Coming to America: A conversation with India’s comedy superstar Vir Das

By Bryan Archilla 

July 7, 2016

Vir Das is one of the most recognizable names in India’s entertainment industry. He made his debut into the Bollywood industry in 2006 with the film Badmash Compa and since then has been in over ten films. Most people would recognize him from the film Dheli Belly, known in India as a cult film.

Das first debuted his stand-up career comedy at the Knox Harbach Theatre with his show Brown Men Can’t Hump, and then moved on to win the Colton Performance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting from Knox. In 2003 he brought his comedy to India and since then has sold out six shows and started his own comedy festival called Weirdass Pajama Festival, which he curates and produces.

Das also started the first Indian comedy rock band, Alien Chutney, making him a comedic trifecta. The band tours across India performing original comedy songs, political commentaries, and parodies on pop culture backed by some tasty jams.

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Courtesy of Vir Das

Following his success in India, Das brought his observational brand of comedy back to America, resulting in two sold-out tours through North America. Now he’s bringing his show Unbelievable and its intelligent high-energy performance, the highest selling comedy tour in India, to the Queen City.

It’s taken Das a lot of work and sleepless nights to get to where he is and it’s exciting to get a new perspective in Charlotte’s growing comedy scene, as well to get a foreign comedy act where the foreign is not the punchline. We had the pleasure to have a chat with him and ask him a couple of questions.

CLTure:  How do you do so many things? Your resume is massive. Ten films, a comedy rock band, a couple of tours and, to top it off, you curate a comedy festival. How?

Vir Das: Umm, I don’t sleep a lot (chuckles), I should open with that. I have about three different management agencies that don’t sleep much either. I have an incredibly unhappy wife who doesn’t get to see me a lot. But beyond that we take the year and carve out different slices. Take two months and do stand up, then let’s take a month and just do music, take three months and just film a movie and that’s usually how we plan the entire year.

CLTure: What do you think the audience will get out of your show Unbelievable.

Vir Das: The show is a mix of dishonesty and comedy. It’s sort of a gimmick to the show but it’s a very relatable show. It covers every major touchpoint in a human being’s life. You know? Stories. The show is very very simple: I’m going to tell you 12 stories, some of them are true, some of them are false. You have to guess where I’m lying. But it covers everything from losing your virginity to getting laid, to getting arrested to doing drugs, canceling a wedding, graduating college. So it’s kind of a journey through a life.

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CLTure: You’re pretty invested in both the Indian and American comedy scene. Does your material change with the continent?

Vir Das:  It’s a little bit of tweaking but not too much to be honest with you. India’s a very early comedy market. America’s a way more developed comedy market. So I think, in terms of the audience, they know topical a lot better than an Indian crowd does. Having said that, India has a great sense of humour, too, but because I’m more of an observationalist and like a human behavior guy and I’m not really talking about religion, originality or race per se the material tends to travel pretty well.  I just feel like in India it takes a little bit of more foreplay just to get good sex but in America you can kind of head straight to the sex.

CLTure: What made you want to perform in the Queen City?

Vir Das: Well, Google to be very honest with you (laughs). Since we’re entering this new market we kind of went to Google and asked “Okay, where do most Indians live in the United States?” and we got a list of 20 cities and said “Let’s just go there.” That’s literally what I’m doing. I wish I had a deep reason for it, but I don’t. It’s Google. You guys just have a buttload of Indians and that’s the people I want to perform for so…

CLTure: Have you ever thought about using Alien Chutney as your opening act for a show?

Vir Das: Not really, simply because I feel like there is a huge difference between the stand up that I do and Alien Chutney. I’m a horrible singer. I’m really not good at all but I get away with it because I camouflage myself with really good musicians. Alien Chutney is one of those things we do because my stand up is kind of expensive, so it’s more of a thing we do so that college students can come see me as well. There’s also a nice creative license to just be vulgar, filthy and do stupid shit that comes with Alien Chutney that I don’t think I could get away with on a stand-up stage.

CLTure: Talking about Alien Chutney, is it like a chutney made from aliens, a chutney made for aliens, what the hell is going on there?

