All Careers Considered: Taking Advantage of your Opportunities & Network with Tom Thakkar

Next up is my conversation with Tom Thakkar, who is comedian who does stand-up comedy and has he’s been on Conan, Comedy Central, and is the co-host of Stand by Your Band podcast. He graduated from the Media School in 2010, and in this episode, he talked about how and why he switched from his original intention of pursuing a career in medicine to pursuing comedy, which classes and experiences at IU most prepared him for his career, and of course shares a few funny stories as well. Tom was super down to earth and shared a lot of interesting insight, so I think you’ll really like this episode. Thanks everyone, enjoy! 

.

All Careers Considered can be found wherever you get your podcasts, like Spotify and Apple Podcasts. 

Links Mentioned in this Episode: 

Transcript: 

MOLLY: Hey Hoosiers! Welcome back to another episode of All Careers Considered. This podcast is produced by the Walter Center for Career Achievement, which is the Career Services Center that specifically serves students and alumni in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. We’re on a mission to help you achieve career success by supporting you in your pursuit of impactful experiences, designing your life, sharing your story and building meaningful connections. My name is Molly. I’m the assistant director of strategic alumni engagement for the Walter Center and I’m also the host of this podcast. You may have heard that you can do anything with a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences, and I’m here to show you that that really is the case by interviewing alumni from all over the world to ask them how they got to where they are now.

Next up is my conversation with Tom, who is a comedian who does stand up comedy. He’s been on Conan, comedy central, and he’s also the co-host of his very own podcast called Stand by your Band. He graduated from the media school in 2010. And in this episode, he talked to me about how and why he switched from his original intention of pursuing a career in medicine to pursuing comedy, which classes and experiences that I knew best prepared him for his career. And of course he shares a few funny stories as well. Tom was really down to earth and shared a lot of interesting insight. So I think you’ll really like this episode. Thanks everyone. Enjoy. 

Alumnus Tom Thakkar, Photo via New York Comedy Club

MOLLY: Hey Hoosiers, and welcome back to another episode of All Career Considered, which is a podcast produced by the Walter Center for Career Achievement at IU. My name’s Molly and I work in the Walter Center and I’m also the host of this podcast. And today I am so excited to introduce you to our guest today. His name is Tom Thakkar, who is a comedian based in New York city. And of course he’s an IU alum and graduated in 2010 with a degree in telecom, which is now a part of the media school.

So thanks for joining me, Tom. 

TOM: Thanks for having me. 

MOLLY: Yeah. So I’m so excited to talk to you today. I actually saw you at the comedy attic a few years ago. I was just a little grad student going to the comedy attic and I saw your show and thought it was great. And I’m really excited to share your story with students.

So I guess just kind of starting from square one, I read that you are from Bloomington originally. Is that, is that correct? 

TOM: That is correct. I’m a townie/student. Yeah. I, it was the easiest thing to do. Cause I could just stay in my hometown and it was so much cheaper to go to IU. It was great.

And I lucked out that yeah, the media program. So, not to get too into it immediately, but uh, I was going to go for pre-med and then I just fell in love with the media program at IU.

MOLLY: Wow. Okay. That’s a big switch from pre-med to the media school. So tell me a little bit about that decision making kind of switching from pre-med into media.

TOM: So I worked at the hospital starting when I was 18. I got a job at the hospital that is now IU health, but it used to be Bloomington Hospital over on 2nd and rodgers. And I was all in, my mom was a nurse at the time there. She wanted me to be a doctor. So I went to IU and then it slowly started becoming more apparent that I loved the comedy stuff more than the medical/chemistry stuff. I was so bad at chemistry that it kind of made the decision for me a little bit, but I started slowly dipping my, like dipping my toe into the more telecommunications field. I also, I was like trying to do journalism cause I told my I told my counselor that I wanted to be to, to write and they were like, well, journalism is probably your best bet. Not realizing I meant creative writing. And so I saw that script writing was a class in the telecom program and that kind of changed my whole trajectory when I was maybe I think I was a sophomore already. I think I’m pretty sure I was a sophomore maybe a junior when I switched paths completely, but I had already gotten a lot of the credits just from dabbling in it, but I wanted to work my way into getting into that, that advanced script writing program with Susan Kelly. And eventually it worked out that, I was like, I’m just going to fully switch because I can see my mom kind of buttered it into like, well, you could still technically go pre-med with a telecom major, like there’s no real law, like hard rules on it. So I kind of just kept pulling my toe out of the biochem waters and leaning more into comedy. And the comedy attic opened, when I was, I think, a junior and that really changed everything. So that gave me an area to make it real, to go, oh, this is a real thing you could do. And as I progressed in that, It started to feel like it was a possible career option, but telecom definitely called to me. I loved the writing stuff. I loved Susan Kelly’s program. Like I thought she was so cool and fun as a teacher. And it was the first time I was like, okay, this is now I see why college can be valuable. And it was, yeah, I loved it. 

