Indian Comic Vir Das on His U.S. TV Debut, America's "Arranged Marriage" With Trump
The first Indian comedian to have a Netflix special, Das has followed up with a second special 'Losing It', ahead of his American television acting debut on ABC spy comedy 'Whiskey Cavalier.'
Vir Das' reputation as the hottest comic talent in India was confirmed when he became the first person from the world's second most populous country to have a Netflix special, the raucous Abroad Understanding released last year. Das followed that with a second special Losing It, which premiered on Netflix on Dec. 11. And things continue to look up for Das with his U.S. TV acting debut in ABC's spy comedy Whiskey Cavalier coming in February.
Born in Delhi, but raised in Africa and educated in the U.S., Das broke through with his stand-up act Brown Men Can't Hump, a set he wrote while studying at Knox College in Illinois. Returning to India, he dabbled with acting in Bollywood films such as 2011's Delhi Belly and 2013's Go Goa Gone.
Ahead of what is sure to be a big year for Das, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the comedian on his recent success, being a foreign actor in the U.S. and America's relationship with Donald Trump.
You became the first Indian comic to have a special on Netflix. What kind of feedback did you get to Abroad Understanding in the U.S. given that the show was filmed in New York and your hometown New Delhi?
A lot of people discovered who I was, someone who had a decent following in India and was now reaching out to the world. It was nice to have lots of Americans and people in Europe, South America, East Asia and even American soldiers serving overseas, saying, 'Hey, we never heard of you but now we are going to follow you and keep in touch with you.' That was my big takeaway for the first special so when the second special came about, I said, 'OK, now these people know who I am, maybe I can now take some liberties and push the envelope a bit more.'
Your second special, Losing It, was filmed entirely in San Francisco and you again tackled sensitive themes like religion and racism. How do you see comedy playing a role in sparking debate over such issues?
There has to be the joke first, debate second. I don't think any comedian writes anything thinking, I am going to stir the pot and start a discussion. A comedian just wants to make you laugh and if that does create discussion then that's a great outcome of the joke. The beauty of comedy to me, and especially international comedy as I consider myself an international voice, is that when you are just catering to one specific demographic, there is safety in catering to one specific opinion. But if you really want a broader mainstream fan base, you have to tackle every little opinion and your audience has to be on board to disagree with each other and you, but still be able to laugh. We may completely disagree but we should still laugh together.
In terms of performing live in the U.S., does your audience primarily consist of the Indian diaspora?
Before my first Netflix special, my live audience was definitely 80 percent diaspora but after the special came out, the audience was about 50 percent Indian and 50 percent American or Australian or European. I am looking forward to seeing how this changes after my ABC show Whiskey Cavalier comes out next February. So then I will be on mainstream American television every Wednesday night. I will be interested to see how that show and the new Netflix special affects the audience.
Performing live is always the best form of comedy. How much you can push the envelope in a special, I think you can up that by two times in a live show. It's a more visceral connection where you are sweating onstage, one foot away from the audience and you can hear them having their drinks and eating their spring rolls. There's something beautiful about that connection (laughs).
What can you tell us about Whiskey Cavalier and the character you are portraying?
I can't tell you too much except its about four people who are spies who save the world every week but are ridiculously funny and complicated people. And I play one of those four people. The cast includes Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan and Tyler James Williams, who are all huge American TV stars. I am the new guy. I couldn't be more excited for my TV debut.
How do you see yourself as an Indian actor working in the U.S. industry?
There is now a conscious movement, especially in American media, to tell authentic stories. It's a really good time to be an Indian or an international actor because [it's really] about getting your authentic story. So whether it is TV or film, which I intend to do as well, I think times have really changed and the world has become a smaller place. I think there are as many Indians watching Game of Thrones as there are Americans watching that show. So it's time to cater to both of those audiences equally. In Whiskey Cavalier I play a spy who wears a suit and fires guns, so that's a good start!
You are also pursuing projects at home working in the upcoming sequel to Bollywood comedy Go Goa Gone. What kind of opportunities do you see in Bollywood for actors like yourself who come from a comedy background?
I think in Bollywood and with the digital boom, it has opened our minds to the kind of content we are doing. As content-driven Bollywood films are succeeding, as we have seen in the last year or so, though of course there are also the big spectacle films but smaller films are also doing well, I think for comedic actors like myself there is room to grow. You know, where is India's Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller or Steve Carell or Jonah Hill? I think there is room to be that person and we should all try for that.
Your production banner Weirdass Company is also looking to produce films and digital content. What kind of projects are you planning?
The mission statement for Weirdass is very simple. Within comedy and horror we want to take young, relevant millennial talent [and connect them with] bankable, commercial acting talent and be a bridge between them because these are two people who normally don't have access to each other. So we got young, exciting writers fresh out of film school with crazy concepts and we got legit, bankable actors who are looking at that [material] because they trust us with the content. So we'll be producing at least four or five series and we'll be producing a feature soon, though at this stage I can't talk more but early next year we will be putting out our slate.
Last year you also debuted on Late Night With Conan O'Brien with a routine where you explained how Donald Trump's election was like an Indian arranged marriage, stating, "We didn't vote for this guy, now we got to live with him." As Trump's presidency enters its third year, how do you think this arranged marriage is working out?
(Laughs) You know what, I am not really sure. I think Donald Trump might be our biggest test, you know what I mean? I think in any country, the leadership is a testament to your tolerance, how much are you willing to take, so for Americans that's what Donald Trump is. The one area where my analogy [of arranged marriage] falls apart is that for an arranged marriage to be successful, both partners have to be faithful. Donald Trump seems to be cheating on his wife.