Doing stand-up comedy in India isn’t the usual career path for computer science graduates. But it’s keeping University of California, Irvine alumnus Sanjay Manaktala ’05 busy these days.
Against a din of barroom blenders, blaring televisions and the occasional heckler, the New York City native is helping to pioneer the South Asian nation’s budding joke industry, which has swelled from just a few comics five years ago to more than 150 now, he says.
A former software consultant for Accenture and Symantec, Manaktala, 32, caught the comedy bug in 2010, shortly before an overseas job transfer to Bangalore, India.
“From my first time bombing at a pizza restaurant, I was more or less hooked,” he recalls.
Today, his “IT Guy” spoof videos and gentle riffs on dating and Indian culture have garnered more than 4 million YouTube views, attracted media coverage from CNN Travel and Forbes India, and recently landed him a slot opening for British comic-actor Russell Brand in Mumbai and New Delhi.
I have a maid in Bangalore who asked me on her first day on the job if she could work from home.
Not surprisingly, what tickles American funny bones doesn’t necessarily fly with South Asian crowds, who skew older and often bring children along, Manaktala says. “In India, the comedy scene is still fairly new, so the joke IQ – what people laugh at – is still being developed,” he explains. “In the U.S., you can say whatever you want. … In India, you can get in trouble if you start bashing the government without having a well-thought-out joke behind it.”
Topics such as poverty and rape are completely off-limits, Manaktala says, but police corruption is fair game.
My old American girlfriend and I had this role-playing thing called the naughty cop fantasy. I would dress like a policeman and say, “You’ve been a naughty girl.” And she’d say, “Oh, my God, what are we going to do?” When I tried that over here, my Indian girlfriend said, “Oh, my God, here’s a hundred bucks.”
Manaktala initially kept his comedy moonlighting secret from his parents, who moved to the U.S. before he was born. “The No. 1 rule for a typical South Asian family is to keep your mother and father happy with your life on paper,” he says. “So I only told them I was doing stand-up once I started to earn a little money at it.”
In an average week, Manaktala performs one corporate gig (“which pays my rent in one shot”), works a couple of bar shows and tests new material at open-mike nights.
When he started, the only pure humor venue was a British Comedy Store outpost in Mumbai that opened in 2010 and ignited India’s stand-up scene, Manaktala says. “They began cultivating talent across the city. I moved to Bangalore around the same time and started approaching bars and pubs, pushing comedy as an alternative to karaoke,” he recalls.
Although Manaktala was never a class clown growing up, “I did talk a lot in school and use humor as a way to flirt with the ladies,” he says.
The other night, this girl invited me back to her place, but my cellphone was about to die, and when I looked at her phone and realized she wouldn’t have my charger, I didn’t go.
Some jokes fare better online than live. “I have this bit on YouTube about a job interview at Google,” Manaktala says. “When I tell the story in bars, only 20 percent of the crowd understands the context and laughs. But online, it gets love from techies all over the world and has more than 200,000 hits.”
He hopes his other jokes will also find a wider audience and eventually enable him to perform internationally. But for now, Manaktala says, he’s content doing stand-up in his parents’ homeland: “My mom jokes that she came to America so her kids would have a better life, only to have her son travel back and become a starving artist.”