Alumna Gets Laughs In Ashdown Stand-Up

South-Asian Comedienne Reveals Secrets

1982 dhaya
Dhaya Lakshminarayanan ’96 has done live stand-up comedy engagements in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston.
Shekar Patkar

March 15, 1:00 p.m. This may have been a lazy Sunday afternoon for many of us, but for Dhaya Lakshminarayanan ’96 a tough time lay ahead: she was about to face and entertain a crowd of comedy connoisseurs and hardcore fans of the tricky art of stand-up in the soberly-styled Ashdown House Crafts Lounge — not everyone is up for a post-lunch laugh during digestion time on a Sunday.

Sitting behind me a young woman, herself a stand-up comedienne, was telling her friends how hard it is to make it in the business.

“This was actually a difficult show,” Lakshminarayanan (pronounced LAKSH-min-ah RAY-ah-nan) told me in an interview after her performance for the 30 or so people who packed the sunlit lounge.

Usually she performs for a public which has paid for the entertainment, has had some drinks and whose cheerful mood is contributing to the heady atmosphere of comedy clubs.

But fresh from a successful headlining performance at Boston’s Mottley’s Comedy Club two days before as part of the “5 Funny Females” comedy tour, the professional comedienne who resides in California, modestly announced as “an Ashdown alumna,” — she earned her undergraduate and masters degrees in Urban Studies and Planning from MIT — had no problem dissipating the Sunday midday seriousness.

Adroitly mixing the silly with the serious, her trademark is to pack her act with witty observations about the trifles of daily life and clever but accessible socio-political commentary. She brings to the mix her own uniquely eclectic perspective, as the daughter of Indian immigrants brought up in the American Deep South, who headed to MIT to study energy economics and infrastructure finance, and now lives in San Francisco—

“Which is the center of the liberal universe,” she tells her Cambridge audience. “I saw these hippies angry about Gaza take their protest to… the Falafel Stand! Noooo, it’s ‘Hamas’ you want, not ‘hummus’!”

Along the way there were other occupations: a researcher in Cuba, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, Ms. August ’06 Saffron Rare Threads, and a blogger covering the Democratic National Convention, before jumping into the “funny” business of comedy.

“Comedy is a reflection of society,” she said after the show, explaining how today, just as there are more women and ethnic minorities in top positions in all spheres of life, such as politics, there are now more opportunities for women and South Asians in the previously white male-dominated comedy business. “America is ready to hear more women voices,” she said.

It will certainly hear hers, as she doesn’t mince her words nor leave any controversial stones unturned when documenting in her stand-up acts the social ills and stereotypes stunting the lives and minds of the communities she has lived in:

“I grew up in the South. And in the South, if you’re not white, pssssh… you are black. So,” she says gesturing to herself, “growing up black in the south was hard… Sometimes I would be approached by brothas: ‘you got good hair… for a sistah…?’”

Of Alabama, where she lived, she recounted for her Ashdown audience how little old Christian ladies in that city admonished her: “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will go straight to hell” – to which she responded, “Oh, well what’s hell apart from being a Hindu in Alabama?!…”

From Gaza to gay marriage; from McCain to circumcision, and from Obama to birds and bees – which she learned about from her mother: “There is mango … and there is pickle, and … put it all together mango-pickle!” — she is vocal too in her proposals: “I feel we need a role model for South Asians [in the US]. I feel we need Indians or other Asians in the White House.”

Her conclusion: “Be vocal!” was drowned out by a sea of applause.

At Ashdown and last month at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, the native Tamil speaker recounted the reasons that led her to MIT:

“I love stand-up comedy, I love performing. But before starting stand-up comedy, I actually wanted to be an actress. But my parents wanted me to go somewhere where there were lots of Indian boys who were too afraid to touch me. So they sent me at MIT.”

And how, upon learning that she was at MIT, people would tell her “That must have been great for you, that ratio!”

“OK, maybe I didn’t have to compete with a bunch of women for ‘the one’ cute guy,” she related. “I had to compete against R2-D2 action figures and Battlestar Galactica,” she said referring to the 1970s version of the show.

She has learned to deal deftly with cutthroat competition in comedy.

Here, practice has helped. In addition to being selected for the national “5 Funny Females” and “Pundits with Punchlines” tours, she has performed around the country, in New York and LA, and covered Election Night on-camera for KMVT-TV San Francisco.

