Last year, Anish left the business world for a sabbatical on the standup stage - but his charity work is no joke.
One night a few years ago, Anish Shah (CHI 04-09) walked onto a stage at a comedy club's open mic night for the first time and told some jokes. People laughed, and he began to envision what eventually turned into his current project: a “sabbatical" of sorts, which would allow him to explore another of his talents - comedy.
Anish's path post-McKinsey had already been an interesting one. He left the Firm in 2009 to lead worldwide strategy for SPSS, a predictive-analytics company. When he joined, Anish says, the company was at an exciting point: they were looking into either expanding through acquisitions, or selling themselves to a large company. Either way, he knew that they were about to get much bigger. As it turned out, within six months, the company became part of IBM (it's now known as IBM SPSS).
Anish stayed with IBM SPSS through March of last year, when he left to try his hand at comedy – and to raise funds for charity while doing so.
"Why did I leave the corporate world for comedy?" he says. "I just thought to myself, 'What could I do to disappoint my parents the most?' This is what I came up with. It worked." He wryly adds, “When you spend $100k on an MBA to become a comedian, you instantly become the world's leading authority on ‘sunk costs.'"
He moved from Chicago to New York to pursue his goal full-time, and now he's performing nationally, rapidly making a name for himself in the niche of "corporate comedy," which gets him both regular club gigs and more lucrative private functions. He recently recorded a TV special, "The Maharajas of Comedy," which will be shown later on a U.S. cable channel (most likely Showtime, HBO, or Comedy Central: check Anish's site for more info) and has embarked on his 'B-School Made Me Funny' tour, a three-month circuit of about 50 U.S. business schools, which kicked off at the MBA Poker Championship in Las Vegas in January. Following that will be a worldwide “Maharajas of Comedy" tour, where he will perform alongside several other South Asian comics.
He recently spoke about his time with the Firm and the challenges facing a new comedian, as well as his extensive work over the past year on behalf of a number of charities.
First, Anish explained the difference between doing corporate comedy and a more general stand-up act.
"First of all, performing comedy at corporate events makes me feel less like I'm wasting my MBA," he chuckles. “And second, I like that the whole thing is something of an inside joke. An audience with very specific shared experiences is actually more fun."
"If I'm performing at a consulting firm's holiday party, for example, the biggest laughs are always from lines like: "I learned 3 things in consulting: problem-solving, teamwork, and if you need an extra page to fatten up a deck, the most elegant way is a page of quotes."
As well as the inside jokes, he says, coming through business school and spending time at the Firm helped equip him for his new career by letting him talk knowledgeably about complicated issues - like the rise of China or the debt crisis - that will strike a chord with a business audience. "There are always regular comics who try to do some 'corporate' material, but the goal for me is to try to go beyond the usual jokes.
I see it as the difference between an ordinary comedian and someone like Jon Stewart [host of U.S. news satire program The Daily Show], who for me is the perfect example of how to take complex situations, break them down and explain them - getting your points across through humor, while at the same time not talking down to the audience."
Anish is a serious student of the comedy art form, and says when he's not touring he goes to four or five shows a week, "just to sit at the back."
"I like to study other performers' techniques, joke structure, and so on," he says. "McKinsey kind of beat the research angle into me, and sometimes I feel like I'm under-performing because I haven't developed my Comedy 101 knowledge paper yet."
He's also an ardent believer in the power of social media to spread the word about emerging comedians and help them get exposure. In addition to his own website, he's been using both Facebook and Twitter to introduce his brand of humor to an ever-growing audience.
But does he think posting videos of his act online is a positive or negative overall?
"Worrying about giving away too much of your act is not really reasonable unless you're already really well known. For new comics, if you put your stuff out there and it goes viral, that's going to be really helpful to your career. If it doesn't, then no one's seen it so you didn't really give anything away."
As for the challenge for emerging performers of monetizing their work online, he says: "That model is great if you're an established comic with a value proposition people already know and trust. They will buy on faith. It doesn't work so great if you don't already have a reputation. My belief is you need to find the niche that will cause you to explode. For me, that's been corporate comedy - it makes sense, given my background."
Charting a course
It's often said that you can tell who has influenced a comic from their own act, so who did Anish admire when he was starting out, and are there any tell-tale signs?
"My favorite comedian was a guy called Mitch Hedberg, but I actually turned out nothing like him. My comedy is basically storytelling, but he was the king of the one-liners. In my view, that's a more challenging type of comedy, because it's hard to get any flow going, and he pushed the form to a whole new level.
He used to wear sunglasses on stage, and I found out later it was because he had tremendous stage fright, to the extent that he would come on and sometimes face the back of the stage, as he couldn't bear to look at all the people who had come to watch him."
Thankfully for Anish, stage fright isn't something he's bothered by. In part, he says, because of his time with McKinsey.
