Stand-up comedy favourite Vir Das talks about his new show and the circumstances that led him to comedy
In some ways, Vir Das thinks it’s unlucky that his first-ever comedy show, Brown Men Can’t Hump, was a roaring success. The show was created as a thesis performance for his theatre course in Knox University, Illinois. The now-established comedian did it because he was sick of the “serious” theatre: he’d had an overdose of Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller and Anton Chekov. Vir booked a theatre, and wrote a 90-minute programme.
“It was 88 minutes of cussing,” he recalled at an interview recently, “and maybe two minutes of jokes.”
Nevertheless, the audience – comprised of 800 friends of his, he says – loved the show, and Vir left stage feeling like “hot stuff”. Six months later, he was in Chicago working as a dishwasher, getting booed off successive amateur stand-up comedy nights.
“It's very dangerous to begin with so much time,” he said, of his first show. “You won't know if you're any good or not.”
Playing roles in Death Of A Salesman, Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Neil Simon’s Prisoners Of Second Avenue – all within 12 months – pushed Vir to comedy. “I was like, yaar, I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “I’d been listening to Bill Cosby and George Carlin a lot, so decided to write some comedy.”
In the nine years since Vir returned to India, he’s done television shows and several live shows, and has begun stepping into films (such as Delhi Belly). There are eight other films on the way, he said. He’s also seen audiences grow used to his style of comedy. While earlier his shock value was too high, he says, “now, half the audience is coming in expecting edgy material; the other half is used to it.”
When he’s writing material for his shows, he begins with what he calls “passive research”: sitting around, observing, letting things simmer. Then he writes – he doesn’t agonise over lines, but just puts stuff on paper, he said, about nine pages at a time. That’s followed by performing it in his room (with a can of deodorant substituting for the mike), when he realises what works and what doesn’t.
As someone whose first show was called Brown Men Can’t Hump, Vir doesn’t think race is particularly central to comedy – his, at least. He thinks American-Indian comedians rely on race for their comedic material a lot more, and for a simple reason: familiarity. “It’s important for the same reason an IIFA works abroad - the audience is looking for a personalised connect.”
Growing up, Vir wasn’t the funny guy or the class clown. He thinks that isn’t where the comedian comes from: instead, comedy comes from standing back and observing. “The guy who takes the pants off and moons everybody,” he illustrates, “isn't the comedian”. It’s the guy who convinced him to do that for five rupees, he says.
At 14, Vir got into dumb charades in school, and began to love being on stage. Debating, dramatics and model UN competitions followed. “It’s still the one area I'm most comfortable.”
Currently, he is working on a series called The History Of India, Vir-itten – a production of theatreperson Ashwin Gidwani. The show is not quite stand-up comedy: “it’s a marriage of theatre and stand-up,” Vir explains.
For him, the show is significant because he gets to move away from being a comedian who only does “vulgar jokes” (and what he repeatedly characterises as “edgy material”). Episodes begin from a historical fact, and then balloon into exaggerations and comedy. For instance, one episode is set on the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri. “It was just a door. But what was Akbar smoking/drinking/thinking when he decided to just build a door?” Vir has written this into a conversation between the architect Salim and a stoned Akbar.
With a subject as sensitive as the nation’s history, is he worried he’s courting trouble? “I think a lot of it is so ridiculous that people don't know whether to get pissed off or not,” he says. He spent a good year-and-a-half doing research for the show - beginning from school textbooks, and proceeding to Manorama Yearbooks and even Khushwant Singh. He is hopeful he’s covered all his bases. “The show does parody everything, and does talk about our bad decisions and mistakes. But it ends on a positive note.”