Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is one of the funniest people around. The daughter of South Indian academics who emigrated to the U.S. before she was born, Lakshminarayanan grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio and Birmingham, Alabama and was a Silicon Valley venture capitalist before she took an unlikely turn towards standup comedy. Today, her career is taking off, with appearances on NPR and PBS, a slew of awards and gigs that take her all over the country.
Where do you live?
I live between Lower Pacific Heights, Japan Town and Fillmore. I call my neighborhood “Pacific Depths.”
Describe yourself in one word?
What did you do last night?
I addictively toggled between MSNBC and CNN. I was looking for political tidbits. I’m addicted to this election cycle.
What can’t you live without?
Laughter. Even in a difficult or sad situation.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Who is your personal hero? Why?
Famous people are too easy to idealize because there’s something wrong with all of us. My parents are regular people and when I see people like them I get inspired. The other day, I went by the Jelly Belly store. They had a large jelly bean in there and I went up to it and belly bumped it. A janitor was standing there, who probably is so bored of people messing about in the store. But he laughed when he saw me do that. I found so much pleasure in seeing him laughing at me. Ordinary people like him find ways to keep things fresh and interesting.
How did you find your creative voice?
I’ve always been shorter than everyone else. I was always different. I come from an immigrant family. I grew up in the South and a suburb of Cleveland. English wasn’t my first language. When I was a kid I had notebooks made out of construction paper and wrote down jokes that weren’t my own. I was experimenting with being a weird person and how that weirdness could help me make friends. Then, before I became a stand-up comedian, I worked in Silicon Valley and the financial industry. I was working with men, mostly taller than me, who could drink more than me. I realized that if i could just get them to laugh, I could get them to invite me to meetings and do deals with them, It’s all about infiltrating.
What is something most people don't know about you?
So much of my life is on stage and I’m willing to share almost anything. Unless you’ve been to my apartment, most people don’t know that I collect Wonder Woman action figures. I have about a hundred. I started collecting them myself, but then friends just started giving them to me. The collection started with action figures, but now I have a pair of scissors that are Wonder Woman opening and closing her legs. I have a Wonder Woman Barbie. I have a black Wonder Woman I got from eBay and a stuffed Wonder Woman. I have have them displayed in my living room. Any guy that comes over must be really into Wonder Woman.
What do you do when you feel uninspired?
That’s happened many times. I have enough old material. I force myself to go on stage and perform what I know works. And in between, when everyone is laughing, I’ll say something off-the-cuff that either adds to the bit or gives me something to do. Also, even though standup is an isolating art form -- it’s just you and the mic and the audience -- trying to remove the isolation helps me creatively. One of my writing partners, Karinda Dobbins, is very different from me. She’s a black lesbian and has a kid. We have a similar aesthetic and view of life and she will help me find what it is about me and my jokes that’s funny again. Reaching out to others for help in any kind of artistic profession removing some of that isolation can help.
What's your biggest 'learning moment', and what did you you take from that experience?
This year has been a huge ramp up. I have a manager, I have a big audition in LA next week, an award that i’m receiving in Washington DC for a national women’s political organization and am being booked on a cruise. And all of these things are disparate for a comedian. Comedians generally get put in a box: you’re either ethnic or alternative or corporate or something else. But you can’t be all things. What I’ve discovered is that none of that is really true. People say you’re too hard to fit into a niche so they ask you to be easier to define. But if you just keep doing what you’re doing and cultivate people who will help you, I think the barriers are pretty false. I don’t have to hide parts of me or say this is the only part of me.
What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
Standup comedy will always be my first love. There are no costumes, scenery, or sound cues, and there’s barely any lighting. To be able to take an art form that basic and really keep people’s attention, is astounding. I am constantly amazed at how standup comedians do this.
Coffee or Tea? What kind?
There is a widespread belief that chai is the drink of India. Many people in Indian drink chai, it’s true. But my parents are from South India, where coffee is king. Chai is mostly served in other parts of the country. I grew up with coffee made from a stainless steel contraption: my mother’s South Indian coffee made with chicory and milk is the best coffee i’ve ever had. It’s a simple art form like standup but it packs a huge punch. In San Francisco you can go to Udupi Palace in the Mission and get South Indian coffee there. It’s called “madras coffee.”
What does a perfect day look like for you?
I like warmer weather than most people in San Francisco like -- in the 80s. A perfect day is where I would be able to walk outside eating an ice cream on a cone in a tank top and a skirt. Maybe two different flavors of ice cream because I can never choose. I’d like to hang out with people who make me laugh who don’t have dietary restrictions around ice cream.
Who are your local inspirations?
My writing partner, Karinda Dobbins. She makes me laugh. I also love the comedian Jesus U BetterWork. He does standup, flamenco dancing, drag shows and acting. Offstage, he’s one of the nicest men. He’s a feminist and a person of color. He comes on stage and he wears these shorts that he has sewed bedazzled ornaments on. And he wears a teacup-sized sombrero on his head that is attached by an elastic. Whatever Jesus does is so out of the ordinary that he makes me laugh. But I don’t always have to laugh. I once saw my friend, the performer Matthew Francis, in a cabaret act. He was singing about heartbreak. And I cried. I like to see things that move me and change me.
I like “rasam” -- it’s a spicy, Indian soup with white rice plus small crispy potatoes seasoned with cumin and mustard seeds. It’s heavy in carbs and low in protein, but I love it.
What upcoming show are you excited about?
I host The Moth story slam at Public Works in San Francisco every month. I love doing this because I get to be a host and do standup in between the stories. Plus, the audience is so loving and giving. Also, it allows me to see local, regular people come up and tell their stories.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
When I started standup I thought I would only do it for a year or two before going back into the boring but lucrative business world. As someone who’s very Type A, I like to know what’s going to happen and I plan out my calendar. I’m not a spontaneous person. But my career has taken me in so many unpredictable directions. I have been a bad predictor or my own success and failures. So I hope that I am continuing to enjoy standup in five years, and if I’m not I will stop.
If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play, song or painting what would it be?
When my brother and I were young, we liked Mad Libs and Choose Your Own Adventure books. If I lived in a Mad Lib or Choose Your Own Adventure, I’d love it because there’s enough structure in them but they’re also random and hilarious.
On of the things that I love to keep talking about is that standup is an art form. Some people get it right away and others don’t think of it that way. It’s sometimes a battle to get folks to see what we create as art. In the Bay Area, we have so much intelligent standup. People should gravitate towards comedy.