MOLLY: Yeah, that’s really cool. I’m glad you mentioned that we actually have a lot of guests on this podcast that say the same thing. Like they thought they were going to do pre-med and then they realized all the other cool things that they’d rather do. So I’m glad that you kind of shared that.

So I’m curious, the comedy attic opened when you were a junior. So did you just start, like doing open mics there or did you start working there? Kind of, what did that look like? 

TOM: So it opened and I was already doing, I started doing improv with a who’s on first. I don’t know if they’re still around there. Um, but they were a campus group that started with me. I was, uh, a founding member because there was a group of us that kind of, we tried to get into like boy in the bubble. And, um, what was the other one? Awkward silence was one. And there was another really good one that I’m forgetting. But, uh, I really, there was one that did Friday nights and I cannot remember what it was, but they were really good.

And I was like, Oh, I just want to do that. And I didn’t realize it was something you could do. I just saw a flyer on campus and I was like, Oh, there’s a local comedy thing you can do. And I was trying to do it. And then a friend started a group and we were just doing improv all the time and I never really planned on getting into improv, but I was like, okay, this is a way to do comedy. And it’s a group that I’m in and it’s fun. It’s a communal thing, whatever. It’s a social circle. And then the attic opened and I was like, ah, maybe I’ll try that. I’ve kind of put all my eggs in this improv basket for now, but maybe I’ll test out, stand up.

I had tried it a couple of times before, but there wasn’t really a way to do it before the comedy attic opened. Like there’s a comedy club in Indianapolis called Crackers that I drove an hour to Indy for and then, um, you had to sign up a month in advance and do two to three minutes. So it was like, four hours of driving total to do three minutes. So it didn’t seem like a good option. And then Bear’s Place used to do, they didn’t have open mics, uh, but it was like the longest running one nighter in town. So everybody was like, oh, you want to stand up? There’s a place. And then I kind of snuck my way in there as an 18 year old or 19 year old and tried it, but it was again, not a consistent way to do it. And then the comedy attic opening gave an opportunity where there was a place every week that you could potentially get up. And so slowly, I started going once a month, once every couple of weeks. And then eventually every, it was everything like eventually I quit everything else except for my hospital job in college. Like I quit all my other groups and I just did that. And I would, I started doing stand up three to five times a week. And, but yeah, at first it was an open mix. It took a long time to start working there probably six months to a year before I was getting any kind of paid work. And then once that started happening, I didn’t look back.

MOLLY: Cool. Were there any times during, you know, before you’re really getting paid for it, like, were you doubting it at all? Like, I don’t know if I can do this. I just imagine that that would be kind of like stressful, like kind of trying to make it into that business. Like as a college student. 

TOM: Absolutely. I did not think it was going to ever be.

I thought that the idea of getting paid to do it, I thought like you had to be chosen by the gods to do that sort of thing. And like. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. The owner of the Attic is one of my best friends now, but when I first met him, he gave this speech where he’s like, look, nobody wants to see any of you do more than five minutes. You’re all terrible. And it really shoved it on our faces that we were bad at comedy. And he was right. Like he was, we were bad, but then it’s this slow thing where you, and I think this is the good thing to know for people who want to start out, it’s all incremental, like at first you go, oh, if I could just be a regular on the open mic, because you don’t even get that at first, at first you have to bring people and then if you don’t bring people, you don’t get to go up and then slowly, if you’re good enough, they let you just do the open mic every week or every other week. And so that becomes the goal. And then when you get that, you’re like, oh, if I can just do guest spots on the weekends on page shows where people are there’s professional headliners coming through.

