A few months ago, I was reporting on a piece on how artists were adapting to the post-COVID world, both commercially and at a day-to-day-practice level. One of the people I spoke to was comedian Kautuk Srivastava, who reminded me that standup was perhaps the only form that requires an audience to practice. Artists and musicians can continue to be reasonably productive during prolonged isolation. But for standup comedians, the laughter isn’t merely a sign that things are going well—it is somehow both formal feature and desired outcome. Like a drummer counting time, comedians both incorporate and assess audience reactions as part of the ‘beat’ of their performance.
This simple but powerful point is driven home during the opening minute of Inside Out, the new Vir Das lockdown crowd-work special released on Friday evening on the comedian’s website. While sound-checking with his Zoom audience (Inside Out is basically a 50-minute edit of 30 charitable shows Das did on Zoom during on lockdown, starting in March), he starts by requesting everybody to sit as close to their devices as possible, so that he can hear them laugh (even if they’re not using earphones). “Because if I cannot hear you laugh,” Das says, “It’ll be just me in a room talking to myself worried that I’m gonna die.” It’s not a laugh-out loud moment, but it’s not self-consciously grim humour either. For most of its 51-minute runtime, Inside Out manages to hit this sweet spot, a narrative space I like to call ‘funnysad’. You know music that sounds like Pavement but isn’t or films that feel like Garden State until they don’t? That right there is ‘funnysad’.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do after the lockdown ends?” This is the question with which Das begins his Zoom shows and then he lets the audience takes over. Crowd-work represents a delicate balance for comedians. As a performer, you want interesting characters, but you don’t want them to be so interesting that they derail your plans. You want to make gentle fun of these people, which is tricky when you’re also being quite brisk (as one is during crowd-work).
Inside Out does really well on this front in particular. Das is never mean-spirited or less than attentive with the people he’s talking to. True to his reputation as a ‘big tent’ comedian, this means an impressive range of characters and stories-in-miniature. Lovers separated and re-united, teenagers waiting for the lockdown to end so they can “turn 16 properly”, parents meeting their grown-up children after being stranded in different countries—it’s a show that manages to squeeze in so many little stories in this vein.
It also means that Das can, strategically, step aside and let these people run the show. As indeed he does while talking to a Mumbai-based woman and her teenage son (does she know he’s dating?), or a young Pune girl who wanted ‘Asian food’ right after the lockdown (chaawal-daal is technically ‘Asian food’, right?). There’s also all manner of US and UK-based ‘desis’ who cop a few ‘spoilt NRI’ jokes good-humouredly. “Now don’t try to explain your privilege, just own it!” Das scolds one in a faux-stentorian tone.
In that moment and a few others, the comedian pokes fun at his increasing proximity to middle age—the ‘real’ Vir Das becoming the stereotypical aggrieved middle-class Indian uncle, finger-wagging and muttering righteous oaths under his breath. In this persona, he rebukes a young person enrolled in a fashion course (that’s not a real thing, he informs her), tries to convince a guy that his girlfriend has, in fact left him—and in a fleeting moment between two shows, confesses, disheveled and dead-eyed, that he’s “gotta clean up, gotta make people laugh”. Art as metronomic drudgery; this is definitely new ground for Das.
This is why Inside Out comes across as a bit of a stylistic departure and a welcome one, in my opinion. With all his experience and his knack for approachable humour, Das can become a first-rate curmudgeon, as he proves here. He has just never tried to be one before, for good reason—it is too easy for curmudgeonly comedy to branch out into anger. And anger, real anger, just isn’t how Das operates as a writer or a comedian. Or at least, not yet.
Perhaps that will change, as the events of 2020 make it harder and harder to not be furious at the state of the world around us. Perhaps Das is no longer content to just sit out the ongoing culture wars, having reached the realisation that its shrapnel (ie spurious FIRs and online lynch mobs) does not recognise neutrality. Or perhaps this is just a one of his many stylistic experiments prompted by the limitations of the Zoom comedy format. Either way, it will be interesting to see where Das goes from here.
The special is available for viewing for a limited time only, watch Inside Out here till 31 August 2020; all proceeds go to charity.