When comic Samson Koletkar was growing up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, he didn’t even know what standup comedy was.
“In India, standup is not a popular concept,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “It was more mimicking other people’s voices and making jokes out of it.”
While he did this with his family, he was never very good at it, he said. It was only when he came to the United States seven years ago that he began frequenting comedy clubs and learning about the art of standup.
At first, he saw only white, African American and Latino comics. Then he saw a Chinese American comic.
Finally, four or five years later, he saw a video clip on the Web of an Indian comic. “That’s when I thought, if he can do it, maybe I should try my hand, too.”
He’s since learned there are quite a few more Indians in the comedy world, but as far as he knows, he is the only one who is Jewish.
The San Francisco resident often begins his act with: “I’m an Indian Jew and that makes me a rare species. So if anyone wants a picture with me, it’s five bucks.”
His performance at the To Life! Festival, incidentally, is free. Koletkar is the opening act on the Jessica Saal Memorial Main Stage, at 11 a.m.
Koletkar described the Jewish community in India as tiny, and said most of his fellow Jews are either Orthodox or not-so religious. He grew up in the not-so religious category.
He is of the Bene Israel tribe, which is believed to have arrived in India 2,000 years ago and is the dominant cultural group among Indian Jews. While at their peak they numbered around 20,000; most have immigrated to Israel. There are only about 5,000 left, mostly in Mumbai.
The 31-year-old Koletkar will marry in November, to an Indian woman he met here. She is Hindu.
They will call their firstborn son Mahatma Moses, he joked.
He adds, “A lot of my friends are asking, how do my parents feel that I’m marrying a non-Jewish girl?”
So, how do they feel about it?
“A Jewish mother in Bombay wants her son to get married to a nice Jewish girl. A Jewish mother in New York wants her son to get married to a Jewish girl. In San Francisco, she wants her son to marry a girl.”
On a more serious note, he adds, “My family is all mixed marriages, so they’re OK with it.”
Koletkar works in the software business, but his schedule is quite full with comedy appearances, which he hopes eventually to be able to do full time. He has toured with a group of Indian comedians who call themselves “Pundits With Punchlines.” Among his fellow comics, he is known as “the Indian Seinfeld.”
Touring with this group has been an interesting experience, he noted.
The comics in the group at first catered their material to things Indian people would find funny — mostly about relatives and family, relationships and marriage. But they quickly realized that not just Indian people were coming to see them.
“If we find a universal appeal, that’s what we are aiming for,” he said.
While Koletkar has only a limited repertoire of jokes that have to do with his being Jewish, he does like to make fun of the stereotypes about Indians.
“I recently visited Oregon, and I passed through Redding, which I learned is the meth capital of California,” he said, referring to the drug crystal methamphetamine. “I asked them why they do so much meth, and they said ‘there’s nothing else to do.’
“In India when we have nothing else to do, we do math. Here parents say ‘Go to bed and say your prayers.’
“In India, it’s ‘Go to bed and do your multiplication tables.’