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Engineering Laughter

| June 27, 2017

Ajitesh Srivastava, a computer science Ph.D. candidate, spends his free time entertaining crowds at L.A.’s comedy clubs.

Photo courtesy of Ajitesh Srivastava

At first glance, computer science and stand-up comedy have nothing in common. Ajitesh Srivastava, a USC Viterbi computer science Ph.D. candidate and amateur stand-up comedian would disagree.

When the witty scholar isn’t in the lab mathematically analyzing social media trends and how diseases spread, he performs stand-up in comedy clubs around Los Angeles.

“Much like in research, there is a structure in [stand-up] comedy that you follow,” Srivastava said. “Being analytically inclined helps me come up with that structure.”

His unusual combination of passions reflects his perspective on life. “I don’t think I have a label of just one thing,” Srivastava said. “You can’t compartmentalize someone into being just an engineer or just a comedian.”

Srivastava’s interest in comedy began while he pursued a bachelor’s degree in computer science at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Rajasthan, India. He was a member of a sketch comedy club that performed for audiences of 3,000 people.

He credits his confidence on stage to his first show. The large audience aggressively booed the performance, reducing some of the members to tears. He laughs at the memory, “I’ve already seen the worst possible audience response so I have nothing to worry about onstage.”

This fearlessness led Srivastava to try his hand at stand-up when he moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2013. He performed during an open mic night at Ground Zero, a café on USC’s campus. After his performance, Ori Amir, a neuroscience Ph.D. student and fellow stand-up comedian, approached him.

“I could tell he had a rather theatrical comedy style – when I learned he used to perform in front of thousands of students in India, it made sense,” Amir said.

“He said, ‘Hey, I like you. Let’s go around L.A. and perform stand-up together.’” Srivastava said.

And so, they did.

In May 2015, Srivastava performed at his first comedy club. He grabbed the audience’s attention at Flapper’s Comedy Club in Burbank with his unique beat boxing opening. And he has been entertaining crowds ever since.

Srivastava cites George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Izzard as comedic influences. He admires their witty humor and thinks Carlin was the “greatest stand-up comedian of all time.”

He describes his humor as “observational, intelligent, but a little absurd.” He likes to make his audience think by incorporating observational insights and historical aspects in his sets.

Srivastava’s decision to pursue his doctorate at USC Viterbi was an easy one, both because of the school’s excellent academics and its location.

“L.A. is the best place to perform stand-up at any level,” said Srivastava, adding that he enjoys rock climbing and playing chess and poker when not in the lab or performing stand-up. He won the Computer Science Ph.D. tournaments in poker and chess this year.

Although uncertain of his future plans, Srivastava, who expects to receive his Ph.D. next May, wants to remain in Los Angeles.

“I want to keep performing stand-up for as long as possible,” he said.

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