As you watch him onstage, there is this calming presence. He describes it himself as the purpose of his show is he essentially wants the audience to feel like they’re sitting with him for some tea and some biscuits while he talks about his version of India. He sits on a staircase, and there is that sense of intimacy that often times gets lost in stand-up comedy. Size of the room is irrelevant. You really feel like you’re conversing with an old friend.
That’s part of the magic of Vir Das, and it’s that familiarity feeling that is probably helpful to his very fast rise of presence in America (in addition to the fact that he’s just funny). In 2017, he returned to America after having lived here years prior while in college. He came here as a known comedian/Bollywood personality in India. But, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t always translate to the American market. However, as of this moment, he’s had three Netflix specials in the past four years, has been featured on shows like Conan, and co-starred on an ABC series Whiskey Cavalier. And last month, he was featured in an episode of Fresh Off the Boat titled The Magic Motor Inn that actually is to serve as a back-door pilot for a spin off series. It’s a transition that we seldom see happen in such a way, which speaks further of the presence Das exudes in addition to being funny.
Earlier this month, we spoke to Vir Das about his special, performing a show about India for non-Indian audiences, the future prospect of The Magic Motor Inn series, how he dealt with Whiskey Cavalier’s cancellation, and also a very candid conversation about touring the world and what he ultimately hopes to get out of it.
Good to be connected again. Last time we spoke was last year. So how different is the Vir Das I spoke to in January of 2019 different than the Vir Das I speak with today?
Well, there’s definitely more jetlag. There’s less hair and there’s more jetlag. (Laughs) I had to film a Netflix special, and I went in trying to write. And then I quickly realized that I was going to fail at that. So this show became something else. And to write it, I kind of had to change the way that I approached comedy. I kind of went in wanting to write a general, universal show about India. And I quickly realized that there is not one India and I failed at that. And therefore I quickly had to start writing my version of India, which I hadn’t really thought about. And so then the experience kind of became going back to relatable comedy but trying to find new punchlines and new purposes for things that have been talked about by comedians for many, many years. And so it really kind of came back to the writing and the rewriting process of stand up. Because usually you’re telling stories about yourself and you assume what’s happening to you is unique. Here, you’re dealing with the non-unique. You’re dealing with the common. So how can you find new punchlines in common ground? I did a lot of research on this one.
And the research does show. But something really interesting was just how much I was able to relate on the complete other side of the world to the things you were saying onstage. So much of it is universal even beyond India.
Well our culture isn’t just for us. And we consume so much American comedy. And we’ll watch Trevor Noah, who’s South African, do jokes about politics in Milwaukee. Or we’ll watch John Mulaney or we’ll watch Sebastian Maniscalco talk about New York but about little Italian nuances in New York as well. And then we’d see a version of that where you’re watching it flipped. And you’re watching our version of it and relating to it as much as we relate to yours.
And with the special itself, you had done the first special split between New York and New Delhi and the second was done entirely in San Francisco. So was it always your intention to bring the third special back home?
Yes. Absolutely. I feel like the first one was sort of introducing myself to America. The second one was kind of to say “I have a small but definite presence in America.” And the third one was saying “Hey thanks for being patient with me while I traveled so much. I’m gonna come home with this one.” And kind of keep the lights on in India.
And there is a moment in the show where you point out the section you have specifically for tourists, for whom you have to explain things to a few times. Do you feel like there’s anything that typically gets lost in translation during the show?
I feel like the purpose of the special was so casual. It was a guy has a cup of tea, shows up at your house, and starts telling you about his country. And I kind of started thinking about the fact that a lot of people that you saw sitting in that section were expats. Some of them were with the American Embassy or the British Embassy or the Australian Embassy. And when you’re in a group of friends and there’s one American, we take four or five seconds to explain some stuff so that he feels like he’s part of the conversation. And it’s so simply just a way of doing that. It’s a way of just bringing everybody in. And I think for Indians, my only worry was that it would slow down the pace of the show. But it was more important that Indians wait for the non-Indians.
And jumping around a bit, the first place I ever saw you here in America, before your special, was on Conan. Was that your first big exposure here? Because I’m always fascinated by how he seems to give comedians their first big late night break.
I think so, yeah. We had shot the special already, before we did Conan. But my first special came out five days after I did Conan. But yeah, it was definitely terrifying and the first time an American crowd saw me. And that’s kind of the beauty of Conan. He’s literally done that for thousands of guys.
