ENTERTAINMENT
16/02/2020 7:49 AM IST

Vir Das On Comedy Emerging As A Form Of Dissent And What It Takes To Land Three Netflix Specials

The actor-comedian talks about his latest Netflix special, weaponizing nostalgia for laughs and what it takes to write a 'really funny joke'

Raymond Liu via Getty Images

By the time you read this, Vir Das, arguably one of the most successful Indian comics, would perhaps be in Cambridge, touring his next comedy special, simply called ‘Loved.’ From Cambridge, he moves to Vancouver, Aspen, San Francisco and Arlington, Texas with fresh material that’d probably arrive on our streaming screens next year. 

Das, 40, started off at a time when the conventional idea of stand-up comedy was still watching Raju Shrivastav and Sunil Grover on television. The cool new vocation came of age only a few years ago and Das is credited as one of the early pioneers of comedy as we now understand it. 

A few weeks ago, Netflix dropped ‘For India,’ Das’s third comedy special with the streaming giant. “Think about something interesting because there’s only 6 or 7 comics in the world who have 3 Netflix specials,” a Netflix executive told the Dehradun-born comedian over the phone. 

“That was a pretty daunting statement for me. I googled them and thought if I was in the room with any of the other 5 or 6 people, I’d fanboy my ass off,” Das said, over a cup of coffee at a Bandra restaurant.

Over the next one hour, the comedian spoke about balancing social commentary with jokes, why dissenting at this point matters and, Mastizaade, of course.

What’s the reaction that you’ve received so far on your Netflix special?

This went out to a lot of people who are not my audience. They’re watching a lot of things on Netflix and until this special, I wasn’t one of the things they’d watch. I don’t get very good reviews very often and I’m sure you’re aware of that (Laughs). So receiving so many good reviews on this one is strange. I’ve done this twice before. The touring, the shooting, shit can consume your mind. It can give you serious anxiety. 

Anxiety before you’ve put it out or while you’re still travelling with it?

It takes 9 months to do these specials. It takes 3 months of writing, 4-5 months of touring and so on. This one I directed as well. Once it’s out, it’s out. On a Netflix show, the promotion really starts on the day it comes out. It’s not like a film where you create an early buzz. In the last 3 years, I’ve found a love-hate relationship with social media. Like, this whole thing isn’t making me feel better about myself even though it’s largely been complimentary.

Why do you think that is?

I feel like it’s a hit of dopamine that you get used to. That’s really what social media is, it’s dopamine right? Somebody likes your shit and *ting* your brain fires up some dopamine. And then you start to get a little bit low when you’re not catching that dopamine anymore. This is dangerous.

When a Netflix special comes out, you do it and you refresh and it’s just hundreds of tweets praising and trashing you so I don’t go through them anymore. I have nice people in the office who take select tweets and quote them and say thank you.

Last special I was like “Thank you so much!” and in this one I was like ”🙂 Namaste.” You can’t be wrong with a smiley face namaste.

Does Netflix share numbers or data with you?

No, they don’t.

How do you get perspective on what’s worked, what’s not?

I think you get a phone call and you get another special at some point (Laughs).

In terms of what you’ve done previously, this is more risky and more political which coincides with how shitty the conditions are getting in the country. At a time where news channels have totally failed us, newspapers also seem pro establishment, comedy has emerged as a raging voice of dissent.

Don’t put that on us because then you take away my freedom to be silly.  When you’re feeling something strongly, it’s easier for you to access it and let it out onto the page. 

Whether it’s good or not is for you guys to decide. For this one, I was just feeling really strongly about what was going on. I can start to write any joke but if Narendra Modi is floating around somewhere inside, which he is, he finds his way on the page. 

I had tried to stay away from Modi but then I saw a John Mulaney bit talking about Trump. To most comedians in the world and India as well, the Trump joke or the Modi joke is the easiest one because you know you’re going to get a laugh on the basis of political beliefs. Not on the basis of the joke itself. So we do it, like, 5 times in the show when we need a big laugh. 

I saw John Mulaney do a bit about Trump and comedians in the US don’t usually do Trump jokes on Netflix specials. It’s past its expiry date and sometimes it’s not even funny. But his bit was about comparing Trump to a horse in a hospital. I was watching it and thought that fuck that’s fantastic because it makes such a strong political point but irrespective of my political beliefs, I could be laughing at that shit. 

