“I’m done playing by the rules. Because I wasn’t a part of setting these rules. And my career has had to conform to these rules for too long. So next year, I’m going to effectively try to end my career.” This was how Vir Das, a comedian with four specials released on Netflix in the last five years, announced what he was doing next — eschewing the hour structure to release a series of ten-minute specials on the tenth of every month called Ten on Ten. These specials are released on Das’s YouTube channel days after they are filmed in a secret location, on a mountain, deep in the forests of Goa.
The location is partly for Das’s safety, because it is a scary time to be a stand-up comedian in India. Comics in the States like to complain about how it’s so hard to be a comedian nowadays, but in India, it is actually dangerous. Indian comedians are being threatened, they are being taken to court, and, already this year, one comedian, an up-and-comer named Munawar Faruqui, was arrested at one of his shows for the “intent” to offend and put in jail for over 30 days. Days after his arrest, Das released the first “Ten on Ten.” Its focus is religion, the topic that got Faruqui arrested.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Das talks about Ten on Ten, issues of freedom of speech in India, and how the state of political comedy there is very different than in the West. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
How did you land on religion as the focus for the first Ten on Ten?
It was a bunch of things. I had a bit from my Netflix special, Losing It, which was about me losing my religion, and for some reason, a year and a half after the special came out, it had gone viral. So I was getting a lot of hate for that. I had just gone to court because I had a Netflix series called Hasmukh where I played a fictitious comedian who did bad jokes about religion. I had to fight a court case in front of the high court to defend jokes. Thankfully, the case went my way.
Then the government started with a sort of rhetoric of “These comedians are disrespectful and disrespecting our majority religion.” And a comedian went to jail — a younger comedian, called Munawar Faruqui, went to jail for jokes he didn’t do that evening, but he had done previously on YouTube. He spent a month in jail. That was what was on everybody’s mind. And I just had it.
I love religious material genuinely. I’m fascinated by it. I’ve done it in two specials. I’m fascinated with mythologies and stories and how they affect human behavior. So, yeah, I was just angry, but people were, too.
Were you nervous? Are you scared having done it?
Man, I’m pretty sure my day will come. I don’t say that to sound heroic in any way, shape, or form, because I am afraid, like every artist in my country is afraid. I’m pretty sure there will come a day when I will say something wrong from the system’s perspective. With Munawar, yes, he was a big part of it, but also, I really like doing this. I really like talking about these things and how it’s not just your God, but my God. If I don’t step up now and if I don’t speak up now, I lose the ability to do this in the future. I have to get ahead of it. I say that with zero judgment on anybody who wants to just keep their head down and avoid this material and protect themselves. Because the second part of my thinking was, of all the comics in India, I’ve been very fortunate, if not the most fortunate English comic in India. I come from a place of privilege far ahead of most English comics. I’m like, Man, if I can’t fight this, what shot does the kid in jail have? What shot does the next kid who does it at an open mic have? I need to step up on this.
The second Ten on Ten is about freedom of speech, which clearly is in a very different state in India than it is in the U.S. Partly because English-speaking, Western-style stand-up is relatively new there. So you have both the fight like Lenny Bruce was fighting here in the ’60s, getting arrested for obscenity, and you also have people on the internet fighting over what jokes are okay. Plus you have the government actively trying to censor people. How does it feel to be in it? How risky does it feel to be a comedian?
For me, significantly less than younger comedians. For me, significantly less than Hindi comedians. For me, significantly less than Muslim or Christian comedians, so that’s something definitely that that you have to account for. I can cover legal fees. In India, we comedians have this lovely, silent culture of when we know guys in legal trouble. Indian comics will never mention it in public — you never tweet about it — but we quietly send each other money, because we know that for a while that guy’s not going to be able to do any shows; he won’t get his permissions, he’s going to need lawyer money. This is a beautiful thing that happens on the ground in the Indian comedy scene where we do come through. It’s sort of a “Hey man, I’m gonna send you this cash. Just don’t tell anyone, because otherwise I need this cash to be able to spend on my own lawyers.”
One telling example of the contrast is that, periodically, fans on social media say you should do your version of Last Week Tonight and you respond by saying things like, “Name one major network here that would let me do the political comedy I want to do without seriously jeopardizing themselves and their staff.”
Yeah, I know, I know. It seems like a different world, doesn’t it? And yet that world is watching your political comedy shows. I can watch John Oliver on my television right now. I have HBO, and I can watch an episode where he talks about Indian politics on my television in India, no problem. Maybe they’ve censored one or two things. I doubt they even would. But, I mean, I could do it. We’d last one episode. So, I’d much rather book a forest and do it that way.
Every platform has also been very kind to me. Netflix has been super-kind to me. Amazon has been super-kind to me. At the end of the day, platforms are people. And I like the people over at Netflix. They support my art. So, no, I wouldn’t want somebody showing up at somebody’s office. I wouldn’t want any of that stuff. I am working on something that is political and that will be a little bit more international, but I do feel like that also needs a new format. Political comedy can no longer be done with polish or with gloss. You have to take the gloves off now. I think it needs a revamp.
Sometimes what I feel about America is you don’t talk about broad issues because you have so many audiences within an issue. I feel like sometimes your comedians get streamlined into those audiences. So you have woke comics talking to woke people, and you have alpha comics talking to alpha people, etc., etc., etc. I feel like the really audacious thing is to take on the whole thing.