He makes the world laugh, but Vir Das can’t stop beaming these days. Fresh from his International Emmy win for the Netflix special Vir Das: Landing, the 44-year-old globe-trotting stand-up comedian, actor and soon-to-be director spoke to t2oS on what the honour means to him and his fellow comedians, what keeps him grounded and why he is looking forward to his new career as a filmmaker.
Vir, we couldn’t be more proud of you. Does the win still feel surreal?
It’s been a lovely week. Lots of people have been very kind. It does feel a little surreal even now. Also because I went straight back to work. I went from the International Emmys to Panchkula, which I don’t think is a journey anybody has ever taken before. It was nice to be able to say: ‘Okay, I got back to work in the morning.’ So in that sense, it’s been very nice.
And not much sleep, right?
Yes, I have not slept properly. Last night, I got about seven hours, which is much better than what I have got in a long time. I am prepping for an acting project for which I still have to work out two hours a day for sure. And that’s been a challenge. I got my first seven hours yesterday in a long time, which is nice.
Is this the only way in which you can function?
If there’s a better way, I haven’t found it yet. I am a work-in-progress is all I would say.
When I asked you about your first International Emmy evening, you said you didn’t remember much except that the salad was nice and that you had to take a bathroom break the minute they called out your category. Considering you won this time, one would assume the memories would be a little more pronounced...
I had not thought that I was going to win at all because I was up against Derry Girls, which is a tremendous show. It’s a really good show and a great piece of comedy. Also, since every comedy special that gets made in India and all of Singapore and all of Japan and all of the East and all of the rest of Asia and Pacific gets submitted, I didn’t know what my chances were. There are 50-70 specials and 300-400 shows being submitted every year. To then make it to the top of Asia Pacific and then to be nominated with some of the best fictional shows like Call My Agent, it’s huge. For a little comedy special to make it through all of those rounds, that itself is something to be grateful for and quite a rare thing. You are a David in a room full of Goliaths, in that sense.
And then they said that there was a tie and that two projects had got the exact same number of votes from across the world. The International Emmys are quite complicated since people from all across the world watch content from everywhere else in the world. The jury really is from everywhere in the world.
Which also makes it very democratic...
Yes, I do like that. The fact that two projects got the exact same number of votes was quite a rare thing. And that’s really the first time I thought maybe I have a shot. I met a juror from Brazil and another from Japan who both said: ‘We love Vir Das: Landing and we voted for you, sitting in Japan and sitting in Brazil during those rounds.’ That’s very gratifying, you know, that they watched an Indian story and voted for you.
What does this win mean for stand-up comedy and for specials as a whole? Because this was a category that encompassed the whole of comedy and was just not dedicated to stand-up...
Well, I appreciate them for recognising stand-up comedy specials as pieces of filmmaking and nominating them with other pieces of filmmaking. I hope it widens that perception.
At the end of the day, Vir Das: Landing is a piece of filmmaking, much like Tathastu (by fellow comic Zakir Khan) is a piece of filmmaking. I would love to see them get nominated in India accordingly too.
You are up on stage almost every night. What was it like being up on the International Emmys stage?
I have no recollection of what I said, to be very honest. Zero recollection of the speech, of anything. I had two or three loose thoughts about what I might say that came to me in the shower two weeks before the award ceremony. And that’s what ended up coming out. After winning, I remember being backstage in the kitchen area and in utter panic, I looked at my management and asked: ‘Did I thank my wife?’ And they were like: ‘Yes.’ And I was like: ‘Did I thank Netflix and the Academy?’ And they were like: ‘Yes.’ I was glad I got the big three right.
It was a very, very fine speech... short and smooth...
You get 30 seconds. I am a comedian, I am trained to follow the light and to stick to my time.
Whose congratulatory messages meant the most to you? You have said that after the win, you got calls from many who had never ever called you...
In the last five days, I have got calls from at least 10 numbers that are not saved on my phone. And then when the person has said their name at the other end, I have stood up at attention. So I have said: ‘Who is this?’ and the next moment I go: ‘Sir!’
Anything that’s been really strange and crazy, but yet fun in a way that anyone told you?
The Amul cartoon. I am from Noida, I am a ‘90s kid. You do not grow up thinking you are going to be on an Amul hoarding. That’s the most surreal thing that has happened since I have been on the Internet.
That’s the perfect segue to my next question. Pinning the Amul cartoon at the top of your social media handle and posing in front of a dishwasher with your International Emmy because you started out washing dishes... do these simpler things in life keep you grounded as you go about on this remarkable global journey that you have been on over the last couple of years?
My audience keeps me grounded. The promise is always that you come to a Vir Das show and you forget about your problems. I will put you, the audience, on a pedestal. And trying to deliver that promise means I don’t get to have an ego myself. So the audience keeps me grounded, in that sense.
Taking a photo next to a dishwasher station is a moment that I shared with my management and we got to say: ‘Look, we did something together.’ And the Amul thing is something I got to share with my parents. It’s a moment that I am very proud of.
Beyond the euphoria, beyond the fact that this is a first, what does this win mean to you personally and in terms of your career?
I do not know what it will mean in terms of my career, to be very honest with you. I don’t know what any decisions that were made have meant for my career. So that’s not something that I think about overall. What it does mean is that if I feel in my gut that I have an artistic inclination that is risky or that is new or that is uncharted for me, and that is terrifying, I should take that artistic risk.
