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Vir Das, big Indian comic, Bollywood star, tries to conquer America (Punchline 3/3-3/5)

This was posted on Thursday, March 2, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

In India, Vir Das is a groundbreaking English language stand-up comic in India with more than a dozen Bollywood film credits as well. (The man has 4 million Twitter followers.)

He is now trying to build his popularity in the United States, where he is still relatively unknown outside the Indian-American population. He is on a worldwide tour that comes to the Punchline Comedy Club for six shows this weekend, his second stop after San Francisco, where he sold 2,000 tickets. (Buy tickets for the Atlanta shows here.)And he is about to release his first Netflix special on April 25, the first time an Indian comic has ever had a special in that distribution lane.

Das, 37, who attended a small college in Illinois on full scholarship, said George Carlin and Eddie Izzard  are his idols. His stand up, once you get used to his accent, covers conventional topics such as dating, weddings and movies from an Indian point of view.

"I love American movies," Das said in a stand-up bit on YouTube to an American audience. "You make 'Whiplash' and we love you for it and you make 'Twilight' and I understand why other countries attack you."

Das adjusts his show for American audiences. "Americans require a little more explanation of some of the stuff I'm talking about," he said. "I'm unapologetically Indian. At the top of the show, hopefully, if I do my job well, my Indian accent will no longer be a punchline but a perspective. This is how I talk. I'm not doing a bit. I feel once you preface the show with context, it works anywhere in the world. This is who I am. This is what I think. This is what I think about you as well. It's an Indian's perspective on America."

He said he broke into stand up by happenstance. He was supposed to create a performance senior year in college and decided to go with a stand-up comedy show called "Brown Men Can't Hump." It went well since he told lots of inside jokes for his friends.

"It was possibly the biggest disservice to me," he said, "because I thought I was the s***. A couple of months later, I was doing open mics in Chicago and getting booed off. I realized, 'Crap! I have to really work at this!' "

He briefly dabbled in grad school in Montgomery, Ala. for two months. "I was one of three brown people there," he said, jokingly. "The other two were doctors." He ultimately dropped out, returning to India, where he built his acting and comedy career. His only exposure to Atlanta before this weekend was passing through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

"I know nothing about Atlanta except I get a lot of emails from Georgia Tech Indian engineers," Das said.

While in India, he is credited with building the nascent stand-up comedy scene there, becoming the first star in that field. He said India has a hybrid form of satire that involves poetry that has been going on for centuries. But Vas followed the American template. Only a handful of Indians were even trying traditional stand up and they were performing in country clubs before the elite. "I was this 22 year old talking about balls," he said. "I built up a young fan base fast."

Surprisingly, he didn't build his audiences via the Web. (This was before Facebook and Twitter.). He landed a comedic late night TV talk show which helped him get his name out there. That also led to his acting gigs. Some of actors he admires include Steve Carrell, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell.

Das had greater ambitions than India and decided in 2015 to tackle America. "If you're a tennis player and want to get better, you want to play people from around the world," he said, as a way of comparison. Creative Artists Agency, a big-time talent agency, tracked him down and he also works with LEG, a talent management and production company.

"I came to America with no expectations," he said. Fortunately, things have moved quickly, leading to this tour. "I don't fully understand how it's happening to be honest," he said. "I'm kind of coming to terms with it as well."

His April 25 Netflix special is a hybrid of shows he shot in India and America. He is proud to be the first Indian with a stand-up special and to be on the same network that has signed on Amy Schumer, Louis C.K. and Jerry Seinfeld. He said he worked on the material for a year. Expect to hear some of it this weekend at the Punchline.

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.