VIR DAS IS early for our interview. His name pops up, waiting to be let into my Zoom meeting room seven minutes before our agreed appointment time. When granted entry, I notice he’s sporting days-old stubble, wearing a beige beret, a Metallica T-shirt and shorts. This is the new normal, one must remind oneself. This is WFH. Why should he be expected to put on a pair of jeans if we’re not doing this in person?
Come to think of it, there’s a good chance he might not have bothered with jeans even if we were doing it in person. This is Vir Das, India’s leading funny man, actor, musician, emcee and something of an all round jolly rancher.
Having sharpened his stand up skills for over a decade, at 41 he is the only Indian comedian (and only the sixth globally) to have three specials on Netflix. He’s been in a bunch of Bollywood films from the good (Delhi Belly, 2011), the bad (Revolver Rani, 2014), to the entirely forgettable (Mastizaade, 2016). He’s been the star of his own show locally (Hasmukh, 2020), but he’s also popped up in smaller roles on American television (Fresh off the Boat, Whiskey Cavalier).
America first took notice of him, three years ago, when he landed a spot on Conan. Since then he’s toured extensively across the US, performed at the New York Comedy Festival alongside Trevor Noah, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, and recently switched agencies from CAA to the more comic-friendly UTA.
But nothing has been a bigger turning point than the pandemic, Das believes. “For ten years I’ve been hustling,” he explains. “Nothing has come on a platter. It’s been largely DIY—produce, write, create. And it’s a very clear effort-to-results equation. If I work hard, results will happen. And if it isn’t happening, I must work harder. It’s very clear in my head.” Then, he says, the pandemic came along. “Suddenly it doesn’t matter how hard you hustle, how hard you work, you’re not in charge anymore. And that is scary as fuck for a hustler,” he says. Having come out of that with help from his family, Das says he’s realised that “as an artist I just feel like I don’t have a lot of fear anymore. In terms of the jokes I’m writing, or what I want to talk about, there is not a lot of fear.”
He wrote a new show during lockdown, See You Outside, that he is touring with currently at ‘socially distanced open-air venues’. He’s done away with assistants and lugs his own speaker and microphone and sets up the cameras himself at most venues. “We don’t do a lot of backstage announcements now. I just walk on and we begin cold. I open with my strongest material; I don’t save the big guaranteed laughs for later. We just get straight into it,” he says. The show is not all about the pandemic and the lockdown. “The first five minutes is about that. Then it’s really emotional beats.” And if he’s ever feeling too confident or “too swaggy” as he calls it, he only has to look at his wrist where he’s scribbled the alphabets WD, which stand for Watson’s Dad. As you may have guessed, Watson is his beloved A few weeks ago, he made a YouTube video titled ‘Bollywood, Drugs, Journalism, India—A Loose Rant’ in which he skewered the inherent hypocrisy, misogyny, and blatant untruths in the television news media’s reportage of events following Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. He doesn’t miss the irony that many believed this pandemic would make us kinder and more empathetic. “Yes, for about two minutes in March when we were like ‘Sab marne wale hain, let’s give each other a hug’. Then the reality of our shittiness quickly came into the forefront.”
Excerpts from a conversation:
You’re touring with new material, but how do live shows work in the age of social distancing?
It’s completely different. It’s a new vibe. In Goa I’m performing for 60 people in a forest, where they have to climb a hill to get to an outdoor amphitheater, so I always feel like they’re going up there thinking, ‘This guy better be seriously funny.’ And then we severely socially distance them; like we have an eight-feet radius marker around a couple.
It’s a weird way to do it. Even in Delhi, it’s going to be at Akshara Theatre. I’m performing for 100 or 150 people in a venue that seats 600.
In Dubai, I’m doing a thousand people in a venue that I think seats 5,000; the World Trade Center. So the laugh just takes a minute to come together to come to you. But the trip is that the joke has to be really good. It’s really pushing you to level up. Because people are outdoors, they’re sweaty, they don’t have the comfort of darkness which the audience needs to laugh. So the joke better be good.
How does that impact your approach or your process, even the material itself?
I think you have to acknowledge the equal vulnerability in the room, because at some level we’re all risking an illness to be here… to laugh. No matter how safe you make it, we are taking a risk to be here. So one doesn’t get to get away with, ‘This is absolutely normal.’ One has to address the vulnerability up top. And then to say: ‘My job is to make you forget about that.’
I went through a lot in this pandemic as an artist; I changed a lot. So when I wrote this new show there were two ways one could go in. Either the ‘yeh meri tanhai’ kind of comedy, which I feel we’re going to see a lot of when the world restarts—‘Oh, look at my pain, my existential crisis’. Or I can just be like—‘I’m going to make you fucking forget about everything you’ve been through.’
And that’s the direction I’m choosing to go in with the stand up.
“When I wrote this new show there were two ways one could go in. Either the—‘oh, look at my pain, my existential crisis’. Or I can just be like—‘I’m going to make you fucking forget about everything you’ve been through”
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In your opinion what role should comedy play at a time like this?