Vir Das: (laughs) Again, I wish I had a deeper reason for you, but it’s one of those things. We were thinking about what to name the band and a guy was having some kebabs and there was some chutney nearby and I wanted alien in there. So we just called it Alien Chutney. Sometimes it’s like “Yeah, it’s alien cause it’s difference but it’s still homey so it’s chutney, but that’s all bullshit. Literally two words at the same place at the same time.

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CLTure: Weirdass Pajama Fest, why’d you start your own comedy festival? And why the pajamas?

Vir Das: The Pajamas is just for thematic reasons, we have three types of shows:  Pajamas, Boxers and Briefs. The Pajamas is a huge venue, sitting 2000-4000 people, the Boxers are about 400 seats a club and the Briefs are like literally 50 or 60 seaters. And I just wanted to do the festival because, if you want to get better at tennis you have to play with people that are better than you, and there’s 80 or 85 comedians that are doing English comedy in India, who haven’t had much exposure and we wanted to get really experienced comedians down to India and start sharing the stage with them and learn from them. Last year, it was literally like the Olympics; we had teams from different countries. It was just nice to go out with myself, a Brit, an Aussie, a Singaporean, and an American and let all of us get those different perspectives of comedy.

CLTure: Most comedians cite Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison and George Carlin as major sources of inspiration. Who’s your Richard Pryor?

Vir Das: For me… Well, I’m a Carlin guy to be really honest with you and he’s been a heavy influence in my stuff. Eddie Izzard is also a huge influence in my comedy ‘cause I think it’s scientific comedy and it’s historical comedy and I really like that stuff. But for me, growing up, it was George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Izzard.

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CLTure: In your eyes, what’s the biggest difference between performance comedy and cinematic comedy? Do you have plans to step away from comedy for a bit and do more stuff like 31st October?

Vir Das: Well, the game is definitely to do a range of dramatic film as well as comedy films. Bollywood’s a hard place, it’s like being promoted in a company. You start out with one small scene in a film, and the next year it’s five scenes and the next year is an ensemble. I’m not in the ballroom yet, I’m like a V.P. of sales but I’m starting to be able to make real different choices. So I hope to do more of that (drama) in the future.  But stand up and cinema complement each other really well, you know? Stand up is about saying 500 different things in an hour and cinema is about saying the same thing over and over for five hours. Also in stand up you get instant feedback, in film you have to wait nine months to find out if you [screwed] up.

CLTure: As a comedian, what would you like to see more of in the world of entertainment?

Vir Das: It’s my vision to fill the vacancy of an authentic Indian comedy voice. Not just on the American circuit, but on the world circuit. I think the only version India [that] America or Britain or Canada [have] been exposed to is their own version of India, where being Indian is the punchline instead of the perspective. So to have somebody from India tell you what they think about Obamacare or what they think about Donald Trump, or even what they think about your lives… I’d like to see a lot more of that happening in the industry.

CLTure: What’s something that never stops surprising you in the industry?

Vir Das: The way America does celebrities. Do you know what I mean? The two things that America has perfected are indulgence and celebrities. If Americans like chocolate, you won’t eat 100% chocolate, you’ll eat 900% chocolate and find a way to put more chocolate into the chocolate. I’m always surprised by American food and American celebrities. I do a bit in my act where I talk about how India has limited freedom of speech but I feel like in America you have too much freedom of speech, so some of you listen to the wrong people sometimes.  

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CLTure: Do you think that focus on celebrities makes the American audience harder to approach than the Indian audience?

Vir Das: I don’t think so, the great thing about America is that they like stand-up comedy and they’ve kinda taken it to the British style take comedy recently. I mean, they know comedians and they know a good joke and they know a bad joke. They won’t laugh at shit but you’ll get a big laugh at good material, and honestly that’s the best crowd in the world to perform for.

CLTure: Anything you’d like to say to the people going to your show at The Comedy Zone?

Vir Das: Come out because you don’t know anything about India and come out because you know a lot about India. Come out because Indian people are really pretty and you wanna meet some, come out because you’re ugly and you’re mad and nobody’s talking to you, and come out because you’re an American person that knows all of these people and can hopefully learn to understand them better.

Vir Das’s Unbelievable will be available at The Comedy Zone from July 14 to July 16

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