SF Comic Courts Controversial Topics

Jewish-Indian comedian Samson Koletkar jokes about third-rail subjects in his set.

Jewish-Indian comedian Samson Koletkar’s web site may be the clever and jokey Mahatma-Moses dot com, but he has abandoned the set-up-joke format in his own stand-up.

Instead, Koletkar waxes on religion and other hot-button issues, sometimes raising the ire of the audience, during his monthly Minorities Standup shows with Chinese-American comic Edwin Li and in his (hopefully returning) weekly shows, Comedy Off Broadway Oakland.

In fact, he said half of his stand-up is presenting a unique take on Judaism, Hinduism, etc., and the other half of it is the audience’s response and his response to that. Samson is also critical of low-brow comedy and said he would like to see it return to a higher form of art.

Corey Andrew: I was bummed to hear you have to change locations for the Comedy Off Broadway Oakland show.

Samson Koletkar: Yes, we just finished on June 30. I am talking to a few places and looking for a new venue. It’s kind of a mixed feeling. We had a great run for three years.

Corey: Do you have some ideas on what you would like to see the show become?

Samson: I would prefer for it to be a performance-ready space. We used to take one of the banquet rooms at the Waterfront Hotel and convert it into club seating. We would add lights, sound, stage, a backdrop. We had to put everything up and at the end of the show, tear it down again. That added a lot more time and work to it.

Corey: Do you want to keep it in the East Bay?

Samson: Absolutely. I don’t want to lose the following we have. I prefer Oakland.

Corey: Oakland does attract a very diverse audience, which is nice.

Samson: Yes. One of the big reasons we did so well for so long is that there’s not a lot happening in Oakland with comedy. For the size of the city, there should be more. There is no comedy on a weekly basis on the level we took it. We weren’t an A-list club like the Punchline, but we had a good run. It’s an incentive to stay there.

Corey: Was Oakland the first place you performed comedy in this country?

Samson: No, when I started, I used to live in the South Bay, in Santa Clara. I started seriously doing comedy in January 2006. I started filling my calendar with five to six nights a week. Then I moved to San Francisco. I pretty much started here, and I’ve been based out of here for the last six and a half years. I do travel to perform but pretty much perform in the Bay Area.

Corey: Have you seen your comedy change a lot over the last six years?

Samson: Absolutely. I’m not a unique case. When I started, I wanted to tell jokes that I heard everybody else tell. I saw people laugh, and my goal was to make people laugh. It didn’t matter whether it was a similar joke, slightly worded differently. Let me make a variation of that. Now, every time I write something new, my first question is, ‘Have I heard this before? Had anyone said something like that before? Do I have a unique point of view?’ If not, why am I being just another chatterbox onstage?

Corey: Right.

Samson: It definitely has evolved a lot. Being in the field for a long time influences you a lot. Like most ethnic comedians, initially most of my comedy was about my family and how things are East versus West. Now, there is some of that, but there’s a completely different point of view. I’m more opinionated and a critic of things. I don’t want to say, ‘Never,’ but you almost never hear me say, ‘Here’s what my Mom said. Here’s what my Dad said.’ And, ‘Ha ha, that’s so funny.’ That’s their joke, not my joke. I’m relating something they did. What’s my contribution? I’m trying to push myself constantly to become better and do things that I don’t see others doing.

Corey: I don’t think you want to get bored either, rehashing that same type of material. There are other ethnic comedians here, so you have to find that unique perspective and what’s true for you.

Samson: Also, I am more critical of the comedians. When I look at the majority of comedians in America now, I can’t believe this was the art form that was the pinnacle. How did it go down so low? So much of it is what we call blue comedy. People push these lines constantly. There was a time where you would be considered edgy, but that has become a starting point. We have to be out there. Let’s push the lines even further. That turns away some of the audiences. One of my goals when I started this show in Oakland was we ran a relatively clean room. We recommend comics who keep it clean and smart. Then we gathered a following where the audiences came in expecting smart comedy. There is an audience that wants to hear things that are relative and poignant and not just bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.

Corey: As you said, it’s easy to go dirty. You will get a quick laugh. But it’s certainly not the most-clever way to approach comedy. Did you get much kickback from comics?

Samson: Not necessarily. We wouldn’t censor anybody. We just made suggestions to comics, and the ones who got it would be in the room and see how the show’s going and understand how they want to scale their material. The ones who didn’t get it, didn’t get the laughs, got silence and didn’t get booked again.

Corey: I have noticed you definitely elicit some emotional reactions when people find out you are from India and Jewish.

