"Welcome to what promises to be the strangest stand-up comedy gig that you and I have ever been a part of" says Vir Das, introducing his 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.
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 of these 'virtual' stand-up shows for charity. This documentary-esque comedy 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.
The result is a glimpse of humanity and connection that's far more than the sum of its laughs. Inside Out is a personal, perceptive piece of work that not only captures a unique moment in time, it also documents the journey of an artist trying to do what he loves most at a time when it's never been more difficult to do so. It's an inventive idea for a special, which examines whether live comedy can, in fact, 'successfully' take place in this way. Or, as he puts it in one of his piece to camera reflections: 'Zoom shows – the future of stand-up…or the prelude to its death'.
Early on, we see him trying to make the weirdness of the video call format as conducive for comedy as possible by asking audience members to lean into their mics so he can hear the laughter, if it comes. We frequently see family members of the audience walk in and out of the frame behind them. During one show, you even hear a flushing toilet which, of course, Das uses for material. But on the flip side, he also ponders what the uniqueness of this format brings. "For the first time, I'm looking into my audience's houses. That's a very weird thing to happen as an artist. For the first time I can see you and your life as opposed to you just coming to see me", he says during one show.
The special's biggest laughs come not when he's delivering prepared punchlines, but when he has an organic reaction and cracks up when interacting with people. Be it a son trying to teach his father how to use Zoom bang in the middle of a show, or a man in Dubai cribbing that he can't smoke hookah because he's stuck at home taking care of his baby.
But what really makes Inside Out more than a typical crowd work show is the comedian's diverse fan base. As our biggest comedy export, his audience is dotted around the globe, so these digital gigs are attended by people as far-reaching as Ireland, Spain, Russia, Poland, the US and even China.
That, and the sincerity he brings to listening to the stories of so many people from across the world, all going through the same thing. During every show he asks the audience the same question – 'What's the first thing you're going to do when the world reopens?' You feel for these strangers and relate to what they hope to do when the world resumes, from eating at their favourite restaurant to meeting their partners to getting a haircut. It makes you feel like you're a part of something. Das may not be able to physically assemble large crowds anymore, but he can certainly still bring people together.
During every show he asked the audience the same question – 'What's the first thing you're going to do when the world reopens?' You feel for these strangers and relate to what they hope to do when the world resumes, from eating at their favourite restaurant to meeting their partners to getting a haircut. It makes you feel like you're a part of something. Das may not be able to physically assemble large crowds anymore, but he can certainly still bring people together.
Das's comedy has always had a sincerity. His work is known for providing meaning and feeling alongside the laughs, and he does the same here. What makes this special so distinct are his more personal moments, between the shows. Before one gig you see him feeling weary and weighed down by what life is like right now, something he has to snap out of to bring the laughs. 'People come to see a Vir Das show to forget about their shit – they don't come to see mine', he says. The show must go on.
Similarly, it's the human moments that come out of his interactions that stay with you most. During one show he speaks to Pranav, a student who's been accepted to a college in the US who remains resilient and hopeful despite his future now indefinitely being put on hold as a result of the pandemic. "I hope we kill this virus before the virus kills that feeling because that feeling is important," Das says to the camera after that show.
In the end, Inside Out achieves many things. It captures an incredibly strange period in our lives. It makes us laugh. It follows an artist who misses his stage and the sound of the audience's laughter — what he calls 'the soundtrack to his life'. But it's as much about what he's lost as an artist, as it is about what he's gained.
Vir opens Inside Out by saying 'That's the thing about the entire world going through the same thing at the same time. I guess it's special'. So was this.