Dhaya Lakshminarayanan & Vishal Kal

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Dhaya’s responses to Vishal’s questions:

You clearly have a lot of important things you want to say - did you want to try comedy for that reason?

My favorite part of this question is “clearly.” Like dang Dhaya, you sure have a lot of strong opinions. I love that.  I do have lots of things that are important to me, that I want to say, that I love to share. I believe that one can impact society and the world with words and the right platform.  Because of Queen’s Gambit, chess sets have been sold at a higher rate and interest in chess, especially by girls has skyrocketed. Because Nishelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura, on Star Trek was a prominent Black woman on screen, Ron McNair was one of the first Black astronauts.  Nishelle went on to recruit for NASA after staying on Star Trek because Martin Luther King told her to stay on the show and he was a fan! A dumb joke I made in High School about the periodic table element, Francium, being promiscuous, still has stayed with me and I still remember electronegativity and electron affinity because of it. I think for women and women of color to use our voices is important. Neither of my grandmothers went to college or even finished high school.  I have the benefit of living in a different era with so many possibilities. Why not do something, rather say something of importance to me? I feel compelled to do it in comedy and in life.

What is the coolest opportunity comedy has given you?

I have worked with some “big names” (not just long names like yours Vishal) and worked with major studios and production companies.  However the opportunity that I learned the most from and will never forget is doing stand-up in San Quentin maximum security prison to an audience of all men of color, many of them Asian men, and some of them South Asian men. I had never met an Indian prisoner before. And they had never met an Indian woman stand up comedian.  They wanted to know, what went wrong in my life, that I chose this path. Valid.

Who is the coolest person you have met through comedy? Can be a comedian, an audience member you talked to after a show, etc.

Besides meeting Dave Chappelle Gavin Newsom and Al Gore, I would say the coolest person was a monk/Swami at an ashram in Singapore. I was on a multi-city tour in Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.  I chose to take the cash and skip the hotel and instead stayed at low cost  Ramakrishna Mission ashram where they have an orphanage, therapy, classes, and oh my god amazing food every day which came as part of staying there. I’m digressing though. But seriously no chill when it comes to discussing the delicious 4 times a day food I had there. I met a Swami and I told him I hated Donald Trump and we had a frank discussion about it.  He never saw me perform and I don’t think he knew I was a comedian or why I was out late at night and snuck into the ashram after hours. But if it wasn’t for comedy I don’t think I would have met the Swami or the monks. He gave me a spiritual reading assignment and I never completed it. Good thing Hindus don’t have hell.

We’ve talked a bit about religion before. What role does religion and/or spirituality have in your life? How have your views changed over time?

Good segue from the last topic. My views on religion are informed by a few things: I grew up with a very spiritual mother and a very scientific father. I lived in the Deep South where Christianity was often shoved down my throat and it made me detest people who try and convert others. Multiple trips to India, Nepal, Bali, and Fiji to see how the Hindu diaspora has played out. Finally accessing Buddhist practices in Northern California like the SF Zen Center and Theravada Buddhism at Spirit Rock.  Not to brag, I have also performed at the Hindu Temple in Livermore where I was encouraged to take food and sweets home with me.  The food again, so damn good. I think my religion is food.  Oh, also, before the pandemic hit I was scheduled to be a “guest preacher” of sorts at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin which does the stuff religion is supposed to do like house and feed people and provide medical care. They are a Christian Church and they actually do the right things like welcome gay people. So I do think there is a role for spirituality and religion is public and community life. Except for Evangelicals who claim to be for children but stayed silent about poverty and putting immigrant babies in cages. For me religion is about action. And if you are a religious holier than thou hypocrite you are fair game to be publicly scorned. That’s why I think the best “religious” show on Netflix is The Good Place. Also I’m a huuuuuge fan of Ted Danson. He’s tremendous in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

What is your relationship with being Indian like?

I love being Indian. Specifically South Indian. And more specifically Tamil. I love the language (which I have to explain to people is a real language). Kamala Harris is half Tamil. Mindy Kaling is also. Padma Lakshmi is Tamil.  There are so many kick ass Tamil women who are visible. There are some parts of Indian culture as a whole which I don’t like: the treatment of women, homophobia, colorism. Being able to speak Tamil has been a joy to me because I can joke with elders. You can just bust out Tamil and use it to talk shit about everything around you. Unless you are in Sunnyvale, CA.  It is better power than invisibility. My mom and I have so much fun talking smack about everything in public, and people around us have no clue. Also there are specific insults that cut so deep that aren’t available in English. It is a different level of shade. The shade of a Tamilian.

Why are you so kind and friendly to everyone, even precocious young open-micers?

LOL. This was super nice of you to ask. When I was coming up, people were mean to me. Because honestly, I was funny, cute, smart, and confident.  Still am. By that time I had already graduated from MIT (twice) and worked in finance so I knew I was capable of anything regardless of how male dominated my environment was.  I had to deal with sexism on million dollar deals, so sexism for 7 minutes of stage time seemed a new level of petty to me. I have loving parents who support me so to me it seemed like these haters were sad and broken and lacking in love.

Many white male comedians and bookers were awful and vindictive and felt threatened by me. And none of them were cute or smart or funny so they probably wanted to put me in my place and my place was wherever the hell I was told I could not go. And some non-white comedians too. And even some gay ones. Misogyny is such a big tent. They’ll take anyone! Just hate women, they don’t care about race color or creed or sexuality! You are welcome here in the “Girls are Gross” club!

