Funny Business: Darden Student’s Journey from Shyness to Stand-Up Comedy

05 February 2024

By Andrew Ramspacher

Not long after he flew from the other side of the world, landed in Washington, took an Uber ride to University of Virginia’s Grounds and settled into his room on the Range, the doctoral candidate began his research.

“I got on Google,” Abhishek Kulkarni said, “and searched ‘open mics in Charlottesville.’”

Kulkarni is one of seven students in the first year of the relaunched doctorate program at the Darden School of Business. He came to UVA in August after working at the Indian School of Business in his native country, and has spent the past five months soaking up lectures, analyzing theories and beginning his own path toward a dissertation on business ethics and strategy.

While the academic workload leads to a packed, stressful schedule, Kulkarni manages to find a four-minute reprieve each Monday at the Southern Café and Music Hall on the Downtown Mall.

Kulkarni is a stand-up comedian, and – no joke – he’s really good at it.

No Rookie

Chris Alan has worked in comedy for 14 years, including a gig as host of the Southern’s weekly “LYAO Open Mic Night” for the past seven. The event, held Monday nights, is an open invitation to anyone in the area, no matter their experience level, willing to give stand-up comedy a try.

Alan has seen plenty of participants bomb their four-minute set and fail to return, but others have crushed it the first time and have become regulars in the lineup.

Kulkarni, who doesn’t own a car on Grounds, drove his electric scooter to the Southern on Sept. 4 for his debut. He hasn’t missed a Monday since.

“People love Abhishek,” Alan said. “He’s always dressed nice, always in a great mood, always wants to go up, always brings the energy, always positive. He’s just a guy that you want around, a guy you want on your shows. He’s that guy.”

The secret is Kulkarni, 29, was far from a comedy rookie when he first took the Southern stage. He sought out opportunities in Charlottesville shortly after his arrival because, along with his career goal of becoming a professor, he wants to do stand-up well into the future.

Photo of Darden PhD student Abhishek Kulkarni smiling in class.

Kulkarni’s outgoing personality translates well to the Darden classroom, where, as a doctoral student, he’s working toward a career goal of being a professor. (Photo by Kelly West, University Communications)

It’s a passion that began on a whim eight years when he was a student at the University of Bath in England. A friend of his, appreciating Kulkarni’s natural ability to make people laugh, signed him up to perform as part of a talent show.

“I did well,” Kulkarni said, “and the manager of the venue came up to me and asked, ‘Can you come back next Wednesday?’ I said, ‘OK, sure,’ and I just kept doing it.”

Abhishek Kulkarni in front of the Rotunda at UVA.

Some of Kulkarni’s stand-up material is derived from his observations on Grounds. (Photo by Kelly West, University Communications)

Soon, he was dominating open mic nights back in his hometown of Mumbai, India, and earning invitations to perform at private events and to judge comedy competitions. During the 2017-18 academic year, at the school’s request, he created and delivered a course on stand-up for students at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, covering topics such as joke writing and stage presence.

Mention of such accomplishments piqued the curiosity of those interviewing Kulkarni upon admission to Darden, doctorate program director Andrew Wicks said.

The young man in front of them didn’t just have a résumé highlighted by academic excellence and noteworthy professional experience; he had a proven record of delivering under a unique kind of pressure.

That, Wicks said, felt like a skill that is transferrable to succeeding in higher education.

“In stand-up comedy, to me, if you can’t be comfortable in your own skin in front of other people in a potentially awkward situation, you are going to bomb,” said Wicks, a UVA alumnus and veteran professor at his alma mater. “If you don’t have that ability to get up there and be able to roll with the punches and have that intellectual agility, curiosity and comfort level with who you are, I don’t think you’re going to be very successful.

Abhishek Kulkarni holding a beer and laughing at a bar.

After his set, Kulkarni always stays at the Southern to support and take in the other stand-up performances. (Photo by Kelly West, University Communications)

It’s not the reason he got into the program, but it’s definitely something that made us more interested in him, especially after we got a chance to talk to him.

