Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is unapologetic about being smart.
“I think the sexiest body part is the gray and white matter,” she says.
Early on in her career, as Lakshminarayanan considered her brand and her career, this sassy San Francisco comedian (a management consultant and Silicon Valley venture capitalist in her previous avatar) asked her girlfriends if they had ever tried to seem vacuous simply in order to be accepted.
The answer was a resounding “yes.”
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It was a revelation to Lakshminarayanan; all too often women feel compelled to hide their intellects in order to be accepted. This realization honed her vision for her own brand of stand-up.
In “Dhayatribe,” the debut album she launched last week, Lakshminarayanan can’t help riffing on established properties from elementary mathematics. Everyone knows that if “A=B and B=C, then A=C”. This mathematical property is basic to understanding of the world, according to Lakshminarayanan.
Yet her mother doesn’t see it quite as plainly, after all. Therein lies the rub — and all that terrific material for a stand-up comedian.
Over the years, Lakshminarayanan’s own immigrant family background and the cultural values her parents instilled in her brother and her became the treasure trove for jokes in a cutthroat industry where the first rule is to be out-and-out funny.
“Embedded in your job title is ‘funny,’” she observes. “The second it becomes unfunny you’re not doing your job!”
Breaking the glass ceiling
For scores of American women before Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, the path to stand-up comedy has seldom been smooth. To be accepted in an industry that all too often called for a display of bravura packed with ample testosterone, it meant that a woman would have to be unique enough to be remembered, yet mundane enough to be relatable.
For Lakshminarayanan, being noticed has been no mean feat. Despite the strides America may have made as a society with regard to female empowerment, for a woman to speak uninterrupted is still never a given in a mansplaining cosmos.
“It’s extremely powerful for a woman to have the microphone and talk about the things she wants to talk about,” she says.
Specifically, one of the ideas Lakshminarayanan has always returned to is how she’s not sorry for being a graduate of the hallowed Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for loving numbers and science and, as it follows, for being a total nerd.
It’s a shtick Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is proud of because it makes her stand out in the rarefied atmosphere of standup humor.
Her hard work has been rewarded. In 2016, she was the winner of the prestigious Liz Carpenter Political Humor Award presented by the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 2018, she was named one of 20 “Women to Watch” in a KQED series celebrating creative women in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In spite of her own accolades and the hard-earned successes of women before her — of Phyllis Diller or of Moms Mabley in the past, or of Tina Fey or Ali Wong in the present, female stand-ups continue to get pushback. In late night comedy, for instance, it’s still rare to see more than a couple of female writers among a dozen or more male writers.
The keys to the kingdom of stand-up often required funny women to make a name for themselves by furthering their cause. In the ’70s, for instance, Robin Tyler and Pat Harrison acknowledged their homosexuality and made feminism a central component of their repertoire.
Ali Wong was noticed because of her acerbic take on the issues surrounding motherhood and womanhood. In almost every instance, women in comedy have engaged in a crusade. They’ve brought difficult conversations to the table.
For Lakshminarayanan, her own campaign has been centered on the intellect. She believes it’s relevant in a country in which being scientific has been received with skepticism.
“Anthony Fauci has received a lot of criticism,” she says. “Now more than ever, if I were to say I have a brand, it’s to be unapologetic about being nerdy, about liking to read, about liking those subjects that are often pooh-poohed in our media, like math and science and learning.”
Embracing her Indian American identity
Out of the scant group of female writers peddling humor, there are fewer artists from the minority groups. This is another reason Lakshminarayanan has set out to embrace, boldly, her Indian-Americanness and her South Indianness, along with the countless “A’s” in her name and all of the syllables in between.
On her album, she talks about how a long name such as Lakshminarayanan may have helped her father’s case when he showed up in court for a ticket. The judge in session was flummoxed by the pronunciation of her father’s last name, at which point he told the judge that upon expansion of his initials (A.V.), his name would be even longer still: “Arasaanipalai Venkatachari Lakshminarayanan.”
The name made all the difference. “Case dismissed!”, Lakshminarayanan declares as her audience members laugh out loud.
Each of us understands the vexations of that certain kind of name that makes people stall or apologize. Everything is contained in a name. A whole world of insecurities — over birth, identity, race, personality, character and bad nicknames.
Every Indian, Russian, Sri Lankan, Brazilian — and possibly scores of others in the audience — must’ve felt an instant connection to Lakshminarayanan in that moment.
That’s exactly how the creator of “Dhayatribe” drives home the point about universality. What she has to say must mean something to everyone, she points out. “At the end of the day, I’m getting the audience to feel something.”
Over the years, Lakshminarayanan has polished her act and owned it. Her real voice has emerged. When starting off as a comedian, a performer is hungry for the laughter, thinking only about how to make people laugh.
“But as you mature, you’re like, ‘Here is what I want to say,’” she says. “How do I get people to laugh at this?”
No topic is off-limits today for this sprightly stand-up, but she certainly won’t talk about things onstage that she does not believe in. She won’t say something simply to provoke. While creating her spiel, Lakshminarayanan insists on asking herself the one question that keeps her grounded:
“Is this true to who I am?”
Find Dhaya Lakshminarayanan’s debut album “Dhayatribe” on the Blonde Medicine label at https://www.blondemedicine.com/bm072-dhayatribe. Follow the San Francisco comedian at https://www.dhayalive.com/ or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dhayalive.
Kalpana Mohan lives in Saratoga. She is the author of “Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I” (Bloomsbury, 2018) and “An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local” (Aleph, 2019).