If you’re a performer, you want to be recognized, plain and simple. Nobody gets into this racket, as either a comedian or as an actor, to go unnoticed. It’s about putting yourself out there. And, the goal with that, would be reaching as many people as possible, over as many places as you can. But at the same time, once you’ve found your niche or an area you’re good at, it’s hard to break out and go beyond that. Fortunately for Vir Das, not only is he up for that challenge, but he particularly excels at it.
Born in Africa before conquering the Bollywood scene in India, Vir Das has been making a great splash in comedy circles in America for the past few years. In 2017, he was the first Indian comedian to get a Netflix special. The response was so fantastic that it lead to a second special, Losing It, that came out last year.
2019 is shaping up to be just as big for Vir Das. He made the cross from stand-up to T.V. star relatively quickly by our standards, though he’s performed comedy since the early 2000s. Whiskey Cavalier is a new ABC sitcom that’s the first show in 50 years to premiere directly following the Oscars. In the show, which is about a team of F.B.I and C.I.A. agents working together, he plays Jai, a C.I.A. agent who, along with Lauren Cohan’s character, is thrown into the mix with a group of F.B.I. agents in Russia. It’s a throwback, really, to the old spy series. It’s a good mix of taking itself seriously while also remembering not to take itself too seriously.
The leap to American entertainment is bound to pay off. As you watch him, you have this certain sense that yes, Vir Das is going to find similar success that he found in Bollywood. Certainly he’s someone you need to watch for. It’s not an easy thing to do, cross over like this, but with the success of his first two Netflix specials on his side, it’s a pretty safe bet that it will happen.
We recently spoke to Vir (long distance) about Whiskey Cavalier, his special, crossing over to American audiences, his hopes for the Marvel universe, and what he’s hoping to do next.
How would you describe a show like Whiskey Cavalier?
It’s kind of like an action comedy about 5 people who get together and save the world every week but who are just kind of falling in and out love and really, really funny, insecure and conflicted individuals. So it’s a team of FBI and CIA and I play a CIA. And it’s kind of nice. It’s my first ever American T.V. show. And my co-stars are these ridiculously famous T.V. faces. Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan, Ana Ortiz, and Tyler James Williams have all been on T.V. for at least 10 years each. And then there’s me. This is my first not just American T.V. show but T.V. show. So it’s kind of fun to be the new guy.
Is there a shift on the production side of things from how things are done in other parts of the world versus here?
I think they’re both huge productions. This is a very humongous production. We’re doing everything from action to blowing things up and saving. It’s very much in the Mission Impossible zone in that way. But you know Bollywood is doing big stuff as well. Everything that Bollywood does is larger than life. I’m pretty comfortable with a large production. Bollywood is pretty much on par with a big budget American production.
Have you been a fan of this action genre?
Yeah. I like a good Die Hard movie certainly. I’m a big fan of sort of the old Moonlighting. I think Whiskey is a little more funnier than that and more unapologetically comedy than those series. I feel like most things and most big budget action type films is heading towards that comedic zone. Whether it’s Mission Impossible or even the Avengers movies are really quite funny. Thor: Ragnarok was a hilarious movie. So I think if you’re going to do the big action type pieces, you’re going to have equal parts comedy and I think the show does that.
Let’s talk a bit about your special that came out last year. Right at the start of the special, you had to display a really good American accent. What is the secret to perfecting the American accent?
I think it’s hanging out with as many American’s as you possibly can. (Laughs). And I think the R’s have a lot to do with it. We have like a hard R, you guys have a soft R. I think that’s maybe it. I get a little too much credit for my American accent. It’s more just me not sounding like myself and actually sounding like an American. I’m not sure how happy they are to hear how American it sounds or just to hear me sound like something other than myself. But I’ll take the laughs either way.
You came to America initially for Knox College in Illinois. What brought you to the states specifically?
Well I always had wanted to come to the U.S. for college. I think you have hands down the best undergraduate system on the planet. And I had seen many campus movies and college comedies, so I just always kind of wanted to do that. And then I ended up applying to some of the big 6 American schools, getting into some of them, and then realizing just how much they f**king cost. So I met this Indian guy who went to Knox College in the middle of nowhere. So they ended up giving me 95% financial aid. So yeah, after all that I ended up going to Knox College which is nothing like any American college movie I had ever seen. But it ended up being this wonderful school that changed my life. So why did I choose Knox in Chicago? Purely financial. And then I ended up living in Chicago for a good year and a half. It’s a good city to be broke in.I think it’s a better city to be broke in than L.A. or New York for sure.
