Interview: Vir Das on his Sketch-Docu-Travel-Standup Show, ‘Jestination Unknown’
“Oh god! I am so tired…” Vir Das sighs, swivelling out of a chair in front of the monitors on which he’s editing his New Special in an edit room in Bandra West. He’s spent the last four nights shooting Hasmukh, a dark comedy web-series he’s co-produced and written, and in which Das plays the lead character: a comedian who’s also a serial killer. Ten days ago, he filmed his New Special in Mumbai for Netflix, then announced his world tour with his 2018-19 comedy special, Loved. He’s also in a movie, and his second American series after Whiskey Cavalier—a guest episode of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, also starring Preity Zinta.
Smack in the middle is the release of a massive experimental format that he’s been working on for two years (in a parallel universe where time is elastic, we imagine): a comedy-travel-sketch-documentary show for Amazon Prime Video, Jestination Unknown—in which comedians travel to six unlikely cities in India to find the answer to the question no one else thought to ask yet: What does India really find funny?
He has no idea how to sit still, and caught in his own untamable enthusiasm to be everywhere at once, has no plans of taking it easy anytime soon. Yeah, no shit he’s tired.
You’ve done this to yourself.
No, no, no! This [last week] has been a little bit of a cluster fuck… I didn’t plan it like this. Jestination Unknown was supposed to come out a year ago. <laughs> The special was supposed to be shot in June. I was supposed to finish shooting Hasmukh last year…
Do you have any control over your life?
Not at all.
Of course not. What is Jestination Unknown exactly?
It’s a thought I had two-and-a-half years ago: I am always on the road, alone. When a comedian lands in a city, we drive from the airport to wherever our hotel is. On the way, you’re noticing, ‘hey that’s a funny statue’, or ‘this is a crazy bridge’, ‘I could do a sketch about that ad’, you know… ‘look at that man on the bike, he would make a great character for something…’ You’re having all these thoughts and you’re also talking to your driver to get local material so you can get four minutes of [local] jokes to open your set in that city.
Then I thought, what if instead of just looking at the city from the comfort of your car, you went out and assimilated on steroids? Like really experience the city. Eat the food, meet the people, chat with them about what they find funny, and then turn that ammo into jokes?
When you’ve travelled as much as I have, and most comics have, across India, it changes… what local people find funny really, really changes if you get into the nuances. We all do, like, five generic local jokes and leave. But do the locals actually find that funny? So that’s the mission statement of this show—what do Indian people actually find funny and how does that change when you travel across India?
And how’d you get down to it?
We picked six cities that hadn’t seen much standup comedy before. The concept is very simple: three comedians, one new city, 72 hours: experience the whole city—also find a venue, set up a show, market that show, and write local jokes in that time.
So effectively the trial show is the final show…
Yeah, it’s not a seasoned special, or been on a tour, it’s all brand new. It’s so tough because it’s all-new material. It’s jokes I wrote that morning (we would write 10-15 new minutes per city). That’s tough—to go in front of 600 people with that because they’re expecting The Manan Desai Show, or The Vir Das Show. They’re fucking expecting polished stuff, so it could or could not work. It’s also a brand-new venue, people may or may not show up.
How’d you plan the itinerary?
We started with the funniest people in India: the Punjabis. But we wanted an underdog city, so we went to Patiala to talk to people there about what Punjabis find funny. They get offended by Santa-Banta jokes, which are the easiest jokes in the world. So ‘are Punjabi people offended?’ is the thesis statement of Patiala.
Then we said, where did Indian standup comedy really begin? Because fuck all of us in clubs and Canvas and Cuckoo. Shuruaat is Urdu, hasya–kavis, that’s the original badass Indian standup comedy. That’s our hybrid form. So we went to Lucknow. And there we wanted to explore the relationship between standup comedy and poetry. Where did India’s original satire evolve?
Who really, really punches up in Indian standup comedy? That took us to Rajasthan. Because the first people to really punch up were the behrupiyaas. They used to perform in palaces, and make fun of the king in front of the king. So we went to Jodhpur saying can we find a member of the royal family, and do jokes about royalty and Jodhpur? That became the thesis statement of Jodhpur.
Mysore is a city that is sold on originality: Mysore sandal soap, Mysore masala dosa, Mysore paak, Mysore silk… so my mission statement in Mysore was can I write one original Mysore joke that only works in Mysore, and doesn’t work in the rest of India because Mysore claims whatever is in Mysore?
Next was Kumarakom: what do the most educated people in India find funny? They should be best crowd in India, right? It’s the most chilled out, zen fucking place. They drink a lot and they’re the most educated. So are they the best audience in India, the happiest? We were planning it around that, but the floods happened. So we said let’s pivot the episode to see what comedy and tragedy mean to each other. Can you laugh soon after a tragedy? What is that relationship? The episode became about that.
And finally, we went to Leh and Ladakh, because patriotism is always thrown in the face of the comedy. At the end of the day, however, while it’s all very well to say ki border pe log khade hain etc, abhi border pe jaake jokes karte hain… do people on the border want to laugh? Because people in Leh-Ladakh sacrifice way more for India than we do sitting on Twitter. Is comedy important to them?
So my friends change every episode. I didn’t want pure standup comics, I wanted people from different walks of life. We had Ashwin Mushran and Raj Sharma in Ladakh and Jodhpur. Raj Sharma because he’s an American Laugh Factory-Sunset Boulevard comic, and he’s got 10 years on me (so he’s a 20-year-old comic). But to put him against just the elements, fucking deserts and mountains, and see what happens to that guy…
Ashwin Mushran because this is a guy whose nationality is always called into question. So to have Mushran go into Leh-Ladakh episode was really, really interesting for me.
