Vir Das is a busy man. When he isn’t touring the world or shooting Netflix specials, he’s featuring in US TV dramas or creating Indian web shows. This near-constant globetrotting means that he doesn’t feel clued into the Indian stand-up scene, despite creating two news shows for it, he says. On the acting front he will next be seen in Hasmukh, a web series he’s co-produced and written in which Das plays a comedian moonlighting as a serial killer.
His latest project, Jestination Unknown, isn’t strictly a comedy show as much it is a show about comedy. The Prime Video series follows him and a group of fellow comedians as they spend 72 hours in different Indian cities taking in the local culture. Each episode ends with an impromptu stand-up show, where they test out fresh material based on their experiences.
At a press event for the series, he spoke about the show’s unique format, why he still feels like he’s just started out, and why Aamir Khan is an Alphonso mango.
Where did the idea of a travel-meets-comedy show come from? Were you ever worried about whether people would be receptive to a different kind of comedy show?
Well it’s definitely a new genre. I’m never going to say I’m not worried, I’m always worried about anything I put out because I try to do new things. So who knows if the audience is going to respond or not.
To me, it was always about the drive through the airport. When you land in a new city as a comic, you’re always there for one day and you’ve got a show in the evening and you’ve got to think of local material for the first four minutes of the show. If you’re landing in Bangalore you do a joke about how far the airport is, that kind of thing. And during that drive I’d always wind up thinking, ‘Man, I wish two other comics were in the car with me, this would be a fun drive’ because you’re looking at it saying, ‘Look at that old man, what he’s wearing is funny. What is that ad for? Should I go and eat in that restaurant?’ Also, you never really get to experience the city during that drive so you never really find real local material, you’re just skimming the surface.
The concept of the show is simple. Three comedians experience a city on steroids. You assimilate as fast as you can. Wherever you go you shoot silly sketches, come up with comedy bits, find a venue and set up a show. So it’s 90% comedians experiencing a city and thinking of comedy on the fly. And it’s entirely unscripted. It’s just comedians’ minds working together and what’s lovely about that is it doesn’t always work. This is just on the spot so sometimes the joke bombs and I feel like that’s good engaging television to watch as well.
I read an interview where you said your biggest fear is stagnation. You said ‘I fear that I might get lost in a bubble, which is why I keep trying new things’. Is there a constant pressure in your position to be involved in multiple things like web series and touring and shooting specials?
No, it’s not a compulsion or a pressure, I view it more as therapy. I wake up with 10 ideas in my head every single morning and if I don’t execute them that’s 20 ideas leftover from yesterday, 30 from the day before and so on and I’m going insane. But nobody gets the ideas. I give full credit to Amazon. I went to them and said, ‘This is travel plus docu plus sketch plus a bit of stand-up’ which just kind of doesn’t exist and they were like, ‘Okay, if you believe in it, we believe in it.’ And it’s great to be at that level. Why would I not use that point in my career to do really strange things?
You also said that in the career of a comic, the first few years are about what they want you to say, then it becomes about what you want to say, and over time you try and find a balance. Where would you say you are on that graph?
I’m very early man. The reason I keep travelling abroad and kind of working on the international circuit is just to get my ass kicked every few months. You want to be good at tennis, you have to play tennis with people who are better than you are. That’s why I go there. And I’m 10 years in. Chappelle is 30 years in and he’s ‘Dave Chappelle’ now. He just became this version of himself. Bill Burr just became this version of himself now and he’s also 30 years in. So I have no idea what kind of comic I’m going to be 2 years from now. We’re sperm in India. But because we have the largest audience in the world we’re all getting fast-tracked and benefitting from it. But I want to get good.
Is that dangerous? That so many top comics here have all been given web shows and stand up specials and had so many opportunities so early on?
No I think it’s great. The more people that do something, the more the audience novelty will wear off. I mean, five years ago in India, you could just get by on saying you’re an English stand-up comic. Now audiences have watched multiple specials on Amazon and Netflix, so now you have to be good. I feel like anytime there’s more people doing something, it’s good for that something. And it raises the bar for everybody.
In terms of your acting career, one of the things people struggled with is your sensibility as a comedian being widely different from some of your acting work. Would you say your future projects like Hasmukh are more in line with how people see you?
Man, I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. Who the fuck knows how people are going to see you? (laughs). Hasmukh is something I’ve written and co-produced, but I think a lot of the stuff happens because we hadn’t warmed up to the multi-hyphenate audience yet. Now you have warmed up to the fact that this person can be an actor and a writer and a producer etc. And people like Farhan Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor are responsible for people opening up to multi-hyphenates, so I feel like that gets better every year. In terms of how the audience is going to respond, man I didn’t think I’d be in a movie. I’m 5 ft 8 with no friends and family in the industry with strictly average looks, so this is a gift in the smallest form.
Is it surprising that we haven’t had a big crossover star from comedy to film like an Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller or Kevin Hart? Or is it too still too early for that?
I think it has happened, but it’s Hindi. You have to understand that the big ball game is Hindi. Like, Kapil Sharma, you have to give the man credit. He’s a film star and a TV star and a stand-up star who caters to a larger audience than Kevin Hart.
What do you think about the level of discourse surrounding comedy in India? Do you feel like reviewers and commentators really understand the art form?
I don’t think it’s possible to review a comedy show because of how subjective it is. At the end of the day, when I’m done doing stand-up, I watch the most mindless shit on television and that’s what makes me laugh. It’s very subjective.
I’ll put it to you this way, if you’re reviewing stand-up comedy specials based on how much they made you laugh, I feel like that’s the wrong angle. But if you’re reviewing a stand-up comedy special based on callbacks, narratives, dynamics of a set, uniqueness of premise, you’re in a better territory. And there are people who get that here. We have enough people in India for everything (laughs) there’s no shortage of anyone.
From the outside, your career over the last few years looks like this blur of Netflix specials and touring the world. What would you say have been your big game-changing moments? Would it be the first Netflix special or the appearance on Conan?
By the time you’ve experienced those things, you’re done with them. The special comes out, but you’ve edited that special five months ago. The same with the Conan appearance, I don’t look back at all.
What changes is what people say. Earlier on, people used to say, ‘I like that joke’ or ‘I’m your fan’. Now people are just like, ‘Whatever you’re doing is great, just keep going.’ Which is cool to hear. At the end of the day, it all boils down to the relationship between an artist and an audience. Aamir Khan is an Alphonso mango. You know Alphonso comes once a year, you wait for Alphonso season and you go and consume it and you’re glad because that’s a good relationship you have. So I feel like my relationship with an audience is at its best point.
If there’s one thing you wish you could tell yourself 10 years ago when you were just starting out what would it be?
I look back at my work from 5 months ago and I cringe, so I would tell myself a lot of things (laughs). But if I could say something to Vir who’s just been in the industry for a few years, I would say take off the suit and concentrate on writing better jokes.