Samson: Oh boy. I don’t know if you saw my YouTube video called, ‘There are no Jews in the world.’

Corey: I did see that.

Samson: Did you read some of the comments?

Corey: Yeah, pretty extreme.

Samson: Those are the ones that are publicly visible. Then there are ones that are private from people. I have not responded to a single comment. There are others that are doing it on my behalf.

Corey: Were you hesitant to make that part of your act because you anticipated that kind of reaction, or was that something there early on?

Samson: Not really. One of these things I have as an attitude in my comedy is, I don’t give a damn about what somebody else thinks. If I think something is right, and I can point out the hypocrisy and stupidity and naivetés of certain things, I will say it out loud. What has happened over the years because of stand-up, the filters have gone lower and lower. What I used to think twice about, I probably think half the time now. Here’s what I think, and I have to say this. I don’t care if you don’t like it. Here’s the truth. As long as it’s said in a nice way. I don’t want to be derogatory or profane about it. That kills the argument and makes it more name-calling. That’s why I also push myself to do clean comedy. I have a point to make, and I don’t want it to be clouded by using certain words that will trigger a reaction from people. Let me make my point without cursing, and I think it’s more effective that way. It also gains more respect, not only from the audience but also from fellow comedians I have learned.

Corey: It certainly offers you a niche and an opportunity to talk being the only Jewish-Indian comedian. But how did you find the comedy in that? If you’re going to be touted that way, you have to have some good material to back that up.

Samson: True. I think the biggest turn-around happened once I started doing comedy. I didn’t think of myself as such a big deal. Yes, I’m Indian, and I’m Jewish, and there are 4,999 other people like me. Not a very big number—but significant. Everybody really has something unique about them. If I really had to stretch myself, I would say I’m the only Indian-Jewish comedian working a software job by day, with a Hindu wife, a kid, living in San Francisco, being in America for over 12 years. That makes me unique. We all have something. The thing that triggered me was when I mentioned I was Jewish or showed up to Jewish events, people would look at me. The questions I talk about on stage are the questions I would get all the time. What’s even weirder, even now after I’ve done five minutes of explaining the whole Indian Jewish thing, people still come up, ‘So, are you really Jewish?’ ‘Were you not just listening to what I just said?’ Come on! That’s what annoys me, and that annoyance drives me further with comedy. Growing up in Bombay, I attended a Jewish school. I would attend annual Jewish camps. In America, you go to summer camps. But in India, we go to winter camps because summers are unbearable. In the winter camps we would have all these debates and arguments, and I would always be the guy causing trouble because I didn’t conform to the norms.

Corey: I am sure all of your shows could turn into a philosophical discussion with the audience. But you’ve got to keep bringing it back to the funny stuff, too. Right?

Samson: It does. The other thing I have learned over the last years, if you speak the truth, that itself is so absurd, that it makes it funny. My comedy has become very dark as well. I do a lot of social issues. I touch upon things you generally won’t hear people talk about on stage. Just pointing about the inconsistencies in it makes it so ridiculous, that elicits the biggest laughs I get. The absurdity of reality.

Corey: It’s a lot easier to tell fart jokes than take an issue and look honestly at it and dissect it and still find the humor in it.

Samson: You do have some good comics to look up to. George Carlin was my big influence. Once I started watching his videos, I went, ‘What am I doing in my comedy?’ That definitely changed me a lot.

Corey: How did you and Edwin get together and start working on the Minorities Standup show?

Samson: I knew Edwin just because he’s a San Francisco comic, and I’m a San Francisco comic, and we would bump into each other at shows. One time we were doing a show in the South Bay and driving back together, which is one of my favorite times, driving with a bunch of comedians you like. Then the brain plays on top gear. We were talking about how in the majority of the mainstream media and entertainment, the minorities are always goofballs. We hear about that a lot, but we don’t see the change in it. We are kind of challenging that perception. With my comedy going in the direction of what it is I talk a lot about religion. I talk a lot about my immigration experience as a first-generation immigrant, which is completely different than someone who is born and raised in America. I want to find a channel to be able to express that and let people know that not every Indian comedian you see is gonna talk about how their mother and father mess up the English language. There’s more to us than one dimension of comedy. That was the drive behind the whole Minority Standup. In the 45-minute drive from South Bay to San Francisco, we had the whole show conceived in our heads. ‘Boom. Let’s do this.’

The next Minorities Standup show will be held at 7:30 p.m. on July 18 at Stage Werx, 446 Valencia St., in San Francisco. Visit mahatma-moses.com for more information on Samson Koletkar’s shows.

Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to coreywrites@yahoo.com and follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.

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