For comedian Vir Das, shooting another comedy special was never the plan. Especially during the lockdown.
The popular comic released his 3rd Netflix special at the beginning of this year and ‘you’re supposed to wait 2 at least years before putting out another special’, he says. But, after the lockdown came into effect and the live stand-up comedy scene came to a grinding halt, the comic set out to do 30 ‘virtual’ stand-up shows on Zoom for charity.
During these, he realised he’d tapped into a significant moment in time, which was worth capturing. The result is new comedy special Inside Out. Made up of footage from the many live comedy shows he’s performed on Zoom during the lockdown, the 50-minute special is available exclusively on his website, by making a donation of your choice to one of four shortlisted charities. This documentary-esque special intercuts between footage of crowd work from those Zoom gigs, and Vir’s personal reflections to camera before and after the shows. A kind of personal diary entry of a comedian vlogging their lockdown journey. A kind of personal diary entry of a comedian vlogging their lockdown journey. The result is a personal, perceptive piece of work which is funny, innovative and captures the ‘lockdown experiences’ of people across the world through comedy.
Following the release of Inside Out, Vir spoke to me about its overwhelming response, the challenges of performing live comedy on Zoom, why he said no to releasing the special on Netflix and the future of comedy.
What’s the response to the new special been like so far?
For a special that doesn’t have a platform, it’s been pretty insane. To be honest, I had zero intention of putting out a special. My last Netflix special released just five months ago. And Netflix wanted this special as well, but the minute I said this was for charity, they totally understand and supported me. In fact, they’re pushing it out and promoting it on their channels.
When I released it on my website, I figured a few hundred people who want to support charities would catch it, because that’s really the purpose of this: to raise funds. But when we launched at 7:30pm, within 24 hours the site crashed 4 times because of the amount of traffic, which is crazy. But the yardstick for this one isn’t views or traffic, it’s how much we raise. So touchwood, we seem to be on a really strong footing and I think we’ll be able to help a bunch of people.
You’ve said this special was never planned. At which point during doing these charity shows on Zoom did you feel like maybe there’s something significant here that’s worth putting together as a comedy special?
I think it was the moment it started to get really international. I’ll be honest, I went into the Zoom hoping to raise money for charity but also to flex my comedy muscle because I didn’t want to get rusty during the pandemic. And initially I was super cranky doing it on Zoom because it is very tough to do stand-up comedy online, it’s just not the same.
So just to warm up the audience on Zoom, every night I’d casually ask this question of ‘what’s the first thing you’ll do when the world reopens?’, and I underestimated how vulnerable people were. Suddenly you’re getting these crowd work answers that are real and honest and I realised I had to pivot towards this conversation. And over time, I had people from Wuhan, Poland, the US and it hit me that this is the only time in my life as an artist where the whole world is going through the exact same thing at the exact same time. It’s global common ground, and I had to capture this conversation. That’s when I started recording the shows.
I imagine editing this wasn’t easy. How much footage of the Zoom shows did you capture?
Editing took a while. I was with it for a very long time to turn it into a special. We’d record the first 10 minutes of every show which was me asking that question and we did that 45 times. I think the special has 50 stories from people across the world, which we picked out from, like, 160. And because we didn’t know this was going to be a special, we didn’t make anyone sign any release forms, so then we had to reach out to these 100 people and be like ‘Oh by the way, would you mind signing this ultra-hectic release form?’. But because it’s for charity they all agreed, so we really lucked out.
Inside Out is quite experimental in a lot of ways. Performing live comedy on Zoom is strange enough, but this is also a test of whether people would enjoy watching recorded Zoom shows. Was there a specific concern you had about how people will respond to this?
Yeah a few of them. Number one was all the piece to camera bits. I’m a little old school, so when you come and see me live, it’s about laughter. You don’t get a lot of tanhayee at my shows (laughs). My first edit had a lot of piece to cams, but then I cut them all out. But I have a really young team and they said I had to keep those in, otherwise it’s just story after story after story, and you need some emotional grounding to the show.
