Vir Das On His New ABC Sitcom, Whether Younger Comics Have It Easy, And Studying Every Morning

After a Netflix special and a long world tour last year, the comic wants to concentrate on acting. He tells us about his new American sitcom and other projects lined up
Vir Das On His New ABC Sitcom,  Whether Younger Comics Have It Easy, And Studying Every Morning

Congratulations on your new ABC show, Whiskey Cavalier. When do you start shooting?

I don't know yet, pre-production schedule ban raha hai. So at some point in the second half of the year, we'll shoot.

Does this mean a relocation?

No, not at all. I'll still be in India for most of the year. Last year, I think I spent maybe five months out of the country travelling so I've gotten pretty good at juggling. I've got a lot of India projects slated for next year.

I was reading about how around 80 pilots are made and then just a handful get picked up. What was this whole process daunting?

Honestly, it kind of all happened in four days. I was touring the US; and I met a gentleman named Bill Lawrence. Bill Lawrence is one of those comedy legends who created Scrubs, and a couple of other really, really good TV shows. And we ended up finding out that he had this pilot with Scott Foley. Scott Foley plays Will Chase in this thing. He's an actor whom I've been a fan of for a very long time. I met them and we just kind of found this character together. I had five weeks of stand-up gigs that were booked. And I had only got to the US two weeks ago. I was planning to be in the US for seven weeks, and in the third week I was in Prague, blowing things up and shooting the pilot with these guys.

So you didn't have to audition?

I mean, you read stuff. But it was a much faster process than that. I think the daunting process that you're talking about is the typical process. But on this one, many planets aligned, and we found this together.

Priyanka Chopra's able to do something so authentic, so amazing, I think she opened up the gates for a lot of talent from India, not just Indian talent in America

You've said that it's an exciting time to bring Indian voices to American TV. Did you get a chance to give inputs on your character?

I think at least when you're working with people who are as great as Bill and Scott, you really think of it like going to university and learning as much as you can from those guys. In terms of me being Indian and all of that stuff, that's just something that can come naturally. Even when I do stand-up abroad, my perspective is Indian, the way I walk and talk is Indian, so it's what the comedy ends up being. And I give full credit to people like Priyanka Chopra. Because she's able to do something so authentic, so amazing, I think she opened up the gates for a lot of talent from India, not just Indian talent in America. So I think all the US networks and that full ecosystem is now very excited about talent from India. So I really feel like these big fish have opened up the doors for small fish like me.

Last year you broke ground by getting your own Netflix one-hour special. In real terms, how did that impact you? Did it open more doors for you?

Yes. I'll be very honest, it did. My goal was always to become a voice on the international comedy market, albeit an Indian voice. I was able to do a whole tour of the Netflix special. I remember the special came out on April 25th. And I think I went to Australia on May 1st. Typically, when I used to go to places abroad, it would be 80 per cent Indian and 20 per cent whoever the locals were – people who were dragged there by their Indian friends. By the time we were at May 3rd and May 4th in Australia, it was fifty-fifty down the middle. These were people who had caught the special. I never realised really how big Netflix's audience was.

So the two takeaways from that are, you now have the largest audience that you've ever had, so you have to really evolve as a comedian. And two, you also realise how young you are! Because I think the best part of this show was wherever I went, I got to work with local comedians (they were my opening act, or they were my feature act). I just kind of realised how young I am and how far I have to go as a comic. That was my big takeaway from the tour – ki abhi kuchh naheen kiya hai, ab bohot kuchh karna hai.

I guess that's the power of being on a global platform…

Yeah, absolutely. When the special came out, I was getting e-mails and messages and tweets in Japanese and in Spanish. So it goes out in so many languages as well. That was really, really fantastic. So I think the Netflix special led to the world tour, also led to American trade – American filmmakers and American TV creators realising who I was.

I read an interview where you said that you don't look at yourself just as a stand-up comic, but as a content creator. As an artist, what do you have to do to make that sure you're constantly refining your craft and staying at the top of your game so that you have enough to give to all these hats that you wear?

Look, I should clarify – you know, somebody asked me what I would call myself on a business card, and I said I'd call myself content creator. If you ask me how I think of myself, I just think I'm incredibly stupid and got very lucky. I should clarify the answer to that question. It's not like I walk around calling myself a content creator, that seems kind of pompous to me.