And cut to three years later, you’ve had one show here, Whiskey Cavalier, which was sadly short lived. And now you’ve got a second show in the works, a spin off of Fresh Off The Boat called the Magic Motor Inn that served as an episode of the series, but also a back-door pilot for a new series. Is it surprising how fast things can happen sometimes?
Well the Fresh Off the Boat thing just kind of fell into our laps. Because with India, it’s a very new comedy scene. There’s no road maps for a comedian to navigate up the ladder. And in America, there actually is. You start off with a late night set and then hopefully you get a special. And then you do some character work on television and then hopefully you get to do some lead work on television. And then maybe you get to do some film as well. So I’m very grateful for that.
And what can you tell me about the Magic Motor Inn, where things stand with the series? I know the episode just aired.
That’s it so far. We’re waiting. We got an episode, it was a fantastic experience. It was lovely to have layered, nuanced Indian characters on American television. I’m not sure what kind of response it had gotten because I’m not privy to that sort of stuff living across the world. But that’s it. We’re all just waiting to hear. And if it works out, that’s great. And if it doesn’t work out, I think it’s a sign of very good things to come.
Was that how you looked at things last year in the case of Whiskey Cavilier when that got canceled?
I think so. But I also felt like Whiskey Cavilier was a great step in the right direction where I got to play a guy who wasn’t necessarily stereotypically Indian or Indian for that matter. He was a guy that was good with guns and bad with people. Indians on American T.V. we tend to play very likeable characters, and this was just something else. So as an actor it was very exciting, being able to show that kind of range. But I’m sort of an always looking forward kind of guy. So even while doing Whiskey Cavalier, I was thinking about writing this show For India. So I think my big problem is I tend to not be present.
A lot of creatives are that way. So going off of that, have you thought about what’s next?
I’m going to tour definitely this year. There will be an Indian series that will be out soon, a Bollywood movie that will be out soon. This year, I’m going to tour the world and do some really good stand up. Basically, three Netflix specials in, I’ve kind of fallen back in love with this art form. So I’ll still be doing some American acting work and some Indian acting work, but I want to go to places where they don’t know me. That’s my focus for this year. And you try to write some international material.
What are some examples of those places you’d like to explore where they don’t know you?
Well I’m going to do a big Africa tour, a big Asia tour. And I’m hoping to get to South America. I’ve never performed there before. I’m heading to Vancouver in a week. I’m doing some American venues, playing San Francisco, that stuff will continue. But I kind of want to write a show for the world next. So I think I have to travel to write it.
Is that idea of writing about the world, which is such a broad scope, daunting at all?
Absolutely it’s daunting, and therefore, exhilarating. The most exciting thing for me is the notion that I’m possibly going to be sh*t at it. So there’s nothing I love more than a daunting task that I’m probably going to fail at.
And that’s sort of where really great comedy comes from, allowing yourself to take a risk and not know what’s coming next.
I definitely don’t at least not for this. You know, with my three specials, it’s been a lot of output and I need a little bit of input as well. So I need to sort of let life happen to me a little bit so I can find out what I want to say as a comic. So that’s why I’m going to travel and do any kind of venue, any kind of crowd I can get, but while I’m there really experience where I’m at. And hopefully at the end of all that, I’ll have some material that I’m excited about.
Are you one of those comics that’s able to develop your material while you’re on the road? Or do you have to let it simmer, go home and write it all down, and develop it that way?
I’ll let it simmer for a bit. But I’ll definitely be making, as strange as this sounds, deep notes. I’m not writing jokes, but I’m writing how I feel when I’m there. Because a lot of my comedy does come from that. How I feel about things. So I’ll definitely write “I’m in Nigeria and I feel exhilarated for these reasons.” And I kind of carry those emotions forward when I’m writing that bit.
And the last thing I want to ask you is something I like to ask everyone. Out of everything you’ve done so far, what would you ultimately want your legacy to be?
I think that he knew what he was. I think that’s something I have to figure out. I’m very Indian for America and I’m a little less Indian for India. And at some point I’m just going to have to go “This is who I am and it is not going to change.” I’m not going to cater to a particular side of the world. My perspective I’ll do with humor. But my perspective is always going to have to be me. It has to be original. So that’s just it. Good or bad, he knew who he was.
Vir Das For India is streaming on Netflix now.