Different cultures find different things funny. Or do they? At least one comedian, Vir Das, doesn't think so. He's on a mission to prove that humor is
"Funny is funny anywhere you are," Das says. "Indian audiences take a little time to warm up, so you have to work a little bit harder at Indian comedy shows. American stand-up comedy audiences are savvy. But once you get both of them going, both are as good as each other."
Das is from New Delhi, India, and he's the nation's most famous stand-up comedian thanks to his performances in Bollywood films, with his comedy music band Alien Chutney and he's on several high-rated TV shows. He's currently on his first American tour, and it's making a stop at the Addison Improv this weekend for two shows on Friday and Saturday and one show on Sunday.
Das says he actually got his start in the States while studying drama at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and his isn't a typical origin story for a comedian. His first effort in comedy was a one-man show called Brown Men Can't Hump, which he wrote for a school project.
"For [my career], it kind of went in reverse," Das says. "The first time most people do stand-up is at an open-mic for 10 minutes, in front of 40 or 50 people. For me, I did 30 minutes in front of 800 people. It was 29 minutes of cussing and one minute of jokes. It was truly terrible."
He continued to work on creating an act in Chicago's open-mic scene before moving back to India where he discovered that his brutal honesty alone was enough to help him capture the spotlight.
"I ended up going back to India and doing a show in one of the theaters in front of a very posh, country club, 40-and-above crowd," Das says. "Comedy isn't as big of an art form in India because it's not very exposed. So I was this comic who used the F-word and talked about sex, and initially I think that's why people came out and saw me and someone offered me a TV show."
He started out as a veejay on one of the country's most popular music TV channels but he says he soon "got terribly bored with that because I'm just introducing songs and not doing comedy." So he grabbed a Handycam, turned a friend's dining room table into a news desk and shot his own pilot for a Daily Show-
"It was a good place to really cut my teeth," Das says. "We weren't just performing for young people. We were also performing for business people who watched news reports on CNBC."
Das says he doesn't like to tell jokes in his act. He prefers to just tell stories, whether it's about "getting married, getting hired and fired or doing drugs."
"I don't really write jokes per se," he says. "It's more storytelling and tackling a subject from absurd angles. It's what I like to do as a stand-up. I don't think I ever really learned how to write a joke. I watch a lot of stand-up and figure that shit out eventually."
He says audiences appreciate his honesty even when he's not telling the truth.
"I tell you about 12 or 13 stories and some are true and some are false," Das says. "If you can get the true/false correct, I refund your money. ... Most of them are things people can relate to and it becomes your job to pay attention and see if you can spot the lie. It keeps the audience member as active and captive as the comedian."
Das says his challenge not only keeps the theatric foundation of his show intact but it also challenges him to stay true to himself and pass on his honesty to the audience, whether he's performing in India or America.
"You can tell them both the same thing and America requires a little more explanation about the Indian references but they stay the same," Das says. "The Indian accent has always been the punchline, and never with perspective, so to talk to them with an authentic Indian voice is important to me."
Comedy today accommodates more voices and points-of-view than it ever has in the past, and Das says he wants to take advantage of that.
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"Russell Peters and Aziz Ansari put us on the map, so I don't think there's a better
He says it's also refreshing to watch an audience react to his comedy in a way that doesn't rely on stereotypes or dumbed down characters to carry a joke. He wants to prove that being honest about who you are on stage can win audience members' hearts no matter who you are.
"What I'm really enjoying is coming to an American audience and talking to them about race or the election and having them take that to where it's not just the funny Quik-E-Mart guy or the IT guy," Das says. "To have an American audience be receptive to that, the timing could not be better."
Vir Das will perform at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Addison Improv (4980 Belt Line Road). Tickets are $22 to $32 at ImprovAddison.com.