If you took Trump out, that was a great comedy bit. Then I was like can I try and do something like this? Can I bring a left winger and a right winger into the premise of a joke and then make my point? 

Explain to me the anatomy of a joke. Does it come to you in the middle of nowhere?

So I told Netflix I would do this show in April. They had offered it to me in January. I asked them to give me a few months to figure out what the show would be about. I went in very arrogantly thinking I’d sketch out this universal idea about India but two weeks into the writing process I was like I’m fucked because there is no universal idea about India. Then you kinda go, okay, maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the show. That there is no one of us, there’s 1.3 billion ideas of us. But then, the big question you have as an artist and somebody who has a healthy dose of imposter syndrome in their daily basis is how do I pack in all of this? So, then I took over the Cuckoo and I said give me the club for a month and in the month I did 49 secret shows. It was for my personal database. It cost 200 bucks and no cell phones were allowed. I did 2 shows a day and I’d write material that I had written before and I’d write about Amar Akbar Anthony or the chudail because then I wanted to talk about these two things. I do 40 minutes of material and then I just talk to people for an hour. I’d ask them like, what’s your movie? What’s your tragedy?

And what did you find out?

So then I figured out that millennials don’t have a Dil Chahta Hai. I couldn’t find one, I really tried. I asked if it’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. All of them were like Dil Chahta Hai. 

So you tapped into the broader subject and then worked your way into the specifics.

It’s different when you’re talking about a joke and a special. I started recognising the difference. A live set is a live set. Your job in a live set is to kill hard and fuck off. Stand-up special is a piece of cinema and you have to start thinking about that. There are dynamics to it. The current one is dense. There’s a laugh every 8 or 9 seconds. It’s dense because it’s 4 items per category. Let’s say one thing didn’t work, I can’t just cut it out of the show because I can’t break the format. I couldn’t cut out Taj Mahal or Nirbhaya from the show because I committed that there will be 4 things so then I had to write so many jokes about the Taj Mahal so that I’d get at least 5 jokes right in the final cut.

So wait, the original show was much, much longer?

Yes, I did a 2 hour show. It’s just bam bam bam… Then you’re just trying to fit a lot of jokes in a very short amount of time per category. You then get into the economy of words which I’ve never tapped into before as a comedian. So how can I tell these jokes in the least possible words that can make people laugh? The answer lies in rewriting. That’s what Seinfeld and others do so well. I just realised that I’d never done it so far. This will sound flaky but when you get. ajoke right, it starts to feel like music, at least in my head. 

I’ve a silly question. How do you all memorise all that stuff? Or is there a secret teleprompter?

Listen, you’re an idiot if you are shooting your stand-up special without having done at least 80 or 90 live performances. You need to work this shit before you shoot it. You need to see if it works or it doesn’t. For this one, we did 49 shows. We did Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Kolkata. We did London, New York and then we shot it.

How much of it gets improvised?

Maybe not what you’re saying but how you’re saying it definitely changes according to the energy of the room.

Tell me about the conversation you had with your wife when you decided to go into topics considered ‘risky’

I think Shivani (his wife) sees it pretty early. She’s been at the venue so she kinda knows what I am up to We’ve had two conversations about this. I’ve definitely had a conversation with her where I said, “If anything happens, head to our parents’ house and take Watson with you.”

When I do a joke, I’m scared of repercussions. I’m scared for my wife and my pet. I’m not an alpha comic. But I’m more scared that the joke is not funny than any of those things. That’s much more terrifying. I’m not going to pretend to be some ballsy mofo, like I’ll say what I want to and not worry about it. I will say what I want to and I will worry about it. But when we were talking about it, I was very clear that this show is a tribute and a celebration. No matter what I did I had to maintain that line. I think of this show like, if you have a kid, which I don’t but I have nephews, you know how they draw their mom and dad with crayons and they come home and be like this is for you? Now usually, it’s terrible. It’s always terrible. But the parents put it up on the fridge because the intention behind that is how they see them. That’s kinda what the show is for me. I’m sure it’s terrible to a lot of people but the intention is this, and I’m trying to put our culture out there. So put me on your fridge. Hopefully if I keep that, it’ll be okay.

What do you think is the contribution of art at this moment in time?