"It's a lot easier to stand in front of an audience when your previous experience was standing in front of business execs. Obviously, there's heckling in comedy, but we all know there's plenty of it in consulting, too."
He sees the path ahead in two stages.
"I think it's easier to go from zero to making a comfortable wage than ever before. If you are entrepreneurial and funny, you can get there. However, going from making a comfortable wage to becoming a big-time comic is harder than ever, because there are simply so many options and avenues for how the audience can consume comedy, and you have to be good at every single one of them to rise to the top.
"I'm putting in just as long days now as I ever did at McKinsey. I'm up early in the morning trying to manage all the different stuff – organizing the tour, as well as dealing with different ways to grow the audience and connect with them."
And there are some similarities, he thinks, between a new comic breaking through and a tech start-up. "Mostly, neither makes any money for a very long time, and they both involve people who probably didn't have dates to the prom."
Paying it forward
Anish says that because 2012 was a big year for him – "my first year of full-time comedy" – he decided to dedicate most of it to charity, "to build a little good karma." He's been working with a number of different Indian charitable organizations, from the Vijay Amritraj Foundation, which supports charities in India, to the Lend a Hand Foundation, which works to improve quality of life for underprivileged children. He generates funds both through appearing pro bono at benefits and hosting events. In addition, a nationwide tour he organized – called No Laughing Matter – sold tens of thousands of tickets in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, all the proceeds of which he donated to charity.
Over last summer, he also organized a series of shows called the Summer of Comedy, which put on a weekly show with several comics and benefited a different charity each week.
But his main charity work last year was for Save a Mother, a group which focuses on reducing maternal mortality in India during pregnancy or childbirth. "We like to talk about impact – here's a charity that can have the sort of impact that's just off the charts, for as little as a hundred bucks." Anish explains how the money helps. “In rural India, a woman dies once every 14 minutes from pregnancy and childbirth-related problems; almost all of these are preventable. Save a Mother can go into a village of 2,000 people and reduce mortality rates by 90% through education. The cost for them to do this is about $100. They train ambassadors within the village as well, so that the knowledge is maintained. They've already helped a thousand villages, and are working to get to another thousand."
During the Chicago stop of the No Laughing Matter tour, Anish hired a full professional production crew to record a TV special, combining the comedy performances with information about Save a Mother. You can watch a trailer for the special here: http://bit.ly/XLt6j5.
"The goal when we started was to raise $100,000 for that particular charity, through the tour and the special," Anish explains.“ Although we haven't got there yet, we're on the way." In all, he estimates that over the past twelve months, shows he took part in for various charities have raised somewhere around $300,000.
Does he get people from McKinsey coming to his shows, and do they ever suggest material?
"Generally in all walks of life, you get people who'll come up and tell you a story and then say '...and you can use that' and I'm like, 'umm, thanks.'"
Consultants, he says, often tell a story that they swear happened to them – "but it's one of those stories that has been around for years, like the one about the consultant who goes to a Director's house and sees a really expensive painting on the wall, and the Director says to him, "Kid, if you work really hard, in ten or fifteen years, I might be able to afford another one of these."
While Anish was part of the Chicago office during his time with the Firm, he says two of the people he most enjoyed working with were both Directors in Pittsburgh: Devin McGranahan and Celia Huber.
“My time at McKinsey definitely influenced me in a positive way in terms of my approach to comedy. There's a pressure in being a McKinsey alum – no matter what you do, you want to be great."
And that, he says, is a gift and a burden at the same time.
"It's easy as a young comedian to resort to shock jokes or dirty jokes – and you will definitely get laughs.
"But knowing that people you used to work with are coming to your shows, you want them to respect what you do, and to feel that you've applied a McKinsey mindset to this unique thing – and were able to create something that's not just your average comedy career, but something different."
"Comedy is really all about looking at an issue, making it simple, developing your angle and presenting it. There's no better place in the world to learn how to do that than at McKinsey."
"And when you think about it," he says, "the entire premise [of consulting] is funny. 'Soooo, how are we gonna turn around this $10 billion loss? I know, let's hire an astrophysicist, an Olympian with a top 1 percent IQ, and a kid who graduated from Stanford 3 months ago.
"Make sure they're insecure enough to work 16 hours a day, but supremely confident enough to believe they can actually solve this. Then give them a closet-like conference room with a spotty internet connection and a standard temperature setting of either 57 or 85 degrees Fahrenheit.' It's amazing. And hilarious. But apparently it must be the solution to a lot of business problems, because it works."
And solving business problems is a world that Anish will most likely return to someday. While he is enjoying his “sabbatical," he stresses that the corporate world still holds its charms for him. "I love business, too," he says. "I think I'm always just looking for that next thing to get passionate about and pursue. That might be comedy-related, but it's just as likely to be business-related."
For now, though, he's content to be a Maharaja of Comedy.