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“I feel like there is a genuine vacancy in the world for an authentic Indian comedy voice. And I want to be that guy.”
Vir Das steps onto the stage of a New York comedy club and makes a public service announcement.
“I have an Indian accent. This is the next hour of your lives. This does not change. I’m not doing a bit. I’m not impersonating a hilarious relative. There’s no fucking Apu from The Simpsons joke coming up,” Das says. “Today, for the first time in your life, maybe the Indian accent can be a perspective, not a punchline, wouldn’t that be nice? Give it time, my accent will grow on you. Give it four or five generations and it will be fine.”
This is how Das opens the New York City half of his new Netflix special, Abroad Understanding, which was filmed in New York and in front of a stadium audience in his native New Delhi. It’s a remarkable feat, both in structure and editing, showing Das performing in front of an intimate audience and tearing the house down in front of thousands as a local boy done good.
“It’s like it gives you a chance to play with two different bands,” Das said in an interview with The Interrobang. “I was able to be intimate in a club and do a stadium theatrical show.”
The editing allows terrific moments for segues between the two tapings and works without becoming a distraction. “I didn’t think a lot about it from the performance point of view. It was the editing that took so long to get right,” he said. “The sound has you going back and forth from a few hundred people to thousands of people. That mix took forever.”
The conceit is not only ambitious in scope and execution, but it also allows the viewer to see multiple facets of a complex comedian. In the New York half, he addresses the Ganesha in the room by opening with his heritage and the perspective of a rising star in India, where he is also a Bollywood actor. For the New Delhi audience, he’s under no such burden. By combining both performances into one special, Abroad Understanding achieves the best of both worlds; yes, Das is Indian, but he’s also an astute comic and storyteller whose work is winning over fans on both hemispheres.
Born in India, Das spent much of his childhood in Africa and later attended schools in Lagos, Nigeria, India, and the United States, where he attended college. “My parents moved a lot when I was growing up,” he said. “I think that gave me an outsider’s perspective on every country I got to be inside.” In his sophomore year of college at Knox College in Illinois, Das decided to change majors, switching from a degree in economics to a theater degree. While unconventional, he said his family supported his decision. “My dad said if that is what you want to do, that’s fine. But you’re paying your own way as soon as you get out of college,” he said. “Because that’s what parents worry about. Are you paying the rent? Are you eating? Are you taking care of yourself? Now, for all of this to happen – to have something as big as this Netflix special where my timeline has been blowing up since the moment it came out – it’s kind of nice to have grounded family there for you.”
Through his work in stand up, film, and television, Das has become one of India’s top entertainers. Though he admits to feeling a certain amount of pressure to represent his country on the international stage, he said his top goal is to simply remain true to himself. “It’s definitely something in the back of your head. I think if you think about it actively, it would be very daunting and influence your writing, like if I fuck up, there’s going to be a lot of people in India mad at me,” Das said. “I did know that I wanted to be authentically Indian. That’s the vibe of my comedy, really. You just have to go up and do your thing.”
Das’ “thing” is wide-reaching. In Abroad Understanding, he touches on everything from dating and homophobia to religion and international politics. One thing he didn’t know how to tackle was the subject of President Donald Trump. “I shot my special in New York four days after he became President. At some point, we got a call from Netflix saying ‘You’re going to be the first take that we have on Trump with your special’ because the recent specials by Jim Jefferies and Dave Chappelle were taped before Trump happened. So now I need something good to say and it’s like, fuck, now I have to think of something original to say about Trump? He’s been fodder for late night for two years now. What do I say? So that was tough. I found an analogy of an arranged marriage with Trump and I went with that.”
In addition to the special on Netflix, Das is completing an American tour and preparing for an international tour that will take him to 20 countries on six continents. He has high hopes about building a big following internationally as well as in India. “I feel like there is a genuine vacancy in the world for an authentic Indian comedy voice,” Das said. “And I want to be that guy.”
Watch Vir Das: Abroad Understanding exclusively on Netflix, available now.