In terms of 'how do you stay at the top of your game?', I think you work assuming you're at the bottom of your game. Don't look at what you've done, look at what you have to do. And I also think that when you travel abroad a little bit, you realise what a rank newcomer you are. In India, I've been doing stand-up ten years. Dave Chappelle's been doing it for 31 years! And that's why he's as good as he is! So for me, that's the bar. Ten years is nothing! There's a lot more to do: I don't even know what kind of comic I am yet. I think when you treat yourself as a newcomer in all areas, you'll work like a newcomer and hopefully your game will improve.

Did you have a fan moment on Conan O'Brien's show?

I think he's the number one late night host. I put Letterman and Conan up there. He's an amazing human being; he brings everybody in through his comedy. It's comedy that unites, not comedy that divides. Those five minutes long bits I did might be the most terrifying thing I've ever done. It's one of those things where if it goes well, the benefits are huge. If it goes badly, the stakes are very high! And they shoot it a little earlier in the day, and it doesn't air till 11 at night. So at least for a five-hour period, you're just wondering if you have a career the next day. It's really daunting that way. But you know the first one went so well that they got me back to do that special segment where I didn't do stand-up. And I took them through World News, and that's something him and I were talking about the first time saying we should do together. And now we'll keep doing that.

How do these experiences enrich you?

I view it as the most beautiful rinse cycle, in terms of kuchh kaam kiya tha, for ten years, and then one was able to just kind of restart and learn this whole new thing, open up this whole new side of the brain. And it's been kind of humbling and mind-blowing. That's the only way I can describe it.

I think someday when the biography of stand-up comedy is written for India, the telecom networks will have a big role to play

When you started, stand-up was barely a legit profession in India. Now you have so many young comics who have their specials and web shows on Amazon Prime. What do you think has been the single biggest gamechanger?

The internet, I would say. More specifically the smartphone internet has changed the game for comedians. I think someday when the biography of stand-up comedy is written for India, the telecom networks will have a big role to play in that. Because we're being watched on the train and on the way home, or while waiting for flights. I started out on CNBC with a news show. The first fanbase I got were just 40-year-olds. Then I quit that job to do edgy comedy. I went on the road for four years. I just kept digging every week. So I kind of earned my fans the hard way. It's kind of ironic, but in 10 years the first real piece of stand-up comedy I put out online was the Netflix special. I'd never put stand-up comedy online. But for a young comedian, it's amazing: you get to reach a million people a week. That's a fantastic privilege to have.

Do you think they're spoilt in a way? Very early into their careers they all have their own web shows which they star in too.

I feel like that's something that happens in Britain as well. That's something that happens in America. There was a period in America where every comedian got a sitcom. From Seinfeld to Ray Romano to the younger guys as well. And those things correct themselves when the cream rises to the top. The good ones will survive. Right now everybody's getting a show, everybody's doing all of that stuff, which is great, because it'll just make the audience more and more discerning. And eventually we'll have to work much harder to get that show. To me, it's really about a relationship with the fanbase. That's really all it boils down to, whether it's live or films or web – it's just a relationship with the fanbase. And does that stand the test of time? Do your fans age with you? Do you convert new fans? Do they outgrow you? Those questions can only be answered by evolving as an artist and working really, really hard. So we'll all have to!

We get into this profession because we don't want to bloody study. But by virtue of being comedians, we have to read and write more than anybody else we know

What's next for you?

I'm looking forward to acting this year because I didn't act last year. So ABC's Whiskey Cavalier; Hasmukh which Nikkhil Advani is producing. After that, there'll be a movie at the end of the year, which will be in the action/comedy sort of space. There's an Amazon thing that Weirdass is currently shooting. So it's an acting year, basically! And hopefully while I'm acting I can write a new hour of comedy and tour it the year after.

When do you find time to write with so much else going on?

I write a little bit everyday. I think CNBC trained me very well. I used to do jokes about the news, so it set a culture in me of waking up at 6.30 a.m. and just reading the papers and writing. And that's something I've been able to carry on. So before I have breakfast with Shivani and my dog Watson, I do an hour-and-a-half of writing every single day. It's strange, no? We get into this profession because we don't want to bloody study. But by virtue of being comedians, we have to read and write more than anybody else we know.

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