It has been an eventful year packed with legal notices, social media drama and thousands of frequent flyer miles for Vir Das, who just won an International Emmy for Comedy with his Netflix special Landing. The stand-up comedian invited Film Companion into his curiously desolate Bandra house that is now also being used as his office. Amidst the echoes of our voices in an empty room, and the occasional hum of an insistent window AC, we sat down to chat about his win, his artistic process, and the blessing of being on back-to-back world tours.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Film Companion (FC): Can you take us through the moment they called your name at the International Emmy Awards? How does it feel to have your work recognised on such a global scale?
Vir Das (VD): I've been there before, and I had the same expectations of when I last went there, which was that it's a weird category in that it allows somebody like me to punch above my weight, right? I get to be nominated against Call My Agent or Derry Girls, which are shows that are, I would guess, millions of dollars per episode to produce. But laughter is laughter. I like the democracy of that category in that sense. And I do think that standard comedy specials are an underrated form of filmmaking, and they are filmmaking. I do like to be in that category. But I didn't think I had a shot at all. In all the events, every time you heard Derry Girls, there was this huge round of applause. And everybody I spoke to, they were like, “I love Derry girls!” And I was like, “I also love Derry Girls!” I was just like, it's nice to be there.
The last time I was at the Emmys, I didn't fully get to experience it just because I was stressed the entire time. So I was like, “okay, the universe is giving me one more go around and that means I just have to really enjoy myself”. I have to drink the drinks, put on the jacket, and meet the people and go to the cocktail and shake hands and just kind of really enjoy myself. That's what I did this time. I had zero expectations. I was there to cheer for Shefali Shah! That was my job (laughs).
FC: And then they called your name.
VD: Well, first he said that there's a tie. Now, if you understand how the system of the Emmys works, that's a very rare thing to have happened. It's because people from all over the world take all the submissions. Let's say I came out of the Asia Pacific region. I think there would have been maybe a thousand submissions from Asia Pacific. I'm up against Korea, Japan, India et cetera, et cetera. Then like 20 jurors from every region (who) watch every piece of content from around the world, and all of them vote.
You get to the top of Asia Pacific, then you make it to the top of the global shortlist and you get the same number of votes across the board, that's a very statistically rare thing that happened. The minute they said there's a tie, the room went silent. But I think that's the first time I had a glimmer of hope, you know? It was a tie so I knew one of them was definitely going to be Derry Girls. I had two thoughts. I was like, “I hope I'm the other one and it would be nice to be the one they announce first” (laughs). And I was.
There was a largeish round of applause from people from all across the globe at that moment. And I think that's the first time I realised, “oh, jurors from everywhere voted for my show”. It doesn't quite dawn upon you, and then suddenly you see that somebody from Brazil is clapping or somebody from Korea is clapping, and they have voted for that show. That's the first time I realised, “oh, the room knows this show”.
The rest of it is a blur. I don't remember the speech. I don't remember anything. I remember thinking I forgot to shake hands with the guy who gave me the award. Then I got whisked off stage and got surrounded by people very fast.
FC: It feels like a personal victory for your fans.
VD: The largest, most common statement of the whole thing is people just going, “this feels like a personal victory”. I have thousands of messages just saying that, and I think it might be because there's no real middleman between me and you, my audience member. I wasn't brought here by any sort of godfather. There's no enterprise that takes me to you. There's no studio that takes me to you. I'm not part of any family. You just knew me, you know what I mean? And the way we interact is it's me in a room and you in a room and then you laugh. There really is nobody between you and me as an audience. It's really you that got me there. Do you know what I'm saying? Yes, (there is) Netflix, of course. But it's really this little group of people that I have who watch my stuff. They got me there. In that sense, I feel like they are as entitled as myself to feel like they're a part of this victory.
FC: You have said that to be a naturally good comic, “something needs to be off about you”. What is off about you?