Art will dictate how this moment is remembered. Nobody is going to remember who the Chief Minister of Delhi in 20 years, they’ll remember kagaz nahi dikhayenge (we won’t show our documents). I do a joke where I say Vivek Oberoi’s Narendra Modi will last longer than Narendra Modi (Laughs).

It’s our job to buckle down and create art that outlives. India is bigger than this India. We have to create art that outlives this India. I’m clear about the fact that it has to be through art. You have to use your medium, whatever it is.

And what do you do when the propaganda, which has the backing of State apparatus, is significantly more robust?

One could argue that it’s stronger. So we gotta keep on plugging. How long will they fool people? If you watch a magician do a trick a thousand times, no matter how good he is, you’re going to get the trick at some point. I feel like that’s what this government does, it’s very good at misdirection. It’s a magician. Hey, let’s say something outrageous on Twitter today so you all focus on that and then let’s pass this law. Let’s disguise this piece of economic data etc etc. I feel like we’re starting to see how the trick is done.

I am as much a part of the tukde tukde gang as Swara or Kamra or Kashyap. I remember when IT cell trolls first descended. We were all like what the hell is going on? And now it’s a joke. I think we are also starting to be conscious of how much privilege we have. This government has very little repercussions for you and me and very large ones for other people who don’t have the privilege we do. At least I’m starting to feel that. I’m like, oh you got trolled on Twitter today? Boo. Fucking deal with it and write a fucking joke you know.

Christopher Smith/Invision/AP
In this Monday, April 29, 2019 photo, Vir Das poses for a portrait in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

How do you tailor your writing? Does it change with a new demographic?

No, strangely enough. You have to be authentic and bring in your personal narrative. I feel like the second generation of Indian Americans is fairly well represented. They’ve got Hasan, Aziz, Russell Peters, all these characters. So when I go there I have to bring in an authentic story, like can I take you to India? And they enjoy that from a guy like me. Because you and me, if we would be watching Bill Burr, and if he’s talking about Tennessee and you’re going there with him aren’t you?

But don’t you need a lot of lived experiences which you can mine for, sorry for using the word, but content?

Instead of circling around the same sort of vibe? Hell yeah! I call it scening. Where I get lost in a scene, like the comedy scene or the acting scene. The minute I feel like that’s all I’m talking about with people I just feel like I need to get out and do other shit man.

Like what?

I’ll give you an example. I did an ABC show called Whisky Cavalier. We shot in Prague for 5 months. This is like a spy show with tailor-made suits and weapons etc. So a lot of focus on fitness right. I was kinda living in Prague for that long in minus 20 degrees temperature and at some point I kind of sat back. I love actors and I love being one of them, but can I spend all day talking about protein shakes and intermittent fasting? In a basement of a youth hostel called the ‘Check In’ on a Tuesday, I discover a stand-up comedy gig and I just went in. Ugly insecure people like me? I had found my brethren! We took that Tuesday evening and we turned it into 4 nights a week. I would literally be a CIA guy during the day and then for 20 druggie hippies from all over the world, I’d do stand up every night so I could get out of the acting world.

I would personally want to know about your experience with Mastizaade, an underrated gem.

There’s a life experience that paid off eventually, did’t it?

How do you feel about that today? It’s not a self aware meta movie, it’s genuinely a bad film

But it’s one of the things I talked about and I went after myself in one of my specials. I kind of put it to bed then. But all these people (who acted in the film) are friends and all of them saw the special and we got together and they thought it was funny as hell. We just have that with each other for the rest of our lives. We promised one another: let’s never do that again. We were all persona non-grata after that film for a while.

Why did you do it?

It was a mixture of, “I like these people”, “I want to reach out to this audience” and “this is a lot of money.” The script did not figure any of these decisions (Laughs).

You live, you learn.

I’m still not at a point where I have enough clout or experience or creativity to really dictate the content that I’m a part of. You got to do some for them and some for you. I’m not all for me. So now I’ve figured out that acting wise, if you were going to come and see me do a romcom and it was just me trying to play a fuckboy or a chocolate boy, there’s better looking people who are also better actors, better built and better trained, basically better at everything than me to do that. I kinda figured out that stop playing that game because you’re never going to win. So now I am trying to mix it up a little bit.

About the special, the ending was kind of over the top?