If I can just do it. Five minutes on that, on a real show. That would be so cool. Then you get that. And then you’re like, maybe if I could host a whole weekend, that would be cool. And then it becomes a feature, which is where you do the middle spot, where you’re doing 25 minutes and then eventually you’re touring and headlining and all that good stuff and getting on TV.

And it’s all, everything seems impossible if you’re starting out and you look at like Kevin Hart or somebody on TV, you’re like, that is impossible. You can’t do that. How do you do that? And the truth is it’s even for him, it was little steps the whole way. And if you just make the goals small, they become attainable. And so for me, it’s kind of a sneaky thing where I still thought I was going to go to medical school almost that entire time or become a nurse or something. And it wasn’t until after I graduated that I was like, oh, this is it. Like, this is just what I’m doing. And hopefully it works out and I still worked day jobs for a long time. But, uh, yeah, my main focus was this. So hopefully it keeps working out, you know. 

MOLLY: Yeah. Well, I’m glad you could kind of like to break it down into smaller goals. Cause I feel like even for me, sometimes I see someone that’s like, you know, at the end of their career, super successful, it’s like, how do I, you know, make that jump, but it’s all making it the smaller goal. So I’m glad you mentioned that. So, okay. So it’s 2010. You’re getting ready to graduate from IU. So what’s next. Did you move right to New York or I think I saw you went to Chicago. Tell me about that. 

TOM: I actually, not to get too dark, but so I, through the telecom program, there was a connection with the Jimmy Kimmel Late Night That there was a writer there, or maybe it’s somebody on staff that was hooking up internships through IU.

And so I can’t remember who passed that along to me. It might’ve been Susan, um, And this is something that I would tell students if you’re listening, is take advantage of every opportunity that they give you in college, because I didn’t, and I really regret it cause I have friends who were in the telecom program, who I see did do it, And I really admire their success. Um, my friends who were in Susan’s like tight small group, they took her up on things and they took advantage of opportunities. And now they’re doing really cool stuff. And I, I love that. 

But what I did is I was going to try to do this internship, I got an email back from the guy who was, who is giving them or whatever, who was assigning them. And it was basically that I would have to do one more semester of school after I graduated and I was going to move to LA and do it. And instead I had a girlfriend at the time who begged me to move to Ohio and we got engaged and then it fell apart immediately. And then I moved back to Bloomington and then to Chicago after awhile and then to New York from Chicago.

MOLLY: Okay. So it sounds like there was kind of some jumping around, but would you say, you know, is New York, that’s kind of where like most of the like comedians move, like that’s where most of the good like comedy gigs are.

TOM: That is what I would say. It’s between, you know, New York and LA, but I think that New York is a great place to go. I tell everybody I know who wants to do stand up out of college. I have friends who like, uh, my buddy Emil Wakim, who just graduated from IU, he’s another comedy guy. And I tell people like that. If you feel like you want to just get it going and get things moving in the right direction, New York, I mean, you can’t beat it really, if you want a ton of stage time, a lot of it’s going to be very bad, but, uh, it’s still an opportunity. Chicago is where I went and I can’t recommend it enough because it’s such a good middle ground city.

And then I have friends who went straight to LA too, I’m glad I didn’t do that just for my own stuff. But, uh, Binyam Mizuna who also graduated from IU and started comedy around the same time as me went straight to LA and he got some good auditions and representation from doing that. But for straight up stand up, uh, New York is the way to go. It’s just the best place for it. But I think Chicago is a great city because if you want to do improv and sketch and writing and all that stuff and stand up, you get all of it there and they have a ton of good shows now. So it’s a great place to go. But I think of all those places as middle ground cities to get to New York, because new York’s the best for standup by far.

MOLLY: Yeah, that’s a good transition. I was going to ask you, you know, since this is a career podcast, I’m kind of curious about, you know, you do stand up, you’ve been on comedy central a few times, I think you have two podcasts. Is that right? 

TOM: I’m down to one, I’m down to one podcast, which is fine. Like,  I did have a podcast on comedy central up until about a month ago, and then they’ve changed their President over and so that  switched up their programming a bit. Uh, it’s still on, it’s still up. People can listen to it, but, uh, then I have another podcast called Stand By Your Band where we have comedians defend the music. They like the people make fun of them for liking. 