“It wasn’t just a thing we read on his CV; you could kind of see it in how he presents himself.”

Being the Idiot

Whether on stage or in the classroom, Kulkarni lives by the same approach: Don’t be afraid to be the idiot. The mentality is inspired by Simon Sinek, a popular motivational speaker and author who often preaches about the communal benefits of asking questions.

“If you ask a question that you think is stupid,” Kulkarni said, echoing Sinek’s philosophy, “like, six people around you might have the same question.”

Prior to his stand-up career, Kulkarni, an only child, said he often shied away from the spotlight in any setting. He was constantly fearful of saying the wrong thing and having to deal with the consequences.

Abhishek Kulkarni riding a scooter.

Without a car on Grounds, Kulkarni relies on his electric scooter to get to places around Charlottesville. (Photo by Kelly West, University Communications)

“But after going through the first six months of stand-up,” he said, “I started to feel a little bit of immunity to embarrassment. I had bombed enough that I felt like I could handle it. And, then in class, if I got the answer wrong, I started to become OK with that, too.”

When he met a UVA Today writer for this story, Kulkarni sat down at a round table outside Bodo’s Bagels on the Corner wearing a bright red Hawaiian-print shirt. Confidence was written all over him.

Wicks calls Kulkarni a “really energetic person” who routinely brings his own “fun, joy and curiosity” to graduate seminars. Maëlle Perez, a fellow student in Darden’s doctoral program, described Kulkarni’s personality as “really outgoing.”

Perez, who’s attended Kulkarni’s performances at the Southern, marvels at her friend’s ability to shine on two distinct platforms. That said, sharing the classroom with a comedian means you have to keep your guard up at all times.

“So,” Perez said, “We’ll be doing something and I’ll ask him, ‘Are you going to use this for your next set?’ So far, I’ve made no jokes, I think, so I’m doing good.”

Crowd Favorite

Like anyone who’s attended a Kulkarni show, Perez is familiar with his style.

He finds humor in the nuances of everyday life. It’s an observational method – “What’s the deal with …?” – famously mastered by Jerry Seinfeld, the star and creator of a self-titled sitcom that is still culturally relevant more than 25 years after its final show aired on NBC.

“It’s evergreen,” Kulkarni said. “So, the joke never gets old. I can say it 20 years later, and it will still be funny. I aspire to write jokes like that. It shouldn’t have a shelf life. Whereas if I do something political, five years down the line nobody cares.”

Kulkarni is precise in his joke writing and joke evaluation. After a set, he often goes back to an Excel spreadsheet and highlights which bits landed and which failed to generate a rise out of a crowd. This information then influences his next act.

One joke that has become a staple of his performance was developed through an early observation of his neighbors on the Range. He noticed many of them accepting what the mobile weather app told them as gospel, and it was influencing how they went about their day – a ridiculous behavior to Kulkarni, who in India was used to few people trusting the forecast in that manner.

“If the weather app tells me it’s going to be a bright, sunny day,” he said in his Indian accent to the Southern crowd on a recent Monday night, “I’m carrying an umbrella and snowshoes just in case.”

But, he continued, to try to fit it with his new American friends, he decided once to give the weather app his full attention.

Except he was immediately baffled by the two presented temperatures.

“It says 72 degrees,” he said. “But below that, it says, ‘Feels like 75.’ Feels like?

“So at this weather company, there are a bunch of really smart scientists using carefully calibrated instruments to decide on a precise temperature reading of 72. Meanwhile, Paul is sitting in the balcony … ‘Ahh, it feels like 75!’ ‘OK, we will write that down as well.’”

The crowd rolled.

“He’s hilarious, man,” said Alan, the veteran comedian and open mic host. “And he’s got so much confidence. It’s fun watching him.”

Kulkarni ends each set by thanking a “lovely audience.” He’ll then stick around to support his fellow comedians before hopping on his scooter and riding back to his room on the Range. On Tuesday morning, he’s back at Darden.

It’s a grind, but the funny part is Kulkarni wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I really enjoy the whole experience,” he said.

This article originally appeared in UVA Today.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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