The first Indian comedian to get a Netflix special is returning with a second one in less than two years.
Born in Dehradun and raised in Africa, Vir Das was studying economics and theatre at Knox College in Illinois in the early 2000s when he first began doing comedy. ”The first time I did standup, I was 22 years old,” he told Quartz.
Since then, he has acted in Bollywood movies like Delhi Belly (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013), and bagged an American TV series, Whiskey Cavalier.
In April 2017, just a month after Das’s Netflix special, Abroad Understanding, aired, he had already signed a deal for two more. Though he won’t reveal the exact numbers behind how well the first special did—”that’s Netflix’s secret sauce,” Das said—”the barometer is, if they call you and ask you to do one more, then you did alright,” he added. The 39-year-old’s next, Losing It, releases on Dec. 11.
Das spoke to Quartz about his career so far and what’s in store. Edited excerpts:
How did comedy happen?
I didn’t plan to perform at all. I wanted to be a drama professor at college level. I was enrolled in an MFA (masters in fine arts) programme in the US but in the break between finishing undergrad and getting into the programme, I’d done a couple of gigs in Mumbai where I tasted the stage. I thought teaching will always be there, universities will always be there, but this opportunity won’t. I dropped out of my masters and I came down to Mumbai for one show for The Times of India and that changed my life.
Tell us a little bit more about India’s stand up comedy scene back then.
When I came to Mumbai, standup was a very upper crust, south Mumbai art form. Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani, Bharat Dabholkar, and Ash Chandler were the four people doing standup in India, targeting a very particular demographic. Suddenly, I was the young kid who said the F-word and spoke about sex. College kids needed a comedian to show up at that moment in time so somebody could talk about the shit that they liked. Just by virtue of luck and novelty, I ended up getting a large audience very fast.
How have you evolved as an artist since?
I’ve been doing it for about 10 years and I feel like, for the first five years, I was just an actor playing a comedian. There was no real comedic voice attached. You really only get better the more you do this. I have no clue what comedian I’m on my way to becoming right now but I’m not overthinking it.
How is your second special different from the first?
After the first Netflix special, I quickly realised how big an audience there is in the world. You start getting messages in Portuguese, Japanese, and French and what that really does is make you feel really small as an artiste. Last year, I took a break from acting and went on a world tour to 28 countries. I spent seven months on the road. That blew my mind and opened it up a little bit and that’s what this new special is, it’s that experience.
How do you, as an Indian, make sure global audiences understand your languages, your references, and so on?
The first special is an introductory special like “Hey, my name is Vir, here’s where I’m from and let me talk to you about what you would like to talk about.” I view this show as a second date, which is “Let me also talk to you about what I want to talk about and let’s try to fool with each other a little bit at the end of the night.” It’ll talk about masculinity, feminism, tribalism and all of that stuff, but it also talks about me growing up in Africa, bankruptcy, falling ill, doing crappy movies. It’s personal. When you do a lot of topical stuff, you really have to end up explaining a lot but when you just sit back and tell your story, a dude from Norway or Australia or America is just interested in that.
Have you ever had to tackle any stereotypes while performing outside India?
In my shows before the Netflix special, the audience was always 80% Indian so you’re not coming up against many stereotypes. Now, it’s 55% to 60% Indian but it’s really just a harmonious experience. I think with the number of Indian voices—Priyanka Chopra or Aziz Ansari or Hasan Minhaj—it’s all blending in. It’s a good time to be Indian in the world right now.
How does social media help or hurt your career?
I can tell you this is all very well thought out and I carefully monitor what I do on social media and in my shows and that I’m really designing this whole thing but that would be a crock of shit. I’m not really thinking of any of those things. I get up on stage and I tell some jokes, and I make sure if it’s a 100 mins, I catch 70 mins of good jokes. With social media, I’m just having fun. I’m a comedian. What is there to lose? The worst that could happen is somebody calls me an idiot and that’s the highest compliment in my profession.
Why do you engage with trolls on Twitter?
Well, look, someone has to entertain me also sometimes.
In the era of YouTube and Netflix, how important are live shows?
Your digital serves as marketing for your live shows. At the end of the day, how many ever YouTube videos you put up, the end goal is to be on stage. People have to buy tickets to see you. Today, there’s more room than ever before. It’s better days for comedy in India.
In India, we’ve seen a lot of backlash when comedians talk politics, for instance. How do you deal with intolerance?
More comedy. There’s no other solution other than to keep doing it until people realise not to take it seriously. We’re a young scene and a young audience so we’re coming up against opposition and that’s fine. We’ll keep doing it until they get it.
The Me Too movement has shaken up the comedy world. What is your take?
I think it’s an amazing thing to happen. Only good things are going to come from it. In terms of what the scene is doing to implement accountability, I’m not really part of it because I’ve been out for so long. That’s something you’ll have to ask them—specifically female comics. I think it’s a very healthy thing for an artist to have the fear of god put into them where they are professional at all times with everybody, male or female.
What’s next on your wishlist?
I think I’ll direct in the next five years. I’m already producing next year. And just nine hours sleep would be really awesome.