Now, after being a finalist at the Rooster T Feathers Comedy Competition, winning third place in the 2008 Harvey’s Political Competition, and first place in the 2007 Battle of the Bay Comedy Competition, she can tackle any crowd, including at improbable hours like on that March Sunday at Ashdown.

Whether facing an Indian or mixed audience, she has mastered the art of making people forget their cares and troubles as she interacts with them. But there is no “easy audience,” she says.

Her sharply written material may not suit all tastes and sensibilities, but she manages to navigate the complex landscape of political jokes and social satire with art and aplomb. After all, she taught “Charm School” to MIT engineers.

On political correctness, she said, “People can play around with it, as long as your experience is authentic. If you are telling the truth, then that will actually release some of that pressure.”

Feel like trying your hand at stand-up comedy?

After her performance at MIT, Lakshminarayanan gave some insights into the apparently impenetrable business of stand-up, as well as some recommendations on the tricks of the trade and how to make your mark.

In line with the common view of comedy as an improbable occupation, even to be a professional comedienne you need a day job, said Lakshminarayanan, who by day works in the energy and environment sphere.

“As an artist, you should continue to produce new material all the time, always,” she said of the best way to have the edge on the competition. “People don’t think of comedy as an art form, but it really is.”

“TV isn’t what it used to be,” Dhaya said. “If you were on Jay Leno, that was enough to break in the medium. Now with social media, things are changing, like with Facebook, she said, adding that she has been on TV, “although not my own show.” She said she doesn’t Twitter, but has her own group on Facebook, “I love Dhaya Lakshminarayanan and Her Comedy.” The group is managed by Tom Burbine, a visiting astronomy professor at Bates College who presented her performance in Cambridge.

The good news is that in times of economic recession, there is an increase in demand.

“People need an escape, they need to laugh more in hard times. In comedy, you don’t want people to empathize, you don’t want to stress too much how bad things are.”

“It’s still a man’s world. Boston is even more ‘white male’ than San Francisco. There you have a number of Asian, gay, women comedians, Boston is still a little more old school.” The trick to bypass male machinations, she says, is “not to deal with that politics because if you are funny, that’s the thing that matters at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what color or race you are.”

Comedy shatters assumptions, as when people see “a five-foot tall Indian woman who looks cute and is petite, and whom they don’t expect to have this voice and to say the things that I am about to say.”

The key to making it, according to Lakshminarayanan, is to stay true to yourself and your art.

“There are performers that are particularly gifted, but if they are not talking about what’s truthful to them, what’s honest to them, the audience is not going to buy it. […] So it’s important for a comedian to reflect his or her own personal experience.”

“It’s your lens on the world. And no one else can do that. So if you talk about what you know and your experiences, you will be unique, and you will be creating true art. […] The goal is to be unique, the goal is to have your own voice.”

“If you are just doing who you are and being unique, than no one can compete with you,” she said, highlighting how her own formula of an MIT background in science, technology, business and finance mixed with the vulnerable sides of her personality, and her identity as an US-Asian comedienne created for her just that desired uniqueness.

Lakshminarayanan recommended trying one’s material before several audiences, the best barometer for its effectiveness.

The former venture capitalist who has been doing professional comedy for a couple of years, after initially writing material for other comedians, has been performing every week, and sometimes multiple times a week.

“There are several ways to get recognition when you are starting off. One is to win a competition, another one is to go on tour, another way is just word or mouth, or being on television. I am working on all these.”

She is now focusing on her comedy dream:

“My ultimate goal is to have a television show. Ideally a weekly infotainment show on the Discovery Channel that combines what I do on stage and who I am with my background of being at MIT working in business and in renewable energy. I want to talk about what’s happening in renewable energy and in the business world, and present information about science and technology in business in a funny, thoughtful, entertaining way.”

2009 is the year she plans to assemble all the pieces of her stand-up puzzle, with the launch of her website and her fans’ comedy club, and finally the forming and writing of the pilot for the show. “That’s probably for the end of the year.”

For now, she is busy preparing for her next appearances, in the Attack of the Asians show at the Punchline Comedy Club on April 6, and in the She-Ha Show on April 16, both in San Francisco, and the next two in a series of shows this year. “The goal for a comedian is to keep continue performing on and on and on,” she said.

“I believe anyone can be funny. All of us have made someone laugh at a dinner party, all of us have funny stories that have happened to us, and the goal with comedy is to be able to tell stories in a way that’s universal but also unique.”