MOLLY: Yeah, I was listening to that this week. It was good. I liked it. Um, so what does that like, kind of, you know, since, I guess you’re sort of in the gig economy, I mean, what is that like kind of making a livelihood, doing what you love, which is comedy, what has that been like? Especially, you know, I can imagine right now just with COVID and everything, it’s a little tough. So how are you kind of you know, making the best out of those situations?

TOM:  I got to tell ya, I’d say that’s a great question. And I think about it all the time, because it’s tough, you know, um, gig economy, is not, you know, ideal, but what I will say is, so I had a really good, right before I left Indiana when I was, I think 24, I had worked at the hospital for seven years or so.Maybe I left at 25, and ] I’d worked at the hospital for seven or eight years and I got a really good job there that paid really well. And I’d worked my way up and I was. Very comfortable. But, uh, I did not, I never planned on staying there because I was going to enter this terrifying gig economy where you never know where your next check is going to come from.

And that is very scary to leave something like that. But what I will say is something that I found a little bit motivating, and maybe this is bleak, but it, it helped me. Follow what my goals and my, you know, dreams was watching the people who I worked with who had been working at that hospital for 30 years lose their jobs, just randomly. And then they were kind of screwed. They were in a situation where they’ve put all this time into a job. Some of them didn’t have the right type of degrees because they got the job so long. The job economy changed. And that, that really kicked me in the ass because I was like, what is the point of having job security. If you don’t have job security really. And you know, waste your life, doing something you don’t really want to do, just because it’s safe. And so the gig economy, I quit this job and I started walking dogs and doing road gigs because the money wasn’t that great. Especially when I first moved to Chicago.

And then it slowly got better and better because I just kept my nose to the ground and kept working at it. And I just knew I had a goal in mind of, I want to, it’s vague, but I knew I wanted to keep doing this and, and hopefully, you know, headline and be on comedy central or Conan all that good stuff someday. So I walked dogs because  I knew it would be a job that didn’t take a lot of mind. Like I could work while I was working. I could think of standup stuff and, you know, kind of let my mind wander. And I could leave, I could just leave and go to shows. So it didn’t matter. And I didn’t have that safety with you know, reliable, stable job.

So, uh, now it’s even trickier with COVID stuff because for a while, you know? Basically, I have an agent who sends me offers and that is where I get, you know, my gigs now, for the most part, besides random people hitting me up. And luckily that stream has been steady enough to keep me comfortable for a while.But the scary thing with this job is that it can all go away. And the second that COVID started, I lost so much money and that’s scary and this type of job, because there’s truly no guarantees. There’s no 401k, there’s no backup. So if everything goes haywire, you’re kind of out of luck and you just have to hope you saved well and to be mentally ready to get a job at any time and I’ve kind of just kept myself in that mindset. I even out of just boredom some times, cause I haven’t done stand up now in probably six weeks, seven weeks, something like that because it got too cold to have outdoor shows and um, yeah, it’s, I’m not going to lie, it’s, it’s a very scary place to be in right now. And you just hope for the best.

Luckily, like I said, I have gotten random stuff. That’s gone through. I had a PI, I had the comedy central podcast and then you, it’s kind of just swinging from rope to rope. It’s, you jumped from that rope to, I got some corporate gigs and stuff. There’s all kinds of weird stuff you do in comedy, like zoom shows for companies that want you to talk about, make fun of their boss or whatever. Like there’s, you just do kind of random stuff the whole time, but yeah, it’s tricky. There’s no good answer here because it is something I think about all the time and it is not guaranteed that there will be work.

MOLLY: Yeah. And I’m sure like other comedians and other people in the gig economy are feeling the same, you know, types of challenges, but it sounds like you’re super hardworking and super talented. So you’re doing fine.