Absolutely. So what do you feel like changed in America between leaving here and now when you’re playing here again? And what was the biggest adjustment?
I think everything changed. When I left, they didn’t know too much about other cultures. And then when I came back, it was very much on the average American’s agenda to be informed of other cultures. Nobody was eating healthy when I left America. Everyone was eating healthy when I came back. People weren’t fit, now they really are fit. And to be honest, one of the reasons I left America was I didn’t think there’d be that many places to go, places where I could tell my story. And then coming back to America was really America calling me. [Hollywood] came down to India to find people who they could sign, and that’s what took me back. So by the time I came back to America, America was inclusive and diverse. So pretty much everything about America changed.
I’m always fascinated by the notion of someone who’s a big star in one part of the world, having to come here and prove themselves all over again to a new audience. Did you feel sort of frustrated by having to prove yourself all over again?
Not really. I think it’s much more exhilarating being at the bottom of the ladder and having no place to go but up. That’s an exciting place to be. I’m in my late 30’s, so I don’t get to feel fresh and young and new and exciting a lot. So that’s kind of nice. It felt like when I was first getting into Bollywood all over again. And I think we addressed it pretty honestly in the first special. We shot it in a big stadium with 4,000 people and then we also intercut it with just 100 people in a basement in New York. And I think that kind of set the context that said “I’m here and I’m ready to do the work.” There’s nothing to be achieved by trying to position yourself as a big star in America unless you are one. And I think when you have achieved something or you are decently known, people will let you know. You don’t have to construct that shit.
Exactly. And when you’re over there in Bollywood doing films, was a transition to Hollywood something you aspired to?
Oh for sure. It’s something still to aspire to. We’re trying to map a career that is strategic and step by step. So the first step was to get a comedy special on one of the mainstream platforms. We got that. The second step was American television. Now we’ve got that and hopefully it goes well on ABC. And the third step is definitely feature films in America. So that is definitely the progression. Absolutely. That’s in the cards hopefully.
In your latest special, you mention your dream of wanting to be a Marvel superhero. So if you were in any Marvel film, who would you want to be?
I want to be an Indian superhero, so we’ll have to come up with one. But if you just consider it, we have like 4,000 Gods. […] Which is pretty easy to come up with a super power in a super hero. But you know, if there is something that exists that I can bring myself to, I’m happy, but I’d love to come up with the first Indian superhero for the Marvel Universe.
How do you feel Netflix has changed comedy with the stand up specials?
I think specials now have more of a narrative to them. You do have to tell a story. So you do have to think of the comedy special much more cinematically I think, at least in terms of the story you’re telling. You can’t just be guy on stage. Guy on stage is hard to construct a narrative in an hour.
I think now is the right time for a special like yours, which does rely more on a story construct and that narrative.
I think so, yeah. I’ve been a big fan of people like Mike Birbiglia who are able a really strong narrative or Neal Brennan with Three Mics, which I thought was really well done. Even [Dave] Chappelle has a very clear arc and story within his routine.
When you’re performing here or overseas, what is the biggest difference between audiences? Do you sense a change over what they respond to or does certain aspects feel relatively universal?
I travel a little bit now, and the one thing that I found is if you cater jokes to a specific audience you’re always going to be limiting in some sense. But if you just get up onstage and tell your story, what is authentically your story, strangely enough even though it might be more Indian in context, its not international in its reception. So I just try to tell my story because I did grow up in Africa, I did study in the states, I was in India as well. So hopefully that story kind of goes over. The audience is so wide on Netflix that if you’re not catering to the African audience, the East Asian audience, the South Asian audience, to the Americans, the Brits, everybody wants something. I think your best bet is to just be yourself.
In the special, you talk about how everything has changed in your perspective. Since filming, has your perspective changed even further that we might see reflected in the next special? Is it all ever-evolving?
I think so. I mean my new show, which I’m going to be doing in the states in April, is about love. So the entire special is about being good at love, being great at love, or not being very good at love. But the central theme of the show is love. Because I feel like that’s something universal and good to talk about. And it is also sharing stories with people I’ve been with, etc. So I would hope to have grown since the last special and have an evolved perspective, but that’s not something I can adequately say. I’m too close to it. You’ll have to tell me when the next special comes out.
And finally, this is a question I always ask and am curious to hear the response to. What would you say you want your legacy to be?
I mean that’s not something I think about, but I guess if my legacy is going to be anything, I hope it’s authenticity. And that’s it. That he took an authentic Indian voice and put it out there. And hopefully when you come see me, you know a little bit more about where and from and my people.
Whiskey Cavilier airs Wednesdays at 10/9 Central on ABC.