more seriously in a public sphere and be in charge of its own narratives — it must work together to publicize Desi voices.

In this day and age, it’s not enough for Desi comedians to just laugh at their aunties. They have to stand up for them, too.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].

A previous version of this article referred to performers at the Desi Comedy Fest as Southeast Asian. In fact, the comedians were from South Asian communities.