Vir Das has always been a comedy pioneer in India. When he arrived in the country in 2003, Das discovered that unlike in America, where he went to college, there was no open mic circuit culture here. So he helped create one. His company Weirdass Productions and the open mic it launched, Ham-ateur Nights with Vir Das, provided aspiring comics a platform and kick-started the careers of many notables in the industry. From Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya (who went on to create the juggernaut All India Bakchod) to the likes of Sanjay Manaktala, Sandeep Rao and Praveen Kumar in Bengaluru, several comics built their initial sets at Ham-ateur Nights.
But making it big locally was not enough. Das has loftier ambitions: “I want to be an authentic Indian voice on the mainstream world circuit.” And he could well be on his way of realising his dream.
Last year, the trade magazine Variety named him one of their 10 hottest comics to watch out for, alongside familiar faces like Hasan Minhaj and Tiffany Haddish. Das has already appeared twice on the American talk show Conan. Abroad Understanding was the first special from an Indian stand-up on Netflix, in which Das switched between live audiences in New York and New Delhi in his routine. In his latest special, Losing It, which premiered on December 11, Das performed in front of a San Francisco audience that was “as American as it was Indian”.
Losing It’s cosmopolitan appeal is apparent straight out of the gate. The show opens in the intimate and ornate Regency Ballroom, where Das appears in a kurta-suit combo and fires off an opening salvo about Indians in California never returning home. It plays well to an audience that has likely driven up from nearby Indian strongholds such as Cupertino, Gilroy and Milpitas. This gentle ribbing sets the tone for the rest of the special – Das comments on social issues in between reminiscing about childhood hijinks, all the while remaining completely inoffensive.
Even touchy issues like creating a super religion and female sexuality are treated with kid gloves. It isn’t the call to arms that recent international stand-up comedy specials like Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette and Daniel Sloss’s Jigsaw may have popularised. But Das is aware of the work writing something like that would take. “I certainly haven’t written it yet, but the perfect show meanders between things you want to say and what the audience wants to hear,” he said. “If you say too much of what you want to say, you’re indulgent, and if you say too much of what they want to hear, you’re pandering. You have to go back and forth. But the pace of this back and forth is determined by the audience and their energy, more than the comedian. When you put yourself out there – and you really put yourself out there – maybe you earn a little bit of leeway in terms of saying things about society with an edge as well.”
Losing It might not be the counterculture comedy darling, but it is the next logical step for Das. Unlike his earlier special, which he saw as a chance to introduce himself to the world, his new work delves into childhood anecdotes and his perspective on cultural issues to a more international audience. Das toured Losing It across 33 countries over the course of a year before filming it. “On my world tour, I discovered that non-Indians respond to the same things that Indians do, whether you’re talking about Delhi Public School or a movie you were in – they are curious about this new perspective,” said Das. “But doing [this special] abroad is a little bit more challenging than doing it in both places [like I did in Abroad Understanding].”
For Das, this internationalisation is merely a byproduct of his background. “I wasn’t just raised in India,” he said. “I went to college in America. But I also went to Delhi Public School. I lived in Mumbai. By virtue of who I am, the perspective is a little bit more international. How I grew up feeds into my writing.” His third cultural experience as a child – Das lived in Lagos in Nigeria for the first nine years of his life before heading to boarding school in India – is reflected in Losing It.
In the show he weaves his way between nostalgic anecdotes that the Indian diaspora is eager to recall, to commentary on the societal issues that dominate local headlines. A largely Indian-American audience responds well to this blend of middle-class modernization, coupled with references to the Ramayana as the greatest story ever told. It reaffirms how they view themselves – as people with a historical and cultural tradition, but fitting into the (apparent) modernity of the Western world.
Being accepted by international audiences is the benchmark for making it for most Indian entertainers. Comedy is no different. But it is not an easy journey. Not necessarily because the bar is higher – hacks abound across nations – but rather the current Indian comedy scene is still relatively nascent. Indian comics rely heavily on local language punchlines and on cultural references that are not easily translated. They are inexperienced when competing with Western comics, who have been hitting open mics for over a decade before having a bit of theirs go viral on YouTube.
Das says social media virality is not something he has experienced. Instead, he is following in the footsteps of veteran international comics who performed relentlessly at open mics in order to tighten their material. “I’m doing it old school. I’m hitting the road and working clubs across America, even in places that don’t have a lot of Indians like some Denver suburb in Colorado. I’m trapezing without a safety net.”
In February 2019, Das will be making his American television debut on Whiskey Cavalier, a crime procedural drama premiering on ABC, the same network that gave his fellow Indian, Priyanka Chopra, her big break on foreign shores. It might seem like starting from scratch for a professional who has starred in multiple films back home, and who was instrumental in establishing a growing Indian entertainment industry. But it is clear that Das does not seem to mind the wait or the work required to make a mark on the mainstream international comedy circuit. And if this crossover comic’s previous track record is anything to go by, in the course of making it in America, he’s likely to once more pave the path for those who come after.