TOM:  I think like it’s, it’s also very lucky and like my thing is, and I heard this early on and I think that, especially for people who want to get into media stuff, Spread it out. Do as many things as you can. I heard I was in, when I was in Chicago, I went to, a talk that Mark Marin gave at Second City. And he basically was like, I really regret not doing, not trying to get into acting and sketch and improv like different forms of comedy, because a lot of people who are in the arts world or in the comedy world, want to stick to a specific thing. And now more than ever I think that that’s foolish because it’s so easy to start a podcast. And as much as people make fun of, oh, there’s so many podcasts, it can’t hurt to have one. It’s one more thing to do. And it’s gotten me work, having a podcast because. Doing, you know, I’ve been podcasting now for eight years, I think. And if you’re doing it for that long, you get better at it. And all of a sudden you’re someone who has a skill that you didn’t have before. So I recommend that for anybody, if you’re somebody who wants to get into script writing, write all kinds of different types of things. I mean, I got a job from tweets, so, you never know, what it’s going to be that clicks. I just had my first writing job last year. And a lot of the reason I got the job was from standup and tweets. So you never know what it’s going to be. 

MOLLY: Yeah, that’s awesome. So kind of, you know, on a lighter note, what would you say, I mean, you’ve obviously been really successful and I’m sure you have a lot, you know, kind of highlights of your career so far,  what would you say is kind of like a main highlight or accomplishment that sticks out in your mind as like a moment that was really cool in your career that you got to do so far?

TOM: Oh, that’s interesting. It’s so funny. Cause stand up feels like such a distant memory now, but I would say, I had three goals in comedy and I’m kind of at this weird place now where I have to figure out what I’m going to do next because I did all three in basically the span of a year and a half and now I am like, what is there to do? What is the meaning of life? Because, doing a comedy central special, doing a half hour with them, I grew up watching those specials as a kid. And that is like, what made me love comedy and what drove me into it. Like I was so fascinated by it. It’s the reason I got to do my podcast at comedy central, because I was obsessed with these half hours and getting to do one myself and have it go well and be really happy with it. It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of anything. And it was really fun. Like it was just really fun to do. Because we were in New Orleans for a week and I was the first one to film. And as soon as I was done filming, we just partied for a week straight and it was so fun and rewarding. And, the other two are getting into the Comedy Cellar because that is something that I really wanted to do. I had the background of my phone for years was, the comedy cellar because I went once. I just thought it would look so cool in there. And it just seemed like such a magical place and then getting to do it. It’s crazy. And it’s another thing that was like my main source of income for a year because they pay comics really well and they treat everybody really, really well.

And then the other one is doing Conan because that’s the other, I grew up watching Conan too, and I was so obsessed with it. And I was reaching a point where I was like, maybe this’ll never happen. I was at that point in my career, I’d been doing standup for maybe nine years or something like that. And I was around when that sort of thing happens, I think, cause this is  the crazy thing with this job and within almost any creative job. You do it for so long before you get anything that’s a real payoff. Like, that actually feels like something you can show your parents and be like, see it is a job.

So for so long, you’re just treading water. And doing Conan was the first thing I did that was like, oh, wow, this is real. Like I’m, I’m on TV and I can show my, my family can see that it’s happening and they can make eye contact with me again, you know? So, and I didn’t waste my degree, so yeah, I started giving you a triple answer, but those are the big three.And then also featuring it, the comedy addict, the first time that felt just as thrilling as the other stuff. So, yeah, it’s, like I said, it’s all levels and it’s hard to pick just one. 

MOLLY: Yeah, cool. That’s really, really awesome. So I think that kind of wraps up most of the questions I have, I guess I just wanted to, you know, ask for students that might be kind of in a similar position that you were when you were a student, maybe they’re trying to get into comedy or a similar type of profession, but maybe just kind of trying to figure out exactly how to do it or how to get the confidence to do it, what words of advice you give them? 

