Vir Das is a man of many talents. As a comedian, he has been one of the first, and biggest, names in the Indian stand-up scene. As an artist, he writes and performs words that make us laugh whilst laying bare our fears and prejudices. On an exclusive Front Row session, Vir talks to us about how he balances his multiple talents and decodes what it takes to be funny in contemporary India. Here are 5 lessons for comedy from the maestro himself.
1. On How Comedy Keeps You Grounded
The nice thing is if a joke sucks, I know instantly. Oh, and if it’s tone-deaf, I know instantly. The problem with movies is you have to wait 9 months to find out if you made shit or not… after 9 months you find out on a Friday that we have been living for a year thinking we are geniuses and we’ll win the Oscar and on Friday you find out that this is crap.
The flip side to comedy is that it’s also very democratic. Your success makes zero difference in comedy. The nice thing about a comedy club is that if I pop into like an Indian comedy club and I don’t tell the audience I’m coming, there’s 45 seconds of surprise – ‘Amazing’, ‘Saste mein mil gaya!’ – but then after that, they sit back and go, ‘Alright, make me laugh then’. So on any given day, the new kid who’s been doing it for one year can be funnier than me. So it’s very uplifting and it can feed your ego immediately but it can also be very democratic and it can ground you very fast.
2. On The Difference Between Comedy & Acting
Acting is very collaborative and it’s healthy to sponge from people and it’s healthy to not feel like you know everything, or that you’re in charge of everything. When you act with a heavyweight you go home feeling like I should have done better or I need to bring more to this, I need to research more. Or when somebody who’s much better than you supports you in a scene, in improvising, it’s collaborative. Comedy is such a solitary thing— every audience member that has paid lots of money has just come to see you and understands you. So you’re not growing so much, you know, because you’re not making yourself uncomfortable. You’re not scaring yourself and that to me is the key to evolution: to scare the hell out of yourself. So I think the biggest difference for me is collaborative work where people call you out for not being good enough and where people support you in your corner.
3. On How He Views His Audience And Their Expectations
My whole fan base is very young, and that’s terrifying to me. Once the Netflix specials came out, if you look at my data, the primary fan base is 18 to 25 years old. And my front row is 4000 rupees. Sometimes I’ll see college kids in the front row who say, you know, ‘We didn’t go out for two months so we could come and see this show’ or ‘We didn’t drink or do this’. It’s a big moment for them that they’ve been looking forward to. Now if you come out in those two hours and you’re like, ‘Meri tanhai, meri zindagi’, they’ll be like ‘I didn’t go to the club for two months for this?’ or ‘I didn’t have lunch for two months for this?’. It’s my job to make you escape, to make you forget about the things in your life. Possibly by making fun of myself so much and calling myself out so much that you feel better about yourself. You have to go home riding on cloud nine. That’s my responsibility because life is hard enough.
4. On His Writing Process— From Idea to Final performance
I think it changes as you get on in your career. For me now, it’s very much about how I feel about a certain thing. Validating if that feeling is in any way kind-of wrong or right or tone deaf or you know, I’m doing this new series called Ten on Ten and you know, it’s about different issues in the world. So right now something that I’m thinking about is maybe my next video will be about cancel culture. I think that’s a fascinating area to write about as such. But I’ve had a thought, I’ve written three jokes. Now I’ll spend time calling up different people who’ve kind of weighed in on cancel culture in a different way. I called two or three lawyers, I called some female comedians, some male comedians to just see if I’m in the right zone. Then I’ll write five or six pages to get ten minutes (of material). Then I roam around my apartment with a hairbrush and I just run it, again and again. And it evolves and that five or six pages gets cut down to one and a half pages. And then I’ll go on stage with it and I’ll run that five-six-seven-ten times, and then I’ll film it. Comedy is not writing, it’s rewriting. Whenever you think ‘they’ll clap or laugh here’— it never works. And then suddenly, the most random thing you say, they’re clapping and falling off their chair. So, then you have to go back and re-listen to that and think ‘Let me go deeper into that area’ because they like it.
5. On Writing Every Day
First thing in the morning, without brushing your teeth, without talking to my wife, without anything, and this is typically 7 a.m, I take my laptop into a small study in the house in Mumbai. I go in there and I’m out of the world for about two and a half hours. I write anything that comes into my mind. Sometimes it’s comedy, sometimes it’s just ‘Here’s how I’m feeling about certain things’. There are no punch lines attached to it. On good days, it’s punchlines, punchlines, punchlines and on bad days, you will archive it for later and that premise will be there.
And then two months later you will find yourself thinking about that again, and those punchlines will come. You’ll open up that file and add stuff underneath that. But at least five days a week, two and a half hours in the morning, I’m writing something.