In Recess May 2023
'This is your set and you go for it'
Rocky Dhir on clean comedy, what lawyers can learn from stand-up, and how to get through bombing onstage.
Interview by Eric Quitugua
ABOVE: Since 2021, Rocky Dhir has done stand-up comedy in Dallas-Fort
Worth. Photo courtesy of Rocky Dhir.
Friso-based attorney Rocky Dhir clocks in about 10-12 laughs per minute on a good night. No gratuitous scene setting. No body parts. No F-bombs. Just concise setups with a clean punchline that could make a seasoned trial lawyer and a nine-year-old child alike cackle. In the stand-up comedy world of Dallas-Fort Worth, Dhir reads his audience like a jury and goes to work. “I love seeing that look on people’s faces when I’m onstage and they’re laughing,” he told the Texas Bar Journal. “For those few minutes, they’ve forgotten every worry in their life. That is a huge reward.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE TECHNIQUES THAT YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR
STAND-UP COMEDY CLASSES?
What lawyers can learn most from stand-up is three things. The first is how to choose your words carefully. When you’re having a normal conversation, the words you use are not that important. Some people will say “this happened as a result of such and such” or “this happened because of such and such.” Which one you use doesn’t make much of an impact. But in comedy it can make a huge difference whether you use three words, one word, one more impactful word, or three less impactful words. Depending on what you’re trying to do, one would be a better fit than the other. Some words sound funnier. The onomatopoeia just has a different resonance to the audience. The second is economy of words. As lawyers, we deal with a lot of words all the time and we’re always trying to figure out how to say the most with the least. One of the big mistakes we make is we’re trying to be thorough; we’re not always trying to be concise. In an effort to get out all the information, we just keep spewing words out without really thinking about how many words we need to use. Comedy is all about economy of words. If it takes you too long to set up a punchline, you’re going to lose the audience. You usually have about 30 words or less to set up the joke before you get to the punchline. You want to be getting about 10-12 laughs per minute. You’re doing very short setups with very effective punchlines. And finally, there’s emphasis. Where do you place the word? And if you’re speaking it, how do you say it to give it the maximum impact. Are you going to say it loudly and be more emphatic? Are you going to whisper it so it’s understated but gets a huge response? Are you going to mouth it to the audience and not actually say it? You have to make all these decisions when you’re developing a comedy routine.
YOU’RE TRYING TO GO FOR A VERY SPECIFIC REACTION OUT OF
PEOPLE—LAUGH! IT SEEMS REALLY GUTSY TO GET ONSTAGE. IS THAT
INTIMIDATING? “I HAVE TO PUT ON MY HAT AND DANCE FOR YOU
Is it intimidating? Yes, the first time you do it—very intimidating. I still remember the first showcase I had in April 2021. All day the day of, I was rehearsing—trying to make sure I stayed within the timeframe. When you’re booked on a club show, you’re given a set time and you’ve got to make sure you stay within that time. If they give you 10 minutes, you’ve got to do at least 8 or 9 minutes. You can stop at 9 minutes. You can maybe even stop at 8. But you better not go more than 30 seconds over because they’ve got a show order and they have to keep things moving. Your stuff has to be tight. You have to be ready to go. You have to know what you’re doing. And you have to be nimble because in the event you don’t get a laugh where you expected one or you get a sustained laugh where you thought there wouldn’t be one, you’ve got to be ready to roll with those punches. So, is it intimidating? Yes, it is. Over time though, I’ve I found that it’s gotten easier just because I’ve done it through repetition. It’s like when you get up and talk to your first witness, it’s really intimidating. And then after a while you say, “OK, I’m going to go cross-examine this witness.” You’ll see lawyers get up there with no notes at all. They just know what they’re going to do. It’s like any other skill. Over time, you get more comfortable with it.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO GET SILENCE? OR EVEN GASPS?
I wouldn’t know, Eric, that’s never happened to me! No, it has happened and it’s jarring. The first time it happened, I was very early in my comedy journey. We’d done our advanced showcase and it went really well. One of the students said, “Hey, I have 80 people from work who want to come see this showcase but couldn’t get tickets. Would you guys mind doing another show?” All the students said yes, and she had her friends come in from work. They all lined up. They’re all ready to go—they didn’t laugh for any comic except for her! They just sat there in stone cold silence. So effectively, my third show as a comedian, I got to experience the silence. In retrospect, I realized that was exactly the kind of lesson I needed. No matter what happens, you stick with it. You’ve got your set. You perform it the way you meant to and you just stick to your guns. You don’t try to finish early. You don’t admonish the audience. You don’t apologize. This is your set, and you go for it. It’s a great way to train you on how to keep a thick skin in all situations.
I CAN GET A HINT OF A LINE YOU WON’T CROSS IN TERMS OF
CUSSING, ETC. WHAT’S THE REASONING BEHIND THAT?
If the comedy is well written, an audience won’t be able to discern whether it’s less funny than the dirty stuff. It might not hit the baser instincts, but it will be just as funny. When you dig down deep into the joke itself, the question is if you take out the body parts, the talk of sex, F-bombs, and so on—is it still a funny joke? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes it’s no. But when it’s clean, you have to make a good, effective joke standing by itself. The most important reason I go clean is my 9-year-old daughter made me promise I would. When I started doing stand-up, at that time she was 7, she asked me, “Daddy, does this mean I get to go to all of your shows?” So I explained to her, “No, you can’t because there’s cursing and there’s inappropriate things being discussed.” She looked at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Daddy, are you going to cuss? Are you going to talk about things that are inappropriate onstage in front of people?” Of course, I said what any wise father would say: “Of course not! That’s the others. Not me.” She said, “Ok, I will let you do comedy as long as you promise me that you will always keep things clean.” I have stuck to that promise. I have not crossed the line. The question is, Can I say this in front of her or would I want her saying this word? And if the answer is “no,” then I don’t do it.
LET’S CHANGE GEARS HERE. THIS MAY BE SLANDEROUS, SO YOU DON’T
HAVE TO CALL OUT ANY NAMES. DO YOU HAVE ANY PET PEEVES ABOUT STAND-UP
This is more a frustration, albeit an exhilarating one. I feel like I’m starting from the very bottom in comedy. It’s like being a first-year associate again. I’m trying, failing, learning. Rinse and repeat. I thought I knew a few things after nearly 25 years as a lawyer. But this experience is teaching me how much there is in the world that I don’t know. I’m also experiencing a different kind of work-life balance in comedy. Comedy means working nights and weekends. It’s just part of the process. It’s also part of the process for my family, and they are rock stars for putting up with this. My coworkers at Atlas Legal feel it, too, especially when I’m slow to get started in the morning after a late night. But here’s an actual pet peeve: Texas is not the world’s comedy capital. I’m so proud of the fact that lawyers in Texas are self-regulated. I love that we discipline ourselves. And I love the pride that comes from being a Texas lawyer. In comedy, we here in Texas still seem to look up to New York and Los Angeles—cities with great comedy scenes. But I want to see us be on par with them. In Dallas-Fort Worth alone, I see tremendous potential—talented comedians who can do amazing things. They can become superstars. And I want to see that happen. I think Texas can be a comedy capital right alongside New York and L.A. As Texas comedians, we need to emulate Texas lawyers by working together and supporting one another. We need to elevate each other the way lawyers do. I am hoping that my experience as a proud Texas lawyer can help inculcate those principles into the Texas comedy scene. TBJ