Vir Das | Comedy, for the love of India

by W. Andrew Powell
Vir Das

Vir Das is one of my favourite comedians working today. He’s hilarious, charming, smart, sharply patriotic, and his shows offer a glimpse into modern-day India.

The comedian, actor, and musician has a huge following in India, but considers himself an up-and-comer in North America, but for anyone who has watched his Netflix specials, it’s very easy to see his appeal.

Ahead of his sold-out JFL Northwest shows tonight and tomorrow, I chatted with him about his stand-up style, performing in Canada, his latest Netflix special, podcasting, and modern India.

When you’re performing in another country, how much are you tailoring your act around the potential for new fans? Or how do you look at it?

“I think I figured out pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be able to write a show for a particular audience just because of my strange upbringing where I grew up in Africa and India at the same time. And then I studied in the States and India and now I’m working in both LA and Mumbai. So I just write about shit that I find funny and hope that it’s global enough because I’m global enough.”

Your last Netflix special, Vir Das: For India, it’s phenomenal because as someone who’s never been to India, I feel like it’s also a crash course on why you need to visit.

“I think so. The first two specials, when the third one came my way, it was pretty … I was a little bit terrified because Netflix kind of said there’s seven people in the world or eight people in the world who had three [specials]. And that’s pretty daunting because I’m a fan of the other six. I will fanboy over any of the other six and so I kind of knew that it had to be different.”

“And you know, the first special was sort of trying to introduce myself to the west. And the second special was, ‘Hey, I’ve arrived for this one show in the west and hopefully you like my skit.’ But the third one, I thought it was time to bring the west to where I was from.”

Did that take a lot of preparation to come up with that much content about India or I imagine you’ve got tons in your head but how do you whittle it down?

“It took a lot to be honest. So basically what I ended up having to do, I kind of got into writing the special in April of this last year, and we shot in October. But, in April I kind of sat down and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this one universal idea of what I think India is.’ And then I quickly failed at that because there’s 1.3 billion [people in] India. And really, I kind of made it about this three for me, one for you, three for me, one for you.”

“But eventually what got the special written was I took over a comedy club for a month. It’s this space called The Kaku Club near my house, and we did I think about 49 shows in 25 days. I was just on stage for upwards of three and a half hours a night over two shows. And you know, I do 30 or 45 minutes of material and then I just talk to the audience every night for about an hour and kind of say, ‘Hey, what’s your movie? Or what’s your book or what’s your product or what is the dark day that you think from history?’ And then that kind of gave me what I needed to be writing about as well.”

“So a fair amount of this was just crowd-sourced and crowd work that then turned into writing.”

How much do you think your audience impacts your material otherwise? Do you have stuff that makes its way in because of the fans?

“Not so much. Look, pretty much traditionally a stand-up special is 10 stories, right? And you hope that the stories have different dynamics and usually at least eight out of the 10 stories have happened to you. Right? There’s a nice safety net of personal experience. But, this was one where the special is not about me. It’s not at all about me, it’s about India.”

“I think this needed a little bit of a different process. Strangely enough, when I perform in the West, I feel like there’s enough second generation Indian comedians who are giving you stories about that life. You’ve heard the, ‘my strict Indian father’ bit before or you’ve heard the ‘Indians in America do this’ bit before. But, I found that the more I perform in the west, they’re looking for authentic Indian stories. They want to know what Mumbai is like. They don’t care what life in New Jersey is like. They want to know what Mumbai is like and they want to know what Dehli is like. So strangely enough, I feel like with Netflix in these global platforms, authenticity is becoming a lot more important. You know?”

For sure. We’ve heard the second hand stories and the comedians taking it maybe even in the wrong directions. It’s nice to hear these stories coming from the heart, as it were.

“Yeah. To me, I can watch Bill Burr or Dave Chappelle do a story about Ohio or wherever and I’m transported there even though I know very little about that. Right? Or I can watch Trevor Noah take me to Africa. Or I can watch Ali Wong take me to hook culture as well. Why aren’t we doing the same?”

Your storytelling, where do you think that ability comes from? You’re such a great storyteller.

“Fandom, I’ll be honest with you. I’ll consume anything that Richard Pryor or Dave Chappelle or George Carlin does, or Mike Birbiglia and personally, that’s my favorite kind of stand-up comedy.”

“So that, and I also think I kind of grew up with my grandfather as much as with my father because my parents were in Africa and I was living with my grandparents a bit. And so, I just got used to hearing stories.”

“My grandfather was kind of the center of the family and we lived in Delhi. My parents were in Africa and his other daughter was in Germany. The house was kind of like this transit point for everybody traveling the world. I kind of grew up just listening to people’s stories a lot.”

“And my grandfather was also a Buddhist and the head of this Buddhist association. A lot of people would come over for counseling. This house I grew up in there was never less than 15 people in this house. You know? You’re always open to some sort of different perspective.”

I really loved hearing your story about your grandfather, in the one special, and how he could spin a yarn that seemed to not even deal with the present situation and yet, somehow it still did.

“Yeah. I think we afford that privilege to our older generation in India. In America, you make the move to Florida. In India, we keep them around and we let them light us. So yeah.”

In terms of modern India versus the India from the past, I think for North Americans we don’t have a clear distinction between the past and the present. Do you see that and how do you address that with audiences?

“I think that we’re much more, if nothing else, we’re much more on an even playing field. Right? You’re watching Game of Thrones and we’re both drinking Starbucks and wearing Nike’s at some level. Right? The materialistic aspect or differences in our existence have gone away completely. And also the consumption of content, largely the cultural differences, have gone.”