Vir Das: Landing was a piece of filmmaking where I removed the set. There was really no lighting. There was no construction as such. We tried to design it around this magic trick of the soil. The show before that was easy to do because it was about culture and about the world. But I had never put myself out in a vulnerable manner before Vir Das: Landing. But I kind of trusted it and it worked out. What it will mean to me is that the next time when my gut tells me that something should be done, I should run at it with energy.
What was the big dream when you were washing dishes in New York?
Just to teach. I wanted to be a theatre professor. It is a fancy tale to say you were once a dishwasher, but I don’t want to ever fetishize my struggle. I wanted to stay in America and my visa had expired. I needed a job that would pay me in cash so that I could stay on. I worked as a dishwasher, as a security guard and I worked in a paint factory, and all three were cash-paying jobs. That’s how I look at them. At that time, I wanted to get into a master’s programme and I wanted to teach.
What made you move towards comedy?
I got on stage at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and did my firstever sold-out show. And once you have tasted the stage as a professional and people have bought tickets to see you, it is very tough to go back to a classroom. After that, I went to my PhD programme, I did two months and dropped out. I told myself that I can always hopefully get a PhD later in life. That moment hasn’t come yet.
When did you first realise that you were funny and could hold a room with a joke?
There are two types of comics. Those who hold a room with a joke and then there are awkward idiots and losers in the corner. And I am the loser in the corner. But somehow, if I think about it now, I have been a comedian since I was five. I have been put on a stage as a cynic. I have been run through, whether it was debating or dramatics or music or stand-up or whatever. I ‘feel’ stage life and it’s fun.
When you say that you were the least popular kid in class, was it because you were painfully shy and awkward?
Painfully shy and awkward but I also had a very overactive imagination. I was lost in daydreaming all the time... kind of your average, distracted child.
So how did things roll after the first stage gig? You started out at a time when stand-up comedy wasn’t as popular as it is today...
We were a ragtag group of people that kind of found each other. I got on stage at the India Habitat Centre and l would do a show there every four to five months. I hosted a food awards evening at age 23-24 in Mumbai and the next morning they made me a VJ! I wasn’t very good at that at all because I wanted to do more news comedy and I loved The Daily Show. I shot a pilot on my kitchen table with a Handycam and took it to CNBC and they put me on the news. In that period, I did an amateur night. I found Rohan Joshi) and I found Tanmay (Bhat), Aditi Mittal, Anu Menon, (Gursimran) Khamba, (Ashish) Shakya, Varun Thakur and Neville (Shah) and all of them came through this little company called Weirdass.
Mumbai is really good at recognising and supporting counterculture, whether it is standup or indie music or theatre. So we just became this young vibrant counterculture and Mumbai kind of carried us right through.
Do you see that support in other cities now?
It is a huge time to be a stand-up comic right now. A brand-new comic can put a reel up and get 3 million views and sell 200 tickets in the next week... so it’s a damn good time to be one. Every major theatre venue that wouldn’t touch a comedian with a 10-foot pole is now booked out by comedians.
And yet there are no popular awards or no categories in the so-called popular awards for standup comedians...
I will say very diplomatically that to call those awards ‘popular’ is a high compliment.
You are at the pinnacle of your career, selling out at the world’s top performing venues. But during the pandemic, you got down to the basics, doing shows on Zoom and performing in a forest in Goa for about 40-odd people. Do you miss that?
The bigger ones or the smaller ones, each has a place of its own. I am grateful for the smaller ones because they changed my voice. Covid really changed my voice as a comic. I was on a Zoom call with everybody’s box being the same size as my box. I got to peek into my audience’s lives.
And then I had 40 people in the middle of a forest and we all walked up a hill to do some stand-up. In both those settings, I didn’t get to be performative at all. One has to be very real and very authentic to find a connection with the audience. And after doing that for the better part of a year-and-a-half, it gets very tough to go back to being somebody who projects too much or is very performative. That’s because you have tasted how much more visceral that connection is. Those small ones really taught me more than the big shows.
But I would love to get away with the rest of my life never having to do comedy on Zoom again! It’s very hard, it’s not a lot of fun. But would I return to a forest and shoot another episode? For sure!
You have a host of acting projects and your directorial debut lined up. What’s the headspace like at this point?
I am happy in the space that I am in because acting and comedy are both opposite sides of your brain that need to be nourished. Acting is such a lovely collaborative art form and so is filmmaking, where you know you are not alone anymore and there are different people propping you up and making you look good and helping you make something amazing. I have been doing comedy solo for sometime now and I am kind of looking forward to being on a film set and working with 300 people. It’s good for your brain.
Are you looking forward to going on set and calling the shots as director?
It’s a huge responsibility... I don’t view it as calling the shots. A director is just somebody who empowers people who are good at their job. I am also going to be in front of the camera on that project and I will be co-directing with my friend Kavi Shastri. I have somebody who has got my back and we are just trying to find really good people for the job.
I would love to do what Mel Brooks did with his career. He was a consummate writer, filmmaker, stand-up comic, stage artiste... he did it all.
Has there been any kind of a celebration of the win once you have got back to India?
I have been at work but my wife will not let me get away without having a few people over. So I think at some point we are definitely going to do that. When I got nominated, Netflix and another party sent me bottles of champagne. I left them on the bookshelf saying if I win, I will open them. I have come back and they are both still on the bookshelf. My wife is right now running a camp for dogs in Goa and I am seeing her in three days and that’s when we will open those bottles of champagne.
Have you celebrated with your dogs? I know how important they are to you...
My dogs are in Goa and I am seeing them in two days and I am desperately looking forward to that. I may not show them the Emmy because they will chew it — big shiny toy, you know — but there is nothing quite as humbling as the love of a dog.