I went to the south with Anu Menon and Manan Desai. Anu I also took to Patiala. Because Anu is the South-Bombay-est person I know—can I put her in Patiala and see what Patiala does to her or what Anu does to Patiala? And there was Amogh [Ranadive], who’s just this chilled out Shivaji Park kinda pothead-y boy—we made him fire guns and dance with Punjabis.
For Kumarakom, I took Suresh Menon because I wanted like a south superstar comedy guy and Suresh Menon qualifies—every man within 10 feet of you knows him in the south, he’s been in that many movies. And Rohini (Ramnathan), who is an RJ, but can she write jokes?
And in Lucknow I took Amit Tandon just for Hindi, tehzeeb, Urdu, all that. And Shruti Seth, because the hasya kavi world is fairly male-dominated. I wanted a really badass woman who could give it back to that world. Shruti is the archetype of that badass woman.
But it’s not a comedy show.
Right. My voiceover runs through it, so it’s a documentary in that sense. But it’s also got sketches. It’s mostly travel, but it’s also got standup. It’s four formats in one. It’s not just about jokes. In a 40-minute episode, we end up with only seven minutes of actual jokes. The rest is us figuring it out, documentary-style, with some sketches thrown in. Like we went to Mehrangarh fort, but instead of “Look! Fort, story of fort…”, we shot a sketch of the arrival of the British in a tribute to Monty Python at Mehrangarh Fort. In Mysore, we went to the place that makes the voting ink and thought, how do we beat the ink? In Patiala, we did the invention of the Patiala Peg. So, in that sense it’s a show that new. It’s also risky because it’s got no box you can put it into.
Comedians are messed up people. When it’s the three of us in a room, we are not looking at anything normally. This show is about that too. Comedians get coffee and it’s fucking different. That’s what this show is. It’s me, Raj and Mushran in a donkey sanctuary, or learning kung-fu from nuns, eating momos and talking nonsense.
How did you figure venues and get people to show up last minute?
We did standup at a dhaba in Patiala, on a boat on the backwaters of Kumarakom, in a kavi’s house in Lucknow, a royal baithak in Jodhpur, a palace in Mysore, a courtyard overlooking a massive landscape in Ladakh. No conventional venues.
To spread the word, we used social media, we got on the radio, we did flyering, and people showed up. Jodhpur ended up being the smallest because we had 600 people but because it rained and we had to switch venues, we ended up with 40-60 people. Mysore was our largest, with 400-500 people.
How on earth…?
I am not saying this with arrogance, but [I have enough of a following just on social media that] if I tweet or if Instagram this sort of thing, a lot of people show up…
My last India tour was 44 cities. We sold 900 tickets in Vapi. So there are not that many cities in India where we’re not selling… we’ve got a database, we’ve done this a while, and these are pretty easy cities to pull in as far as I’m concerned.
What were your days like?
We were, as producers, doing five locations a day, six cameras, two drones, 100-125 people on production… And writing on the go. I was literally at Khardung La pass on an Enfield with ice and an 18,000-feet drop writing jokes and thinking about shooting a 3 Idiots kind of a sequence at Lake Pangong.
Which was the hardest episode to shoot?
The hardest for me was Jodhpur. Because of the elements. We went in June-July; you can’t go to Jodhpur in June-July. It’s 49 degrees, and we were in the desert on mules and camels.
And the hardest city to write jokes on?
Lucknow, because the standard there is so high. I also tried to write poetry there; I was like let me make it hard, so let my entire set rhyme. That didn’t work out too well… <laughs>
We’re still struggling to find proper venues in India, even as comics are constantly trying to create their own spaces. Jestination Unknown is an experiment with spaces in a sense, where you’re creating a room for yourself wherever you are. Would you recommend this as a good model to follow?
I can’t really answer how difficult it is to start a room from scratch, because we’re working from a very comfortable place on this. Or at least a comfortable social media following. Having said that, we did do what it took. If it meant going to All India Radio, or flyering in the center of Jodhpur, and flyering when people are going “Yeh toh Badmash Company waala hai, why is he giving us posters to a standup comedy show?’, or yelling from loudspeakers on boats in Kumarakom… we were willing to do the ground-level marketing on this show. Including in the main Ladakh market, where we hired a dance troupe, learnt one of their songs, and performed at the market square ourselves while handing out flyers.
Having performed at world class venues around the world, now including mountain tops and palaces, what’s the key thing you need for a show?
Sound! As long as people can hear you… They don’t even have to be able to see you, man. I can stand on a wooden box and do standup if they’re able to hear me, in any kind of lighting.
What else are you working on right now?
I shot the special (out next year), a world tour of Loved (I’m doing Dubai Opera House for the first time), a movie, an(other) American series…
But like I’ve said before, to me the definition of success is have an idea on Monday, and have it green lit on Friday. Right now I’m at an idea on Monday, green lit eight months later on a Friday. I’d like to get that time period very, very streamlined.
What does it take to work on so many different things at the same time? An insane amount of discipline? A giant team? Efficient managers? Hard drugs?
The team, for sure. You park one thing with one team, and really delegate well. Weirdass has Jestination, and comedy specials, and fiction and a feature coming out so… we’re running it really, really well. We just got funded. Even in the US, the teams there really know what they’re doing. At this point, touchwood, I just have to worry about content. I don’t have to worry about execution.