The other was music. I have a drummer Siddharth Coutto who’s in my band Alien Chutney. He did Jazz drums and bass throughout the entire special, to compensate for the fact that Zoom sounds so different to a real room, because there’s no real laughter booming. So Inside Out is an entirely musically scored special and I didn’t know how people would respond to that. But with this, as opposed to 3 Netflix specials, all you’re really going for is – is this authentic enough? Does this feel real? If you accomplish that then I think that compensates for the format.
You’re being very vulnerable during many of those piece to camera moments. Were those strange to shoot considering it’s just you talking to a camera?
Honestly, yeah (laughs). My wife and I were talking about it when the final edit was in place and she was like ‘I hope people enjoy watching your descent into madness’ (laughs). I come from a place where, for my shows, the front row is 5000 rupees and the last row is 500 bucks and both are big amounts of money, and if people show up for that show and the artist is bummed out, then screw you, you better perform. So, in that sense it was weird.
But I had a simple rule – I’d record a piece to cam before a show about how I was feeling that day and then I’d record after the show’s done. Every night I was doing an hour and a half of comedy, and this crowd work was only the first 10 minutes. My theory was, if it’s still with me after 90 minutes, it’s worth reacting to, it’s something real.
People can be really weird on Zoom calls. Some lie down or there’s even that moment in your special where you hear a toilet flushing. What’s the strangest thing you saw someone in the audience do during a show?
I saw a 14-year-old kid get caught by his mom (laughs). His mom walked in and was like ‘what are you doing?! You’re too young for this show!’ and he just got dragged out of the room and said, ‘I’m so sorry’ and shut the laptop. So, that was kind of weird.
With your last show on the special, you had a paramedic from the US and a doctor who was recovering from COVID in the audience. Was that completely unplanned?
Yeah it was, and the thing is you have to go with that moment. And you can hear the reaction. The minute Nicole said ‘I’m a paramedic who works in the ER’, 100 people on the call just went ‘oh my God’. If you don’t acknowledge those moments, you’re a royal douchebag in my opinion. And with Dr Jaju, he was recovering in a hospital while watching the show, so the minute you hear that you have to stop the comedy and have a conversation.
The beauty of comedy isn’t even stadiums and arenas and theatres. It’s a hot room in a dingy basement where it’s sweat and steam and smoke and the crowd is one foot away from you. That’s the magic of comedy. That’s when a crowd truly forgets where they came from. I don’t think that will ever go away, and that’s true for theatre and music as well.
During Inside Out you say you’ve never felt closer to your audience because, on Zoom you’re peering into their homes and lives while performing. Do you think doing these online shows through lockdown will change anything for you when you get back on stage?
Yeah, I think so. God has been kind, and it’s been a good 6-7 years where there hasn’t been a gigantic creative mountain to climb. Touchwood you show up at the arena and it’s sold out. If you like a certain kind of biscuit, it’s waiting for you in the green room. That’s the only way I can describe it. But doing these shows this was so severely daunting that it makes you not take your audience for granted anymore.
Even with the release of this special. Even after 3 Netflix specials and millions and millions of views, you again now value every single view and audience member and donation you get, so it really is back to square one. So, I imagine when I get back to the real thing again, it’ll be with a profound sense of gratitude.
We don’t know when things will go back to normal for the comedy scene and the one thing that Zoom does give you is access to so many people across the world. So do you feel that to some extent, live comedy on Zoom is here to stay?
No, I think comedy is escape and escape is an atmospheric thing. The beauty of comedy isn’t even stadiums and arenas and theatres. It’s a hot room in a dingy basement where it’s sweat and steam and smoke and the crowd is one foot away from you. That’s the magic of comedy. That’s when a crowd truly forgets where they came from. I don’t think that will ever go away, and that’s true for theatre and music as well. I think once we figure out a scientifically safe way of doing shows, you’ll see huge crowds flocking to them.