TOM: I would say, um, this is going to be dark and I hope that’s okay. But the thing that motivated me, because I was really shy when I was a freshman in college, especially in high school and starting college is when I decided I wanted to try comedy, but I was like, how, what am I going to do? And then it really hit me. I just accepted, I thought, someday I’m going to die. Like I’m going to die. And who cares? What anybody thinks about what I did. Like nobody’s going to judge you, like, if we’re all gonna die, who cares what you do. And that really did help me, like, as bleak as that sounds, I was like, oh yeah, this doesn’t, what’s the worst that can happen. I’m going to humiliate myself in front of people, or I don’t do it and I go to my grave thinking, wow, I, really did not do what I wanted to do because of nothing. And I would say you, if you’re in, if you’re a student at Bloomington, you have a lot of opportunities there. There’s a lot of people who will help you out. And there’s on top of the comedy attic, it helped me get started that there was a local college scene. Like there was a great campus scene. And so, I had a nice little system going where we created spots, we started our own standup group at the college. And then we had to open for all, we created a spot by opening for sketch groups and opening for improv groups because they’re like, yeah, why not? That’s starts it off. Th there’s already been people laughing before we even get up. So if you’re somebody who wants to do up specifically, I’d say go to the comedy attic first, but, create your own shit (like, sorry, I don’t know, I probably shouldn’t say-), but yeah, create your own stuff. Like make whatever you wanted is to make.

And right now there’s more avenues than ever with Twitter and like Tik Tok and stuff. And that’s another thing that a lot of comics might look down upon who are older or make fun of, or whatever, do everything because you never know what’s going to be your creative outlet, that really sparks something, or that  helps you in the long run and yeah, do as many things as you can. That’s what I would say. And don’t get overwhelmed by looking at too far down the line, just to have fun. Like it’s supposed to be fun. That’s any of these creative fields. If you’re not having fun in the beginning there’s no reason for you to be doing it.

So just try to have as much fun as you can make good friends along the way. Find, I would say that your best bet is finding other people on campus who want to do what you also want to do and collaborate with them. And even if it’s something that you want to do individually, find somebody who you can trade scripts with or scrape or trade ideas with who you can bounce things off of. That’s another thing that helped me big time is finding a community. If I didn’t have a community on campus, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now because, that’s I mean, you stay friends with those people. And a lot of my success is from people who helped me along the way, who I met in college or right after It’s important to, I mean, I know that it’s, I sound like a broken record, but networking is really everything. And it’s not because it’s a bad thing. It’s not like a schmoozy thing. It just is important because of course you want to help people who help you and you want to help people you like, because you like their ideas and they like your ideas. That’s what the whole industry is. So I would definitely try to keep an open mind and meet people. Find a way to meet people on campus who want to do what you do. 

MOLLY: Yeah, I think that’s great advice. Thanks Tom. And then I definitely wanna make sure you can plug all your stuff, tell students, listeners where to find you or connect with you. 

TOM: Sure. I’m on Twitter @tomathakkar and Instagram, all that good stuff. But yeah, I have a podcast called Stand By Your Band. Like I said, that you can listen to wherever you listen to podcasts and comedy central, if you find my special, that would be sick, because it’s hard to find, unfortunately, but It’s on Comedy Central’s website, or if you just Google my name and Comedy Central presents, I think, or Comedy Central Standup Presents. It’s very hard to find, but it is something I’m very proud of. So check that out. 

MOLLY: Yeah, we can definitely. I’ll make sure to find it and we can link it below. it was great talking to you, Tom, and getting to meet you and hopefully I’ll get to see you sometime soon. I’d really like to get out to New York once everything is a little bit safer, so I’ll have to, 

TOM: Yes! Hit me up forsure. You got to get out here. I mean, now this is the worst time ever but as soon as it ends, you gotta get out here. 

MOLLY: I definitely will. Well, thank you so much, Tom. It was great talking to you and take care.

TOM:  You too. Thanks so much.

MOLLY: Thanks so much for listening today and thanks to my fantastic colleagues for providing production assistance and inspiration for the podcast each week.

Those folks include Ian Sory, Camryn Schreiner, Maureen Langley, Amy Cornell, and my entire Walter Center team. To learn more about the Walter Center and the services, resources, and events we offer, please check out our website at careers.college.indiana.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to receive timely updates from the Walter center as well.

To connect with alumni like the one in this episode, please make a profile on the Walter Center Success Network. It only takes a few minutes to create an account and start building your professional network. If you liked what you heard today, be sure to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast to make sure you don’t miss an episode and last but not least feel free to reach out to me, Molly Burkhardt personally on LinkedIn, or send me an email with any questions or feedback you might have. Thanks again, everyone. And we’ll see you.

 

By Camryn Schreiner
Camryn Schreiner Videography Intern Camryn Schreiner