Vir Das on the response to the Netflix show, 'Abroad Understanding', building global brand equity and the challenges of writing comedy in present times
New Delhi: On 25 April, Netflix released its first original series born out of India, featuring popular standup comic Vir Das. Abroad Understanding is a 1-hour-5-minute-long video in which Das tackles universal themes of nationalism, globalism, good food and bad politics in two cleverly cut performances in New York and New Delhi. The Netflix special was produced by Das’s comedy consultancy, Weirdass Comedy, last year. In little over a month, the show has managed to put Das on the global map and gain immense popularity.
Das is touted to be one of the most expensive comedians in the country today. “Everyone keeps complaining about that," he said in a telephonic interview from Mumbai. In a career spanning over nine years, Abroad Understanding is effectively Das’s digital debut since he admits that he’s made his career “on the road" the hard way. In India, where popular stand-up comedy means laughter challenges on television and Johnny Lever, Das has managed to create more than just a niche for himself.
Das is presently in the midst of his first world tour—The Boarding Das World Tour—across 26 countries in six continents that started in February this year in the US. He has his plate full with a world tour, two films and much more.
In an interview with Mint, Das talks about the response to the Netflix show, building global brand equity and the challenges of writing comedy in present times. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your experience while working on Abroad Understanding.
I worked on Abroad Understanding last year. I still can’t believe how well it’s done. I think I didn’t really fully comprehend the level of audience it would go out to. And then suddenly when you start getting messages from every country in the world and every language in the world you realize really what a platform it (Netflix) was. It was a start for me. I’m on Netflix with people who have nine years more experience than me. They have already done three to four specials, this is my first that they have put out. I’d like to think that we have made a good start and it was a good introduction to the world market.
What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve got so far, from outside India?
I think the best message that I got was from two US army soldiers who are currently serving in the Middle East. It was a husband and a wife who wrote me a joint Facebook message about how they felt my (Netflix) special brought the world together. And the fact that comedy can bring the world together. That was really nice and touching.
How long did you take to shoot for Abroad Understanding?
It took a year. My company Weirdass Comedy produced it, so we are also effectively the first people to produce for Netflix in India. Everything from booking the stadium (The Indira Gandhi stadium in Delhi and a basement called Sub Culture in the US) to designing the show. My company designed everything from sets to the camera work, we went to LA to find a director, hired the right cameraman, then getting the people, testing the material, it was like making a movie. For a movie you typically use two cameras, we had 16.
What does a platform like Netflix/Amazon Prime do to one’s brand equity that perhaps a live audience can’t?
At the end of the day, the goal is always to reach the maximum people. You want to go from selling 1,000 tickets to selling 26,000 tickets. Just to give you context, I did a show in Australia two weeks after the Netflix special. We had everything sold in advance, we had to bring in additional seating, but apart from that the crowd was now about 50% international. Usually when I go abroad 90-100% of my audience is Indian. So that’s how it changes the game, where it just gets a lot more people excited about seeing your stuff. The ultimate goal for a comedian is to have people watch your stuff, be it online or live.
Can you tell us about the nature of your partnership with Netflix going forward?
I can’t tell you too much about it. All I can say is Netflix wanted the special to be shot both in India and America because they were looking to build a long-term international relationship. They could have just shot the special in India but they were very adamant on introducing me to the international market. So there is definitely a long-term play there.
What’s your travel itinerary for the World Tour?
So I was in Australia for a while. I did about 15 shows in 10 days and now I’m back for about a month and a half. I’m back to the world tour in August. We did America first, 48 shows in about 36 days in 11 cities. Then I performed in Australia. I will be in Canada in July. I cover all of Europe in September. We go to Africa in November, East Asia in January and finally India in February.
How hard is it to do comedy today when most people in the world have a low patience threshold, especially online?
Well I think I got lucky because I don’t think there are that many trolls on Netflix. Having said that at the end of the day if you look at the show I do make fun of myself as much as I make fun of everybody else. The format of the show was designed in a way where it was very much my introduction to the world market so there wasn’t room to get very personal because none of these people knew who I was.
So, when you’re talking to all these other countries who have no idea who you are you try to connect and talk about racism or homophobia, religion or religious phobia. I’m looking forward to getting more personal in my next session since everybody has had an introduction to who I am.
If you can pepper your talking points about racism etc with a little bit of personal stuff, not too much, and then evenly spread it across, it works. Like in the (Netflix) special, we needed some Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. We made fun of racism in America, racism in India, we took on every political party without question. So it’s not like we were targeting a specific group of people.
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