Most of those losers aren’t even working any more! But at the time it felt difficult, and there were a few folks who were super nice. Like Tony Sparks. And he was why I kept going. And then I met more folks who were kind. Maz Jobrani. Max Amini, Greg Proops, Greg Behrendt, Rick Jenkins at the Comedy Studio. Chris and Allison at the DC Improv. Don Reed, Ronny Chieng. And people you haven’t heard of. Black women supported me. Gay men. Nerds. There are a ton of caring people out there. It’s just the mean ones are sometimes louder.

And I just kept doing my thing, but I never wanted to work with mean people. Or put myself in situations I was dealing with toxicity.  And through this pandemic I have worked consistently. And it is because kind people have been giving me opportunities or referring me to writing, speaking, and on-camera gigs. So to answer your question, I’m not kind and friendly to everyone.  Only to people who I sense are genuine and have a good head and heart. So far it has led to a great deal of positive career outcomes for me. World Travel. Using my comedy for service. Good mental health. And the ability to walk away from bad people or projects run by jerks.   And I am vocal on behalf of younger comedians who share with me their experience with sexism or racism.  Or when I see someone talking shit about my gay or trans fam, I will say something. And setting healthy boundaries while being optimistic about the innumerable good people out there has allowed me to meet a new generation of friendly, young, precocious, dope, smart, and thoughtful comedians like you, Vishal. I am so glad we are friends.

Vishal’s responses to Dhaya’s questions:

What do you want to talk about on stage, but are too afraid or don’t know how?

It’s funny, the whole reason I got into standup was cause I was at a very low point in my life and I thought it’d be extremely therapeutic for me to talk about all the things that ailed me. I dealt with a lot of shit growing up that still has a negative impact on my self-image, and I just needed to get it off my chest, so I was like “Fuck It let me tell it to strangers on stage.” The crucial mistake I made when I first started though was assuming standup was 100% vulnerability and 0% joke-writing. So I ended up being super revealing and bombing on stage and being not really sure what I was doing. I also didn’t realize I was being super vulnerable on stage - I almost kinda went on autopilot when I was saying stuff, not really realizing I was having a conversation with people in the audience they would take seriously - until a friend came up to me after a mic and was like “Hey… are you okay?” I was like “Yeah I’m fine, why?” She’s like “Well, you just kinda went up on stage and was like ‘Anybody else got body dysmorphia?’” Yeah, all vulnerability, no jokes! Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to write jokes and am definitely working on improving at the craft, but at some point, I would definitely like to revisit those very personal things I wanted to talk about originally that I just wasn’t able to.

Why do you do comedy and not a different art (theater, music, visual art)?

The nice thing about standup is that it’s just so accessible. If you look at a lot of other types of artists out there, a lot of em got their start when they were younger and have been working on their craft their whole life. Standup seems to me the one thing where you can start doing it in your 20s - or even later - and still be able to catch up. There’s such a process for it too - there’s no open mics to get into ballet, y’know? Plus I always thought I was super funny. But now I realize after starting standup that maybe I wasn’t so much haha funny, I just had a lot of funny things happen TO me. :)

When was the last time you had an “achievement unlocked” feeling on stage and what was it?

I’m much more amateur than you so I’m at a point where I have those feelings all the time. Often, I feel like I’ve unlocked an achievement, and then I lose that achievement, and then I re-unlock it! Does that make any sense? Even now I’m still amazed when I’m able to put together a good bit. Some recent things I enjoyed doing include: doing some crowd work that wasn’t super hack that I enjoyed, writing a new bit and taking it up on stage that night and it crushing, getting a solid tag roll going, fleshing out a one-joke line into a solid 2 minute bit, etc.

Does being kind and polite come easily to you ?

Not at all. I have a sister but she is 8.5 years younger than me, so I kinda grew up deeply entrenched in an “only child” mentality. I can be naturally kinda selfish I think. My parents are very sweet and kind and the best, and my mom definitely has a good EQ, but they’re not always the best conversationalists and I didn’t pick up on their great traits until later in life. I was, looking back on it, an annoying kid for sure. I say all this to say, trying to be a good person and valuing niceness and kindness was definitely something I put effort into learning. That’s why I get so distressed whenever I see rude people out there. I’m like “Who is this helping? You can learn to be better! It doesn’t have to be this way - read some Dale Carnegie like the rest of us!”

You’re kind of a brain. Do you ever hide that from audiences or other comedians?

Definitely. I think I was a bit pretentious as a high schooler and I didn’t like being that way so it’s been an active effort to suppress that ever since. I like being the dumb guy! It’s so much more fun! My two closest friends in the world will often say to me “I sometimes forget you know stuff cause you seem so dumb all the time.” Nicer words have never been said! I don’t think being smarter than other people wins any points with them in real life. And on stage, a lot of the most enjoyable comedians are the smart ones that play dumb.

What is the worst thing about being a comedian?

So many things. “You’re a comedian? Tell me a joke.” The feeling you get after bombing and having to stay in the same room as everyone. Trying to write on a day where you’re just not feeling funny. Watching other people get booked when you feel you deserve that same opportunity. Watching assholes succeed. But we keep going back for all the highs right? Having a great set. Meeting a lot of awesome, amazing, inspiring, cool people (Dhaya!).