At an emotional level, escapism. I really think that that’s the way to go. This is the time for comedians to be your friend, your shoulder, to pat you on the back. And I think the way to do that is to take ourselves on more than we usually take the world on. I don’t feel like this is time for ‘The world sucks’ comedy. Because everybody is doing ‘2020 sucks’ comedy. This is the time for—‘I’m a bloody idiot. Look at me and laugh at me so you can feel better about yourself.’ It’s really the time to shit on yourself as a comic.
And then at a very tangible level, fundraising. We did 37 Zoom shows over the lockdown for 20 charities. And it’s weird, it sucks to do a show on Zoom. But people came in from everywhere in the world, we shot a special, and we raised a lot of money. I feel comedians have huge platforms that they’re not weaponising to help people, and they can.
You are arguably the Number One Indian comic that performs in English. But there is clearly a huge untapped audience that Hindi comics like Zakir Khan are reaching.
I try and reach out to that audience whenever I can with acting work, because I feel that’s the only way to sustain acting work in India. But if I try to do stand up in Hindi, that’ll be like a Golden Retriever trying to be an Alsatian. And I’d rather be the best Golden Retriever that I can, and not try to be that.
In fact the one time I did stand up in Hindi, I deliberately played a shitty Hindi comic, and then everybody was like, ‘Why’s he so bad?’ And that’s the point—that’s not my thing.
As far as the gap is concerned, it is gigantic. A seasoned English performer will get one or two or three million views on a YouTube video typically… and I don’t do a lot of YouTube stuff. A new Hindi performer will get 10 million views on a YouTube video. His audience is that big instantly. Now whether that translates into income, cash, career, is of course something I can’t speak to. But the audience is there for the taking for Hindi performers in India.
Are you wearing two hats to plot the comedy career and the acting career, or do you see one as the extension of the other?
If I’m being brutally honest, I look at them as swag and humble pie… (laughs). I know comedy now, but I’m still figuring out the acting thing.
Two years ago, I realised the Indian film industry may not fully know what to do with me yet, or how to use me yet. And that’s okay. Because I’m a bit of a weird mix of things. But I better figure it out, and I better figure it out fast.
And that means I might have to create the projects that I’m in; I might have to write them, I might have to executive produce them. That’s a much longer road and a more stressful road, but it’s okay.
So for instance when we do a Hasmukh, or the new show that we’re shooting in Goa, we stumble. There are things that work and things that don’t. But you can’t say they’re like anything else. They’re definitely different. So I’ve just got to keep doing that.
A few weeks ago you signed with the United Talent Agency (UTA) to represent you internationally.
They’re the Number One comedy agency in the world, and pretty much every comedian that I idolise or whose career path I love is with them. It’s something I’m very happy about.
What is the kind of career you’d like them to help you build?
Look, you will see me in an American TV show in 2021. I’ll shoot an American movie in 2021 as well. Because that is the natural progression of a comedian’s career in the US. It’s pretty mapped out—you do five minutes on Conan, you do a side role on an American TV show, you get developed for your own show, and eventually you do a movie. It’s a pretty clear path of escalation.
“Nothing has come on a platter. It’s been largely DIY—produce, write, create. And it’s a very clear effort-to-results equation. If I work hard, results will happen. And if it isn’t happening, I must work harder. It’s very clear in my head”
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But I had some time to think during the pandemic, and here’s the thing…I’m twelve and a half years in. Here’s who I idolise — Johnny Lever, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Kevin Hart for his work culture. These people have all been at it at least 25 years in stand up. And that’s when you hit the best part of your career. That’s when literally everything clicks into place. You have your widest audience, you get your best parts in movies; everything comes together.
The wonderful thing about a comedy career is that it just gets better as you get older, because sexiness and validity and relevance is not the game you’re playing… (laughs). You just have to be fantastic.
So I just came out to [UTA] saying I want to do the best work I’ve ever done now, for the next nine or ten years. And I want to compete at a global level, I want to be one of the biggest comics in the world, I want to level up. At a writing level that’s my focus now.
I swore to myself in the pandemic that if I get a microphone again I’m not wasting it on Punjabi-Gujarati jokes anymore. So if I’m doing this again, zero fear, caution to the wind, let’s go.
So then has the time come for the brown comic in the West? There is Hasan Minhaj, of course, but he’s American.
I think so. But I also look at it this way—the diverse inclusive culture is at a good point right now. Sometimes comedians tend to get pigeonholed into micro community audiences because they’re American. ‘Oh you’re Indian American and you’re tracking with that audience? So now start doing more Indian American jokes.’ Or, ‘Now start doing more Hispanic American jokes.’
If you look at a lot of those shows—Hasan’s show, or Lilly Singh’s show—they ended up becoming very much about that audience. But every once in a while a broader perspective comes along. Like a Trevor Noah, who is able to show America or the world to you and vice versa. That’s the guy I want to be. And I think it’s time for a brown guy to do that. Also I don’t think that man can be from America; I think it’s time for a global comic.