Vir Das Has an ‘Abroad Understanding’
Being born in India, raised in Africa, and schooled in the United States has given comedian Vir Das a unique perspective on what is globally funny. After dabbling in comedy while attending college in the US, Das headed back to India to take a job as a VJ in Bombay. He lost the job in three months, but used his love of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to shoot a DIY comedic news pilot that eventually led to him becoming the host of News on the Loose, a popular show on India’s CNBC TV18. He continued developing his comedy through a series of conceptual one-man shows that earned him a growing throng of fans and paved the way for him to get roles in several major Bollywood films. “Everything but standup has led me to standup.” He’s now one of the biggest comedians in India and today becomes the first Indian-born comedian to release a Netflix special with Abroad Understanding. I talked to Das about his well-traveled formative years, learning from his early comedy mistakes, and how he’s challenging Indian stereotypes in his act.
To get a sense of where your world view came from, let’s start at the beginning. You were born in India and raised in Africa, right?
You want the whole interview to be in Hindi, right?
That’s going to be hard for me to transcribe.
[laughs] I was born in India. I come from a government servant family. My family is largely diplomats, if you will. My dad went to one of the most prestigious colleges in Delhi. Everyone was expecting him to become a government servant, but he decided, “No I’m going to do agriculture in Africa.” I moved to Nigeria when I was nine months old. I lived in Africa for the first 17 years of my life, but there weren’t that many good schools in Nigeria at the time. So when I was eight I got sent to a boarding school in India. That’s where my kind of dual nationality perspective started. I spent seven or eight months a year in a boarding school in India and then four or five months a year in Africa with my family. I did a year of university in Delhi studying political science. I heard about a college called Knox College in Illinois…took the SATs and fucked it up, but I wrote a really good admission essay, so that’s how I ended up in Galesburg, Illinois.
So now you’re in Illinois and you start comedy, but in a non-conventional way. Most people start by going to open mics and building up that way, but you started out doing an hour at a show that you booked yourself. How did that happen?
I was into George Carlin, listened to Pryor albums, watched Raw and Delirious. I was a fan to begin with, but I was in this very serious Stanislavskian theater program that was just four years of sitting in a circle, holding hands, and crying. I had a drama teacher saying things like, “No, emote with your shoulders!” You have a thesis performance at the end of the four years. I wanted to do a standup comedy show because that’s where I could be free. It’s not Shakespeare or Chekhov. I ended up writing a show called Brown Men Can’t Hump. The first time I did standup it was for 700 people and I did about 75-80 minutes, which I must say is the biggest disservice you can do yourself.
I basically told inside stories to 700 of my friends. It wasn’t really standup comedy at all. The only thing I did take from it was that it was one of those late-night decisions where I said, “Fuck it. I’m going to do this.” So I printed the posters late at night, booked the auditorium the next day, and put the posters up all over college. I gave myself a month-and-a-half to write 75 minutes, which is a stupid thing to do. But that culture kind of stayed with me. Even now if I’m writing a new special I’ll print the poster, put it up on social media, and book the stadium. Everything kind of works backwards from that stadium date because I know that I have to force myself to write it, hone it enough, and tour it enough to get the material right.
Your main goal was always to be an actor though?
Absolutely. That was the thing I began with. Even today it’s a daily fight. I’m essentially an actor from my beginnings, but there’s nothing like standup comedy. Some days I feel like I’m an actor who met the love of their life too late. I just ran into standup comedy on the street corner too late.
How did you eventually end up becoming one of the biggest standup comedians in India?
It was a convergence of three things. I did News on the Loose on CNBC, but I was 28, bored, and feeling artistically challenged, so I quit my job and wrote my first public show called Walking on Broken Das. It was a 90-minute show. I put it in one of Bombay’s biggest theaters, like a 2000-seater. It ended up becoming a tour that sold 14,000 – 15,000 tickets over a year. So it took a while, but then the movies started to happen. It was a convergence of that tour, one movie coming out, and getting cast in two really buzzworthy movies. Then I wrote a show called History of India. I had been watching a lot of Eddie Izzard. I was heavily influenced by him and Monty Python. It was a show that married standup comedy, theatricality, and multimedia. To date it’s the largest selling English [language] show in India. That’s kind of what took everything over the top. It wasn’t just comedy fans, because it was a big, patriotic show. It was very relatable.
What was your goal in creating Abroad Understanding?
I’m at a place where I want to be one of the big comedians on the world circuit. I feel like there’s a genuine place in the world market – and in the American market – for an authentic Indian comedy voice. That’s why I wrote the show for both audiences. We shot the special in two places: a huge stadium in New Delhi that holds 11,000 people and then just a basement in New York City. It intercuts back and forth between 11,000 Indians and 200 Americans who have never heard of me before.
You have performed all over the world and one of your takeaways has been that everybody is the same and the comedy is comedy everywhere. How do you pull off connecting with such a diverse array of audiences?
It’s finding that middle ground. There are comedians who are like, “This is my act and I do it for myself. I don’t give a shit whether you get it or not.” I’m not one of those guys. But I’m also not a guy who completely panders to what the audience wants to hear. I’m not playing to the gallery. My act is an unapologetically Indian act, but I think it’s pretty universal. When I walk into an American club I say, “Look, I talk like this. This is my Indian accent. It’s not a bit. I’m not doing an Apu from The Simpsons routine. There are no Kwik-E-Mart or IT jokes coming up. Tonight an Indian accent will be a perspective and not a punchline.” I think if I preface the show with that, no matter what their nationality is, they’re willing to listen. They’re like, “Okay, this guy’s different. We’re going to listen.”