“Now we’re really getting into nuance and we’re really getting into perspectives. So yeah, I come from this breed of Indians that admires the West but isn’t overawed by it.”

“You guys have some cool shit but we have some cool shit too. I have a large amount of family in Canada as well. I’m like, if the West is so great, why are you guys still doing dishes? I don’t get it. If you’ve progressed and everything is so amazing, you have self driving cars and you have seedless watermelons, why are you still doing dishes? Because in India, we’re not doing dishes, we’re creating employment.”

“That’s my generation. We like India, we’re optimistic about where we’re from, and I feel like the West is opening up to India in the biggest way possible. Just in terms of content, where the biggest market in the world or at least, the biggest free market in the world after China. So yeah, I feel like we’re a forced to be reckoned with in the next 10 years.”

I’m also curious, are you considered a bit audaciousin India or is that just an outdated perspective I might have?

“No. No. I’m not audacious at all. I am inflammatory. It’s maybe one way to put it. But audacious, I’m not.”

“The new Netflix special was fairly more political than the last two. Right? And that was consciously. There’ve been some notices and some tweets and some chatter and all of that stuff. But we’ve been dealing with that.”

“But no, I think I come from a government that is doing very audacious things. And I come from a country that is at a crossroads in history where we have to choose human rights consciously along with prosperity. You know? I feel like if you’re going to be audacious, if you’re going to be inflammatory, now’s the time to do it.”

Do you have a sense of what audiences are like in Canada?

“You know, not so much, I’m going to be honest. Because it’s changing a lot every time I come off over. The first time I did the Just For Laughs Festival, it was five minutes at a gala. Right? And then the next time I did it, it was a couple of solo shows and five minutes at a gala. But mostly Indians were coming out because the Netflix specials hadn’t really come out then. And then this last time I did it, it was 50/50 down the middle. We did a theater in Montreal.”

“In terms of Vancover, I’m kind of expecting that mix as well. My new show is about, it’s about race and it’s about religion and it’s about identity, but it’s also about love at some level, and questioning what kind of love is valid in today’s world. So in that sense it’s pretty universal. So I’m hoping it translates across both shows.”

In terms of comedy, do you have up and comers that you’re listening to that you think are blazing new trails otherwise?

“Well, I should clarify that the reason I’m starting work in the West is because I feel like an up and comer. To me I’m kind of going to school by working in the West. If you want to get better at a sport, you play with people that are better than you are. I’ve really only been doing this seriously for about six or seven years and non-seriously for about 10, 11 years.”

“Outside of your big, big, big comics, there have been some great specials. I thought Deon Cole’s special was amazing. My stuff that I get to consume is mostly on Netflix sitting halfway across the world. I’m guessing anybody who’s on there is going to earn their beans.”

“But, I think Deon Cole’s special was amazing. I thought the new Todd Barry special that came out just a while ago was very, very good as well. Tig Notaro’s special kind of left me feeling happy inside and a stand up special hadn’t done that in a while.”

“We kind of all have been adopting ‘the world is fucked kind’ of routine, and it was nice to feel optimism at the end of a special. But I’m watching everything, man. I’m consuming everything so I can get better at this.”

What about local comedians in India that maybe we haven’t heard of here? Is there anyone we should be looking up?

“I think you should look at everyone. When it comes to Hindi comedy, the world is your oyster in India. When it comes to English, there’s a bubbling vibrant scene. Keep watching Netflix because you’re going to see about eight or nine really good Indian, English, and Hindi comics coming up on Netflix. You’re going to see a lot of Indian comedy this year.”

How do you balance all the things that you’re doing, because I know you’re working with some Western TV, you’ve obviously been doing movies for a long time, and then comedy. Do you have a focus now or are you still spreading yourself out between these things?

“One kind of serves as the antidote for another. And then strangely enough, that’s the best way to go about it, is to do some doses of all three moderate doses of all three.”

“You want to get pampered and you want to feel like a little bit of a celebrity, you go and do a movie and they’ll treat you really, really well. And just when you’re getting tired of talking about protein shakes and working out too hard, it’s good to hit the road and have a comedy crowd whoop your ass and drag you down to earth before you feel too famous.”

“Films allow you to collaborate with people and work with people because stand-up can be lonely sometimes. You’re traveling all the time. And then I make music, which is kind of my favorite thing that I do because there’s no stakes on that. I really feel like doing it all helps you not get lost in the bubble.”

I haven’t checked out your music yet so I will have to dig that up next.

“It’s terrible vulgar music for college kids. It’s comedy rock, but I should warn you it’s terrible and it’s vulgar.”

I also noticed that you’ve only got one album on Spotify. Are you going to have more that will come up there?

“I think so. I’m figuring this whole audio revolution that everybody’s talking about. Typically, I’m always five years behind whatever technology’s good. It’s just really strange–10 years as a comic and I’d never put stand-up on YouTube really. The first time I did stand up online, it was on Netflix. I should have been putting it on YouTube for five years before then, but I was just kind of doing it live. I’m always behind the technology curve.”

I’m sure you would do really well with a podcast. I don’t listen to a lot of them, but I can imagine you would do really well in that format.

“Well, I’m looking at it. I’m going to figure it out and I think I’ll launch one just as podcasts are dying. That’s when mine will come. When the format is over, I will launch a successful one.”

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