Vir Das is a name that needs no introduction. The comedian also dons the hats of writer, musician, and actor with like Delhi Belly (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013), and he is, perhaps, in the hottest phases of his life. He has opened for Conan on TBS, and has been on Netflix and Amazon Prime as well. In an exclusive interview with Man’s World, Vir speaks about how he takes the path of truth with his comedy, his process of writing, and more. Excerpts:
From Bollywood to stand-up, how did it all happen?
That’s not the order in which it happened! I was kind of a stand-up comedian who wandered into Bollywood, and then now continues to do both in that sense. That’s really how it just came about.
I’ve been super comfortable on the stage since I was about 5 years old. So, my parents were like, ‘Let’s just keep pushing him in that direction.” So, I went to drama school, learned how to act, and then wound up in comedy clubs, and then came down to India and started doing stand-ups when there wasn’t much of a scene. And then because there wasn’t much of a scene, I wanted to fill up that time, so I started acting again as well. So now I get to do a healthy mix of both. So essentially, that is an extremely inarticulate way of putting all of it.
How difficult is it to write comedy?
It’s not really that difficult. You just have to look around and lean into who you are and how you feel about the world. I wake up at 7am every day and my rule is that I will do about 2 hours of writing in a given day. So, whether it’s stand-up or music or anything I am producing, I go into a room from 7:00-9:30 am and just write jokes. And this is without brushing my teeth, taking a dump, eating anything; no coffee or anything. Just roll out of the bed, get a laptop and go into a room. Then once that’s done, I re-write, almost like regurgitating on a page. I come out with like 7 pages in two hours and then you kind of get on to your feet with it. So, I’ll start roaming around in the house with a hairbrush or a can of deodorant in my hand, pretending it’s a microphone and those 7 pages will literally become 1 page. I’ll throw 6 pages out and I’ll take that 1 page and go to the comedy club that evening and try it out, and that ends up being the first 3-4 minutes of exposure of that to an audience. And then that’ll change significantly on stage and you can keep doing and rewriting until you’re finally ready to take it to the arena. So, I do that with multiple, multiple, multiple chunks until I have a final hour-and-a-half worth of chunks and then I structure them together.
One would assume experience makes it easier. However, there might also be the challenge to differ from your previous work. Where do you stand on this?
I’m 14 years in, and most people and comedians that I tend to lionise, like Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Johnny Lever – they really got good when they were 20 years in. That’s really when you find a voice as a stand-up. There is wisdom, experience, and craft all on the table. For me, I am just okay with the knowledge that I will not be the comedian next year that I am this year. I am just evolving and maybe as you get older, maybe you get funnier and maybe you don’t but you tend to fall on the page. You tend to access yourself a lot easier. So, you start leaning into that voice.
For me, I am just competing with what I did last. So, I tend to think of my stand-up comedy specials as different pieces of cinema and try to keep them different from each other. I always wanted to be the comedian where you can watch all of my 3 Netflix specials back-to-back and it would feel like a different theme and different experiences. So, in that sense I am just thinking, “Is this similar to anything I have done before? Yes? Then let’s not do it.”
Comedians usually exaggerate to be funny. But if pushed, it can turn forced. Where do you draw the line?
I don’t draw the line and I don’t know where the line is. The line is none of my business, it’s your business as an audience member. My job is to throw shit at the wall and exaggerate it and keep pushing the envelope. And when I find the line, you, the audience, will let me know that’s the line, then we can decide that we want to walk it together or we don’t want to walk it. But I am yet to think of where the line is and I think most artists that do, don’t end up evolving too much.
You have taken stand-up comedy to Patiala, Kumarakom, and more. Do you think stand-up comedy will find a substantial audience in rural parts of India as well?
I think it does already, but I think that it’s in Hindi and in regional languages, it’s gigantic! If you don’t count English, I think we probably have one of the biggest stand-up comedy scenes in the world. We’re a reasonably small English stand-up comedy scene, but have gigantic Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, southern languages, stand-up comedy scenes, in terms of numbers and people consuming it. On smartphones even in the most rural parts of India. I definitely think there is a space for it.
I think even with English it’s growing. On this tour that I am on right now, we are doing about 40 cities. I am in Pune today but I am in Nagpur tomorrow. I am going to Vapi, Shillong. These are not rural places but they were certainly not on the stand-up map which was like 8 citiesm 5 years ago. So, it’s certainly grown.
Battle of da sexes, Two Indias, Vir Das: For India, Inside Out, Vir Das Losing It… You have made us laugh hard and realise things harder. How was the journey to get here and did you face the fear of being written off?
