Vir Das on Bringing "Global" Comedy Voice to Sitcoms, Movies and The Houston Improv

Vir Das brings his voice to take us somewhere new.
Vir Das brings his voice to take us somewhere new. Photo by Robery Sebreee

Stand-up Vir Das is not just blowing up here, he’s blowing up everywhere.

Embarking on a 32-country tour, the 44-year-old India born joker is on steady pace to be as known as the comedy heroes he looked up to as a kid. “Growing up in Africa I got to see a lot of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, George Carlin on TV,” he reminisces. “I always wanted to do it. And I felt like I could maybe, in the back of my head. I went to drama school in America, I went to a small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois where we had a very Stanislavskian tough drama school. After four years of doing Shakespeare and Chekov and Simon, I really wanted to do something a little more rebellious. I had a thesis show in my senior year and I wrote a stand-up comedy show.”

The thesis show, he explains was titled Brown Men Can’t Hump. “Which is a terrible title,” he laughs, “that the show deserved. Most people begin doing stand-up with three to five minutes for 20-30 people. The first time I did it was 800 people for 80 minutes. It was misleading because it was friends and I would do inside jokes, but it was enough to get bitten by the bug. Then cut to I was getting booed off stage at open mic in Chicago and I thought: oh shit, you actually have to work at this thing. But that was the journey in, that one performance in college.”

Ahead of his string of shows at Houston Improv on June 16-18, Das is in process for a new hour and continue to craft what he describes as an “unapologetically global voice.” He explains: “I feel like more and more we’re going away from: ‘Yeah, you’re big in the world but are you truly big if you are not big in America?’ It’s now more: ‘If you’re big in America, you get to be big in the world.’ More and more American comics are looking outwards and wanting to tour the world. The fact that I can sell out a reasonably large venue in London, or South Africa or Mumbai but also be able to sell out four shows at Wiseguys in Utah? It’s an interesting thing. Last night at my show, we had 75 percent American and 25percent  Indians. That’s lovely because I still get to do an authentically Indian voice but now for American people. This year, we’ll do a world tour and I think do 32 countries – which I never thought was possible!”

Balancing the needs of an act that tour that needs to please locals across continents might be enough to drive other comics to tear their hair out. But Das is content with the challenge, admitting candidly: “When you are touring at the level in which I tour internationally, if you try and second guess or cater to all those audiences, you will go fucking insane.

“There is no act that plays for all of them, so you just have to authentically tell your story. I think ironically, that because MORE important when you tour internationally. I could come to you and do five minutes about Utah or Houston, but can I take you to a place you’ve never been to before? That’s the more important question. Earlier it used to be: can you talk to me about this version of India that I know because I’ve seen the Simpsons or do immigrant jokes, etc. But now, no, can I take you to Punjab much like Dave Chappelle takes me to Ohio even thoughI’ve never been to Ohio before. Now the flip is true – it’s more important to be authentic.”

That authenticity is attracting more fans that ever, and some in powerful places. Last year, Vir joined an elite comedy cast for Judd Apatow’s COVID comedy The Bubble, alongside Pedro Pascal, Kate McKinnon, David Duchovny, Karen Gillian and a clown car of Apatow’s favorite improvisers. “It’s insane,” he concurs. “I had auditioned for a different role which went to a very talented actor in the UK. I think Judd just saw my audition and thought I was really funny, and I think perhaps the same thing happened with Maria Bakalova. He kind of called up the two of us, said he thought we were funny and there isn’t a word for the two of you on the page yet. But come up and do this movie and we’ll improv the entire thing.”

“I was thinking maybe I show up to do a day or two in London a Judd Apatow movie. That would be like going to comedy university, right? But we ended up shooting 25 days of complete improv. So suddenly you are in a scene with Keegan-Michael Key and you look around to see Fred Armisen and Judd and it’s kind of like the comedy Olympics. I just kind of made up my mind to spend as much time on this film set, even if I’m not shooting. I’m gonna try to be undeniable every time I am on camera. So in that sense, it was encouraging as he lets you create the character. I got to do a seven-page backstory and talk it through with him. We just kind of came up with this character together. Then we gigged together at the Largo, because he’s a comic as well. That was great. It’s a weird thing to be on set, and you have to remind yourself to stop watching and start acting. You are so fanboy-ing at that level.”

The experience was invaluable, but not without some struggle. “The way I described it to my wife was, “every emotion that I went through between 25 and 35, I went through between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on this film set” every single day. I’m amazing, no I am not, I need to work harder, all of that. That back and forth can be very good to find funny shit as well.”

Another admirer came in the form of writer Sam Laybourne, a successful sitcom scribe with episodes of Black-ish, Cougar Town and Arrested Development under his belt. Together, they are cooking up a sitcom vehicle for Das to star in, though details are still a bit under wraps. “I can talk a little bit about it. We’re writing it right now, its in development at Fox. I think in a world where we are over inundated with streaming content that tends to be very specific, I do believe there is room for large, wholesome happiness related shows that now get to tell new stories. That now gets to center themselves around new modern voices. That’s what my show aims to do. To bring an American and an Indian both to the same sofa, to alienate nobody and be global enough to make you laugh in a modern way. Writing with Sam Laybourne is absolutely amazing. I’m the Indian voice and he’s the American voice and that’s the center of the sitcom. I get to throw India at him and he gets throw America at me.“

Admittedly, Vir Das has crafted himself an insane schedule. With a laugh, he agrees. “Look, I am just trying to say yes to as much as I can. The more I experience hopefully it finds its way into my stand-up. I’m just trying to fight the bubble and the isolation that a lot of touring or shooting brings. I venture to say I spent the last 8 or 9 months either on a film set or in an airport or in a hotel room. That’s reasonably isolating. So I just try as much new shit as I possibly can in every day life: eating new foods, reading a lot. I try to read as much old shit and I’m reading new shit, as well. I tend to stay off social media, which saves me a good 2-3 hours a day. Just doing what I can.”

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, June 16, for 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 17 and for 7:30 on Sunday, June 18 at Improv Comedy Club Houston, 7620 Katy Freeway, Suite 455. For more information, call 713-333-8800 or visit $100-$210
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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee