Vir Das on making covid-related comedy, how he’s keeping upbeat and why he misses the sound of laughter most
"I am in my pyjamas. I hope you are too," says Vir Das over the phone. It is Day 6 of the nationwide lockdown. In this time, Das has put out a song and an 11-minute YouTube video titled Bright Side With Vir Das. He’s looking forward to Hasmukh, his new fiction series on Netflix. Besides doing live stand-up shows around the world, Das is also known for his performances in cult films Go Goa Gone and Delhi Belly. The singer, songwriter, stand-up comic and writer talks about the challenges of creating comedy during social distancing and what he’s missing most. Edited excerpts:
On the first episode of ‘Bright Side With Vir Das’ you put a spin on the coronavirus. How do you take dark thoughts and insecurity and find the bright side to them?
Actually this is a new show and we had already shot a few episodes before the lockdown. I have wanted to do a news comedy for a while. I started with a show on CNBC and wanted to get back to that. But I didn’t feel there was a space for what I wanted to do. I watched what John Oliver, Conan O’Brien and others were doing and I felt, over the last few years, that comedy was becoming a voice of doom.
The comedians on stage were saying everything is going to hell; we are all screwed. I want to take the darkest thoughts in your head and turn them to optimism, or at the very least infuse them with silliness; to change the mental math. The banked episodes where shot in a studio and are better produced but I knew the opener had to be about coronavirus. So, I shot this episode with my own camera in a similar setting except it’s not a studio but me in my bed at home—in pyjamas and socks.
We are all consuming the same social media and forwards. What is the challenge of finding fresh and unique material during self-isolation?
It’s tough because after a while the (Donald) Trump joke or the (Narendra) Modi joke becomes passé. Lockdown jokes are going to become passé pretty soon too. And yes, it is a challenge when the entire world is consuming the same material. Not talking about that material renders you irrelevant but thinking exactly what the rest of the world is thinking makes you a hack.
When this is done you are going to see a lot of sad comedy specials—“we lived, we survived"—and a lot of us airing our confinement through our material. This current situation forces you to innovate. Hence I am trying different things— songs and Bright Side, which is at least a different angle.
I was also able to figure out how to raise money for covid-19 relief, beyond what one donated personally. I did an Instagram concert and when brands asked me to mention them, I agreed on the condition that the money goes to specific NGOs. This week I will auction a lifetime ticket to a front-row seat at my shows. That money will go towards covid relief.
Yes. All I can say is that I have co-created it with Nikkhil Advani and if you think anything I have done so far is dark, then this is severely dark.
Thanks to lockdown posts, we are getting a glimpse into celebrity homes. For example, I now know what your study looks like.
What I have noticed is that I have a lot of random stuff and other celebrities have a lot of awards. That’s what I am thinking about when I see their homes. I see trophies. In my room I have 200 hats, cough syrup and 4,000 books. So now I am supremely conscious that I have no awards whatsoever.
What is your lockdown routine?
I have not had a pause in a very long time. I have been on the road for the better part of more than six years. It has largely been output. I have not had a lot of time for input. So now I am reading and consuming content as much as possible. I am going to be in an English language romcom next year, which I have to write. I had a Bollywood movie going on the floor soon but who knows when that will be now. I am looking forward to Hasmukh premiering on Netflix.
Watson, my British bulldog, needs to be walked four times a day. My wife and I are getting quality time together after a while so we have a movie date every evening at 7.30pm. I am also trying to get healthy. I have quit smoking and caffeine and I work out for an hour daily.
What is most annoying about this situation?
I have a company with 24 employees. They look to me for answers, for direction, which I do not have right now. In fact I don’t think any of us know.
And what are you missing the most?
I miss the sound of laughter. I hear upwards of a million-and-a-half people laughing at my face through the year. I am very accustomed to getting out at 7pm and meeting 400-4,000 people and hearing them laugh. I can’t hear them online. Online comments aren’t really the same. I don’t miss laughter because of validation but because it is a positive thing. The sound of laughter is amazing.
You have a podcast, your own production house and all the hats you juggle. Is it useful to be multi-hyphenated, especially at this time?
For a very long time it was not useful but it is useful now. Earlier, the only accepted multi-hyphenate was Farhan Akhtar. People would say to me you are a Bollywood guy so why are you doing stand-up. Or you are a stand-up, why do you want to write the movie that you are in, and so on. So now to be able to create the show you star in or produce things for other people is great.
I have never enjoyed more mediums in my life. Sometimes audiences cross over in a really groovy way: They come and see your movie because they saw your Netflix special. Sometimes it doesn’t work out also because they want the guy from that project and then they come to your concert and they are like, who is this guy? During an Alien Chutney concert I will be singing some song about man boobs and they will be asking for Babaji ki booty (from Go Goa Gone).
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.