VD: I think I'm neurotic. I think I am terrified of complacency and happiness. The minute I'm in a happy space, I'm like, “oh, need to move, need to set another goal”. Something horrible is going to happen if I sit in this for a moment. I'm weird dimension wise as well, and I have foot-in-mouth disease.
FC: Can you tell us about your process of creating a stand-up special?
VD: I mean, it's a tough one because it's been different things at different times. I'm still evolving. I'm not 20 years in. Twenty years in is when comedians find their voice. That's when Chappelle becomes Chappelle — about 20-25 years in.
As you get older, how you feel about the world and think about the world makes its way into your work. In your 20s, you're just like, “how do I get drunk? How do I get laid? How do I hook up?” When you're in your 30s, you're like, “how do I make money?” But when you're in your 40s, you're like, “what's this world I'm living in?” So that's maybe a part of it. I wake up in the morning and I write for two and a half hours, and it's regurgitation. Then I go to a comedy club and fifteen pages becomes one, because the rest of it I chuck out. Then I kind of rewrite that again and again and again. But I don't think there's a specific process. I got to be honest with you, there really isn't.
Mindfool (the show he is currently touring with), is a sillier show than I've ever done before — in that it's just fun, and it's higher on laughs than any show I've done before. There's laughs every six or seven minutes. That wasn't planned. Landing was a very poignant, dark, personal show, and now that chapter is closed, and I want to move on to lighter stuff.
FC: Landing explores love, hurt, and dealing with hate. How do you strike a balance between humour and sincerity in your storytelling? How do you navigate such sensitive and heavy topics?
VD: I wish I could tell you. I will write about where I am. It's a snapshot of where I am in my life. … With Mindfool for example, I wanted to write a show where I'm like, “can I make you forget where you are for 100 minutes? Make you laugh so hard, you're just like, “oh, my problems went away and I feel tired””. I want to tire you out. At the end of the show, I wanted your jaw to hurt, and I wanted your stomach to hurt and for you to feel like “he gave his 600% and I forgot where I was''. That's what I wanted with that show, with Wanted (the tour that became Netflix’s Landing) I wanted to make you feel better about your darkest moments. I think so much of comedy is, without seeming pretentious, making people feel seen or feeling seen.
FC: With the FIRs and the controversies, how do you persistently push boundaries in comedy? Is the potential backlash always something you have to be mindful of?
VD: Do you feel like I'm holding back?
VD: Well, I mean, it's one of 600 things that scare me about doing a show. I'm scared a joke might not work. I'm scared I might be tone deaf about something. I'm scared that the audio might be a problem. I just did two shows in Bangalore where I had to do sound checks. They were screaming “Trevor Noah!” because they couldn't hear. And I'm like, “I'm not bailing”. I'm an Indian artist and people spend a lot of money. So, I shut the show down for 15 minutes and went from section to section in a stadium to do a sound check in the middle of the show. I lost the entire audience and then had to gain them back. You have to understand, when I'm on stage, there are about a thousand things to worry about. I've been blessed enough that my audience is very diverse right now. And please understand I don't say that with arrogance — it's many different countries, many different groups, and many different demographics. If I start to second guess what they're going to like, I'll go insane. There's no one way to know what they'll be offended by. I can't predict it anymore. So, I just have to be like, “I like it”. And I hope you do, too.
FC: You’re going on some of the biggest world tours. What are the challenges that come with such an extensive international tour?
VD: It's a blessing. I've worked really hard to be this exhausted. I got back from the Emmys and I went to Panchkula, then Bengaluru and then Chennai. And now I'm in pre-production upstairs in this empty office for the first feature that I'll co-direct and star in, which is an action movie. It's nice to exercise different sides of your brain that normally people don't get to do. … It's a gigantic blessing. You have to understand, I spent my early thirties in Mumbai with not a damn person willing to listen to a damn idea in my head. They're listening now. I'm going to drive the car very much.