June 7, 2021
In the opening minutes of his debut Netflix comedy special Abroad Understanding (2017), Vir Das tells a rapt audience: “If you come down to India, I’m a big deal.” Das — the first Indian-born comedian to have a Netflix special — had shot the show in both Delhi and New York. In India, Das is a household name; for the last 15 years, he’s starred in Bollywood films, done stand-up comedy, made music, and gone viral on YouTube. In the U.S., however, he is a dot in an ocean of comedians — a presumably disorienting feeling for a veteran responsible for pioneering modern Indian comedy.
Das writes without a comedy ideology — he’ll talk about sex, racism, history, politics, and Parle-G in one breath — combining his North Indian Delhi boy roots with the sophistication of a South Bombay socialite. He can simultaneously speak to and about American audiences. A trademark Vir Das joke is an exercise in storytelling, featuring tongue-in-cheek humor with vivid imagery. Das is funny because he isn’t above making fun of everyone (he mocks Indians as much as he takes a dig at the West) — including himself. When he explains his decision to act in Mastizaade (2016), a sex comedy film panned across India, he shared how it was good money and gave him the opportunity to act opposite Indian Canadian actor Sunny Leone. It would earn him bragging rights with his future kids, he says. Das would tell them that she’s intelligent, talented, beautiful, down-to-earth, and an entrepreneur. “Which is why when the movie came out, nobody got mad at her. Everybody got mad at…me,” he concluded.
A few months after the special aired, Variety included Das in their 2017 list of “10 Comics to Watch,” alongside Tiffany Haddish and Hasan Minhaj. That same year, he was the first Indian comedian to appear on Late Night with Conan O’ Brien, where he presented a segment called “News from the Rest of the World.” In 2019, he made his U.S. television debut with a role in Whiskey Cavalier, and performed at the New York Comedy Festival in a lineup that included Bill Maher, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. Last year, Jerry Seinfeld dubbed Das a “pretty funny guy.”
Today, Das, India’s highest-selling comedian, is the only Indian comedian who can boast of having four Netflix specials to his name. He has also created and starred in shows Jestination Unknown (2019) and Hasmukh (2020). And Das began this year by joining the cast of The Bubble, filmmaker Judd Apatow’s widely anticipated new Netflix film. Das — already a phenom in India — now has a big shot at American stardom. But it has been years in the making.