Comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is on a crusade: She wants to right many of the wrong assumptions Americans make about the Indian community.
“There is really no one Indian culture,” she says, pointing out that India has 22 major languages, at least six major religions, and vastly different regional cuisines.
“Just like America, India and South Asia are diverse,” the local stand-up continues. “So it is futile to say we are all one thing or like the same things. Some have absolutely zero in common with each other. Oh also, Indians invented the zero.”
Another point of fact: although Indian Americans are often stereotyped as working in customer service, IT, or restaurants, some—like Lakshminarayanan—become stand-up comics.
The award-winning funnywoman has built a career on defying expectations. Lakshminarayanan went from earning not just a bachelor’s, but a master’s degree at MIT, to becoming a venture capitalist and management consultant, and finally, stand-up star. She speaks of that stereotype-busting journey in her debut comedy album, Dhayatribe, which came out on local record label Blonde Medicine on February 25.
The release finds Lakshminarayanan opining on the hardships of growing up Hindu in Alabama, the frustrating contemporary political climate—and Cheech and Chong.
I spoke to Lakshminarayanan about Dhayatribe, recorded last year at Punch Line San Francisco, avoiding the news to embrace sanity, and why laughter is not always the best medicine.
48 HILLS Talk to me about the reasoning behind naming the album Dhayatribe (other than the fact that it uses your name and that it’s a play on diatribe).
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN From Wikipedia: “A diatribe (from the Greek διατριβή), also known less formally as a rant, is a lengthy oration, though often reduced to writing, made in criticism of someone or something, often employing humor, sarcasm, and appeals to emotion.”
I had a lot of things to rant about and criticize, but unless I made it fun and funny, my act would just be a political speech—and no one pays money to hear those.
48 HILLS From bus drivers to bartenders, brightening people’s moods seems to be everyone’s job these days. Where do comedians fit in?
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN For comedians, we should all go to therapy. Performing comedy is not a substitute for mental health treatment, meditation, exercise, or having friends.
If you are a comedy fan, no matter how famous a comedian is, don’t take medical advice or get health information from them. I can’t believe I have to type this out.
If you attend a live show, have fun and laugh. Don’t share your own opinions loudly during a Negroni-fueled moment of confidence. Do that in a safe space like therapy. At a comedy show, the comedians will make fun of you. We are the opposite of helping your mental health. We will give you low self-esteem. And sadly, you’ve paid a cover charge and a two-drink minimum for that. Obamacare is much better for you.
48 HILLS I loved what you said on the album about the importance of having a routine in order to keep mental health issues at bay. One thing you describe doing is sending NYTimes articles out to friends before you read them in order to get others to read and break down the news for you.
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN HA! Now I have a subscription. A friend gifted it to me after hearing the album. So let me know if I can hook it up for you, journalist buddy.
48 HILLS Obviously, a lot of comedians get material from the news. What is your relationship like with the news? Do you casually read it, get absorbed by it, or dread it?
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN Pre-vaccination, I used to watch, listen, and read obsessively. Now I am happy we may never have to hear from a Cuomo again.
48 HILLS How does your background at MIT and as a venture capitalist and management consultant serve you today?
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN I love having a science-engineering background. I’m a nerd, so I bring unique nerdiness to the comedy club environment. If I can get audience members, two drinks in, to laugh at a math joke or a science pun, I have unlocked a level. Having a business background helps. It surprises me how often people ask performers to work for free (a.k.a. exposure). Or ask me to sign a contract that is pro-them/anti-me. Or want to treat artists with casual disrespect when they’d treat their accountant with more care. I have never met a funny venture capitalist. So thankfully, I don’t draw on my previous work for my material.
48 HILLS You reference Cheech & Chong a lot in your acts. Why has the comedy duo left such a strong impression on you?
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN I absolutely love them. I’ve seen all their films. Cheech Marin is an art collector and used to own a restaurant in SF. He was also against the Vietnam war. He did very well on Celebrity Jeopardy. He is a fascinating and intelligent man. Chong, of course, was a legalization advocate for many years, and was unfairly targeted and jailed for cannabis. Now weed is legal, so he was kind of an early agitator in the legalization movement.
They were incredibly self-made and wrote and directed their films. Of course, they wrote their own material and songs. As men of color, they often played Black clubs where they were welcomed, [at a time] when mainstream clubs didn’t want them. They make me laugh so much. They are often silly and offbeat and sometimes they address sociopolitical issues like immigration. One time, local comedian and solo performer Marga Gomez and I dressed up as them.
48 HILLS An audience member can be heard heckling you mid-show on Dhayatribe. How do you handle audience members who either heckle or don’t stop talking?
DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN A woman in the audience heckled (but I won’t say what because I want to encourage people to buy the album and hear it for themselves.) I decided to leave the exchange in the album because I want drunk women to know, I support you! Get it, girl! And please support your fellow women who are comedians by laughing! Don’t yell out in a comedy club! I know it is amazing seeing a powerful woman on stage and you feel emboldened. And as a feminist, I encourage women to use their voices! Speak up—but not now.
Sometimes, you should be quiet. Like, when you think you have something important to say when a comedian is telling a joke. You don’t add any value, so shhh.
This particular woman was with her boyfriend. So my unsolicited advice to men, dump those women who talk out loud at a comedy club. She’s going to want reassurance constantly, and think her opinions are interesting. Get out while you can. Or you may be escorted out of the next comedy show.
Buy Dhaya Lakshminarayanan’s debut comedy album Dhayatribe on Bandcamp.