Every. Day. Between 8 am and 10 pm, I will be celebrated, written off, criticised, abandoned, embraced, and cheered. So that’s just kind of how it goes, but you have to dial out the noise. I showed up in Mumbai with a suitcase and 10,000 bucks that took me three years to save. I’m not that tall, have 0 contacts, and by all accounts, an average-looking bloke. So, the fact that I get to star in projects, create OTT shows, do stand-up, and travel to 33 countries… it’s really just some sort of a gigantic blessing. So, you don’t overthink that or listen to the noise, you just remember to keep grateful.
Tell us something about your association with the SleepyCat.
It’s cool! I love the name. I always go name first and SleepyCat pretty much rolls off the tongue really well for the brand. It is also the easiest ad I have ever shot in my life. I just lay down on a mattress and went to sleep and people shot it. When I woke up, an ad was done. They’re legit very comfortable mattresses. You’ll be surprised to hear that I am currently endorsing 7 things, but I actually use all seven of those things. I take the products home with me, like them, and use them. I am also attracted to brands for whom the context of the brand isn’t fully set yet. They’re always open to more experimentation.
3 traits unique of your personality...
I think this is something somebody else should answer.
I’m an Introvert for the most part, and very boring off stage. So, a huge disappointment in real life because I am living in my own head. I am extremely hard on myself, and there’s a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. And in 24 hours of my day, there is music in my ears for possibly 16 of those hours. So, I am always listening to music. It drives my life.
The best high and worst low so far?
They’re both within the same show. I get on stage and do 90 minutes of comedy and in there is the best high, and somewhere there is the worst low. I am tremendously lucky to not have had many lows.
Is it easy to be a stand-up and be honest without inviting backlash from top authorities and the public? Does that bother you?
None of it is easy. It is extremely hard, but it’s power for the cause. If you’re going to go out there and take the freedom to make fun of anyone and everyone, then you have to know what comes with that and give the other side an opportunity to respond within the limits of common sense, safety, and the law. So, none of it is easy but does it bother me? No. I am doing what I am supposed to do and that is to speak the truth.
Acting Vs Comedy? Which is tougher and which one do you enjoy more?
I think they both have to be a healthy part of my year. It’s been weird for me during the pandemic because I shot four projects in the last two years. I spent the pandemic in front of the camera and I hadn’t toured in 2 and half years and now suddenly I am doing this 32 countries world tour.
Usually, I would shoot for a project in a year and then I would tour for 5 months in a year. And that kept me sane. There wasn’t too much time being pampered on a film set and talking about intermittent fasting and protein shakes, and it wasn’t too much time in just hotels and random airports and being in sweaty theatres. So, to me, the perfect mix of the year is one maybe two acting projects and then 5-6 months of touring. They both feed different sides of your brain.
Acting is collaborative; you’re committing to somebody else’s vision which is the director and the producers’. Stand-up is entirely solo and you’re committing to your own vision.
Acting is a lot of support, where many people make you look good and make you amazing. Stand-up is just you. In stand-up, the feedback is instant. You know within a millisecond if the joke has worked or not. With acting you have to wait for 9 months for the movie to come out to know whether it has worked or not. So it takes a while.
When can we expect Go Goa Gone 2?
I would get in touch with the producers of Go-Goa-Gone for this. I know for a fact that they are working on a script and that all of us are in. But I think that’s their decision. I have just shot four projects, Khemu is on one of the best runs of his career, Anand is a flagship director right now; Raj and DK, I couldn’t have been happier for them. So, touchwood, I’m just happy that everyone on that film is doing well.
Delhi Belly is completing 11 years. Tell us your memories from the film. How was it working with Imran Khan?
He’s great, I still maintain he is possibly the nicest and most intelligent man in the industry. We were all kids when we got into that movie. Me, Imran and Kunal shared a vanity van for eight months of our life, so we have kind of been in battle together. It is always a privilege where someone like Aamir enables people to make a project with an exactly creative soul that they had in their mind when they wrote it. And it isn’t the thing that often happens. When you write something with such a pure thing in mind and make it with that purity, no matter who gets involved at a larger level. I think Aamir enables stuff like that to happen.
I just got done starring and directing a show that I also co-wrote. We’re editing the final episode and I think that’ll come out soon. Starring in a show with Fox and CBS that I also wrote, called Country Eastern. It’s developing right now. I will be doing rom-com in the West may be mid-next year, and then I’ll do a Bollywood movie end of next year. And in the meanwhile, there is this 32-country world tour.