Entertainment as we know it is changing in India amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Artistes from musicians to comedians are turning to their audiences online. With no scope for live shows in the near future, one of India’s most prominent comics, Vir Das, says he is adapting to the changing times, too.
Das had to cancel his tour across 29 countries in light of the coronavirus pandemic. During the first few days of the nationwide lockdown that started on March 25, Das did some Instagram Lives, created YouTube videos, and even joined TikTok. But considering the lockdown in India has been extended to May 3, and the outbreak is nowhere close to over, he has various other tricks up his sleeve.
Das has been hosting an online standup show called Vir Das At Home on Zoom for Rs499-a-ticket ($6.52-a-ticket). The proceeds from the show are donated to various charities.
The multi-hyphenated artiste spoke with Quartz about moving his gigs online and his new dark comedy thriller Netflix series Hasmukh. Edited excerpts:
How are you keeping your standup comedy going?
Right now, my standup focus is on fundraising. There are about 250 people each night and all proceeds go to 12 different charities. It’s very much like going to a comedy club. I know at 7pm, I have to get on this video conferencing software and I have to make these people laugh.
The longer game, I don’t know. You’re not fighting permission or fighting medicine or science. You’re fighting psychology. Even when everything is clear, when are people going to be comfortable sitting in the same room together? That’s the question. I don’t have the answer to that. Your urge to watch a movie varies or your urge to go out and see live music varies but the urge to laugh is a daily urge. At least we can take solace in the fact that there’s unlimited demand for our genre.
Why are you doing video-conferences instead of going live on Instagram or YouTube?
At least on video conferencing, I can see my crowd, I can hear my crowd. I wanna know if the joke is good or not. It’s really strange but we figure it out together and that’s fine. And aren’t you sick and tired of insta lives already? There are so many. That got old in about five seconds. This is nice.
What are the pitfalls of video conference shows?
You can’t talk to the audience too much. Sometimes, you can’t hear what a laugh sounds like in unison. That’s the one thing you try and build in the first 30 seconds into your show. The minute a comedian comes on and says, “Good to be here! How’s everybody feeling?” we don’t want to say that shit, we’re trying to align you. You can’t do that here.
Have you had any tech challenges?
I’m able to hook up a mic. I have a sound card because I make music. But I know comedians who just use laptops. I’m sure my team has a tech list of five things I need, I just don’t know what they are. But I think everybody is pretty patient. At least three times in the show, I’ve had to log out and log back in and people have been understanding.
Did the quarantine and resulting streaming boom affect your decision to release Hasmukh now?
Netflix is booked up, I think, for the next year or year-and-a-half. We were always going to be a mid-April release. I think we’d all rather we came out under happier, healthier circumstances. People are stuck at home watching content but they’re also stuck at home anxious, stuck at home worried, so I think the type of content they watch is also uplifting and light. We’re a pretty dark show.
Still, Hasmukh‘s getting about as much traction as a comedy special, which is very strange. Specials are easy because they’re an hour long. Here, people are bingeing it. It’s early, but it seems to be going alright.
Why did you decide to make Hasmukh a web series instead of a movie?
I wanted to explore more. And you can’t deny that it’s a bit of a weird show. It’s very kitsch, very loud, very outrageous, and a little meta as well. It’s based in the universe of GEC (general entertainment category) television. I was a lowly writer in the corner on all GEC award shows early in my career. Sometimes the best joke of the night is the bigger joke. When you put the pressure of theatrical recovery on something this unique, it ruins it.
This show is for anyone who’s ever seen the Kapil Sharma Show or a Laughter Challenge type of a show, and it’s also for people who like Delhi Belly and Go Goa Gone and that kind of humour. It’s somewhere in between. Those two audiences, where their humour differs, their common point is the drama.
At this time, many artistes across different spheres are worried about not being hired or paid. What would you say to them?
Look, I think you have to charge for your services irrespective of where you are in your professional career. How much you charge has to change depending on fluctuations in the world. I was a live artiste in the 2008 recession, for instance, and we pretty much all slashed our prices by 40% because nobody had the money and we wanted to keep working. I’m not going to say that’s not a reality we’re headed in for. We’re going to be in a huge recession very soon if we aren’t already. But you must charge for your services and I maintain that always. Even for the Zoom shows I do, I sell tickets. It’s cheaper than what I normally charge but people have to pay for your services.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
I don’t know yet. I just had a release right now that’s going well. I was worried about it and 95% of people seem to like it. I’ve been stressed because it’s taken three years, so I’m going to sleep for a bit before I create some more content.