Dhaya Lakshminarayanan: Tickling America’s Funny Bone
Indian values, food and yoga find a place in the stand-up act of Indian American comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan.
For more than three years, Dhaya Lakshminarayanan has been traveling across the United States, appearing in night clubs, theaters, galas and fundraisers and at the universities of California, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the very few Indian American women stand-up comedians.
Fluent in Tamil and an MIT graduate, Lakshminarayanan is armed with a comedic repertoire of witty observations on everyday life and draws heavily upon her traditional upbringing to fuel her rib-tickling brand of comedy. “I find humor in strange places and at strange times. So becoming a comedienne has finally given me an outlet for the person I truly am,” she says. “I like to take subjects like politics, math, culture or social issues and turn them into comedy. I also like to go off script and talk to the audience impromptu.”
Lakshminarayanan’s parents immigrated to the United States from Chennai. She was born in Buffalo, New York and has lived in Cleveland, Ohio and Birmingham, Alabama, before leaving home in her teens to attend MIT. At home, she grew up on a diet of Panchatantra, Mahabharat and Ramayana.
Lakshminarayanan is very close to her family and says she and her younger brother, a scientist, were always taught by their mother to look at the lighter side of life. Even today, she talks almost daily to her parents even when traveling for work. “I love my parents and they are my strength and backbone. They are very proud of me as I am of them,” she says.
But it is to her mother that she credits her funny bone. “My mother was hilarious. She was always making us laugh as kids. …I am blessed with a family who makes me laugh, supports me and gives me plenty of material,” she says.
What makes for successful comedy? “I am constantly looking at life differently from most people,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in something creative: writing, acting, comedy but never thought about comedy until a few years back,” she adds.
Lakshminarayanan has performed in dozens of shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, including an ongoing stint on the 5 Funny Females national tour of up-and-coming American women comedians, where she has been performing once or more per year for the last three years.
In her act she often brings up Indian matters and talks “about Hinduism, growing up with Indian values, Indian food and yoga.” She has not met any Indian comedians or performed in India yet. While she feels some of her jokes would be more appreciated by an Indian audience, she says there are many variables that makes a crowd react. “Age, race, geography, even the size and shape of the venue can affect what the audience will laugh at,” says Lakshminarayanan. However, “it matters less to me what ethnicity the audience members are and more if they are intelligent and want to laugh at jokes which are cerebral.”
One experience that has left a powerful imprint on her and which she has often mined for material is her education at the MIT where she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in urban studies and planning. “Self-deprecating humor is great and a part of my act, too. I have lots of material about…MIT in my act,” she says.
“I love performing. …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 to MIT,” she said in an interview with The Tech, MIT’s oldest newspaper.
Has gender ever come in the way of maintaining a steady stream of laughs? No, she says firmly, while naming a string of American women comedians: “Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin….”
“Women are funny and must have confidence in themselves. The goal is to stay true to yourself,” Lakshminarayanan says.
“Sometimes women try to be as vulgar as men and that is not as innovative as trying to be smart and funny at the same time,” she says. “Men tend to share information with other men about shows, auditions, jokes, so women have to break into the boys’ network in order to climb the ladder. Thankfully I have very caring and helpful comedy mentors who treat me with respect, dignity and honor.”
Like most comedians, Lakshminarayanan has had to deal with hecklers, some of them rude. “Sometimes they just want attention,” she says. “I usually stay confident and strong in my act. I command the attention of the room. If that doesn’t work, I will make fun of the heckler and get the audience on my side.” That is the time-honored way that most comedians handle hecklers.
Although Lakshminarayanan is bold on stage, she guards her private and family life closely. “I love my life too much to allow everything to be for public consumption. I enjoy alone time with my friends. Being able to be casual in public, and have a relaxed life off stage. And I want to ensure, regardless of my success, these things stay the same,” she says.
If she is successful in her career and becomes better known, this line between the public and private life may become harder to maintain. However, she is patterning herself on some of the most successful American comedians, who do not reveal too much about their private lives, political or religious views so that the audience reacts just to the jokes.
Lakshminarayanan says her ultimate goal is to have a funny, entertaining and educational television show of her own. What drives her, she says, is applause and laughter. “It also helps when people book you for more shows or write articles about you.”