On Friday, comedy collective Facial Recognition Comedy took the stage at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco as part of the lineup for the 19th Annual SF Sketchfest. Despite the group’s fairly recent rise to prominence in the comedy world, with a nationally touring stand-up show and weekly podcast, Facial Recognition Comedy managed to perform to a sold-out crowd in its first show of the night, offering plenty of laughs, albeit to differing degrees.
The group, which features female-identifying performers of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, advertises its self-proclaimed mission to dispel tokenism, with a tongue-in-cheek name and brand highlighting the performers’ tagline, “We are NOT the same person.” As such, Facial Recognition Comedy’s show Friday night featured a lineup of performers who tackled issues of race, gender and navigating relationships with white people and other communities of color. While some performers offered nuanced critiques of identity-based discourse through personal storytelling, others’ attempts at pointed humor fell flat — this, in turn, was reflected in the audience’s energy shifting with each new act.
Amamah Sardar brought out the first main act of the night, which consisted primarily of brief quips about her East Coast upbringing as a woman of Pakistani descent and her dating experiences in New York City. Sardar peppered in moments of culturally specific humor, such as a running bit about people’s reactions to her name, while moving into other jokes or simply describing her interactions with others. Despite Sardar’s smooth delivery, the content of her set wasn’t as original as one would hope, culminating in an enjoyable, if somewhat unmemorable, opening.
Sardar was followed by Zahra Noorbakhsh, who, despite having the most name recognition among the comedians that evening, had the most mellowed response from the crowd. Noorbakhsh maintained a solid delivery and commented directly on modern political discourse, something that the other performers hardly engaged with. The crowd seemed most interested when Noorbakhsh’s set dealt with Islamophobia and harmful tropes regarding immigrant and Muslim individuals but lost enthusiasm for her discussion of patriarchy, feminism and allyship. Noorbakhsh playfully responded to this, asking out loud on multiple occasions why the crowd frequently became so silent. Unfortunately, her self-awareness did little to improve the audience’s engagement for the rest of the set.
Despite her placement right in the middle of the lineup, Pallavi Gunalan managed to garner the most laughs of the night, easily coming away as the highlight of the show. With a charismatic and unabashed delivery, Gunalan balanced self-deprecating humor and snarky punchlines at others’ expense, tackling topics such as aging and her South Indian cultural upbringing.
Zahra Ali, Fizaa Dosani and Subhah Agarwal rounded out the evening. Ali’s act primarily centered around her being one of the oldest comedians in the group, with the comedian cheekily offering statements of advice to the 20-somethings in the room: “It’s 2020. Find a guy with a headboard!” Dosani and Agarwal’s sets, meanwhile, both conveyed themes of shared experiences and communicating ideas through and without language in immigrant communities. Their humor seemed the least self-deprecating, and the most irreverent, of the acts that night. While each of the concluding comedians had well-delivered, consistently funny acts, none were quite as memorable as Gunalan’s.
An uneven night doesn’t discount the strength of the performers or the promise of the group as a whole. After all, Facial Recognition Comedy has been highlighted by multiple publications over the last two years as a group to look out for, especially because of its importance in highlighting diverse perspectives and creating a space for comedians to perform comedy specific to their identities and experiences. And though Friday night wasn’t necessarily the best showcase for all group members, fans can still catch the genuinely bright and funny Facial Recognition Comedy online and on the road in the future.