I didn’t have an ending for the show. So my Nani and the biscuit tale of the show is from my childhood in Patna. And you are right, I felt like that ending would be too filmy, it’s a bit Bollywood, I was very torn up if I wanted to end it that way. The compromise I made with myself is I’m going to cut it just when the biscuit drops (Laughs). Now usually when you get a standing ovation you try to capture it from every direction. You milk that shit as long as you can before you get to the end credits. Here we didn’t do that.

Your next show is about love.

It’s doing well internationally because it’s very relatable. We’ve done 19 countries and we’ve got 20 more to go this year. I went to Athens this year. There are no Indians there at all. We had got 500 people in Athens and I would say about 460 of them had seen the Netflix special. We did Trondheim in Norway which was 42 people. I happened to be in Oslo, there was a big show there. They said come and do Trondheim and I agreed. It happened to be the best show of the tour.

Are a lot of these Indians?

No, they’re just locals who don’t even know comedians. They see a comedy evening happening and they check it out. But you’ll learn more from those shows. You get your ass kicked. There’s nothing better than getting your ass kicked by a crowd. You remove the Indian safety net. In “For India’ there’s still a cushion of patriotism and there’s sentimentality. It’s a cushion that you can’t ignore and you can’t construct it either, it’s just going to be there. The minute I say India, you feel a certain way and I can’t control what you feel. The minute I say Parle-G or Nirbhaya, you feel a certain way. I can’t construct or reverse engineer that experience. Now if I take you into unknown territory, you’re probably not going to have a preset emotion about what I’m talking about. That safety net will be gone.

I felt the advantage you had here was also what’s increasingly becoming popular as a trope: weaponizing nostalgia which unfailingly works.

I think so too but on the nostalgia point, let’s say 6 years from now, this government is gone and we’re all happy again. We’re chill, life’s good, gay marriage is legalised, maybe we’ve legalised cannabis as well, maybe women feel safer etc. Will my show still be watchable? As an artist you get one shot to put your culture out and that’s a big opportunity. So I thought let me put my culture out there for a long period of time on platforms before the robots kick in or whatever. I didn’t want it to be negative.

You mean like subverting patriotism by taking the power away from those you claim to be wielding it?

Yes. I’m saying that Amar Akbar Anthony outlives Narendra Modi. Parle-G is more Indian than Amit Shah. So why are they not in my show? At some level they get to set the narrative of what India is. Why shouldn’t we set the narrative for my India? You’re not worth being in my 60 minutes of Netflix special. I’ve only got 60 minutes and I don’t want you to be what I spoke about throughout.

Hmm, the director Todd Phillips said it’s become impossible to make films like ‘The Hangover’ series because someone or some community will be offended, what do you think about that?

The punch up is very relative as well. It’s something that we throw around saying punch up but then my up is different from yours right. This might come across as irresponsible but if you’re offended, so? I’m offended by potholes on the road and the fact that my parents can’t breathe in Delhi, you look at me and say, so? There’s very little being done about those things as well. Now I didn’t come into this with the intention to offend. I just made a joke and offence is taken, it’s never given. You took it and hopefully there’s 10 other jokes that you’re not offended by or you’ll move on to another comedian but at some level I’d argue, so what if you’re offended? It’s your own moral compass.

It’s also about who gets to tell those jokes, who has ownership of certain stories specific to the experiences.

I think so. It’s on you to read enough and evolve enough and form your own moral compass. Mine isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it needs to be. Hopefully it gets better every year. There are parts of Chapel’s comedy that are very problematic. I’m not on board with everything he says but I recognize that that’s okay, for me to not be on board. The purpose of comedy is so that we can disagree with each other and laugh about different things under the same roof.

As long as you also critique it.

Absolutely.

Like I’d rip apart a Kabir Singh and caution people against watching it but I would still defend its right to be released

Exactly my point. Trust your audience. The audience will smack you if you cross a line. There’s nothing that anybody can say about me that parallels a silence from an audience or an inverse reaction from an audience. That’s the biggest teacher that you have. And Ankur, I’m always a step away from being tone deaf and trust me, every comedian is. I always advocate that at some level don’t put a medal on us, don’t put ‘speak truth to power’ on us because forget me, think about a comic who’s two years old into the scene, that girl or boy has the right to be tone deaf. You have to give us freedom to fumble upon these things. Otherwise you’ll be written off year one or two in the current ecosystem. We’re just fucking around man, we’re throwing poop at a wall. Some of it will stick and some of it won’t.