Vir Das laughs with us, not at us | Arts: Feature – Tucson Weekly

Vir Das laughs with us, not at us | Arts: Feature – Tucson Weekly

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Vir Das faces different stakes when he invokes his freedom of speech.
While some American comedians complain about being “canceled” for racism, vulgarity and run-of-the-mill misogyny, Das, whose comedy elides all of that, is threatened with arrest and censure for jokes exposing uncomfortable truths about his home culture. Indian politicians rage about him on national television. Right-wing throngs have held demonstrations accusing him of sedition. Citizens have implored police to arrest him for defaming his country.
As the best-known stand-up comedian in India, and one of its biggest Bollywood stars, Das unintentionally set off the furor with a short set he wrote on the morning of Nov. 8, 2021. It was for a performance that night at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
He called it “Two Indias.” In a series of satiric couplets, he characterized the bipolar nature of many aspects of Indian life. Comparisons ranged from comic to caustic, from soccer loyalties to sexual violence against women.  The mostly Indian, and worldly, D.C. audience laughed and cheered throughout, loudly and knowingly. 
But word got home, and the madness ensued. Das jokes about it, and freedom of speech in general, in a new show “Wanted.” He brings that show to The Rialto Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21. Tickets are via ticketmaster.com
For now, things have calmed down, but he said “‘Wanted’ is very much a discussion of freedom of speech and sedition and what it means to carry your identity across the world. And so I do that show with the knowledge that I could very much be in the same situation again, sometime.”
Das has a unique gift for getting just about everyone laughing at themselves, without actually offending anyone. 
Born in India, he was raised in Nigeria and returned to India to school. He went to college on full scholarship to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. After graduation, he was accepted into graduate theatre program co-sponsored by Harvard University and a program of the Moscow Arts Theatre. 
“We were the Indians in Nigeria,” he said, “and then we were the people from Nigeria in India, and then I was the kid from Mumbai in Galesburg, and then I was the guy from Galesburg in Bollywood. It’s just always kind of been on the sidelines looking in.” 
The result is a worldview grounding a cacophony of perceptions filtered through an observant and agile mind. A richer background for a comedian is hard to imagine. Just add some metaphorical synapses and a deep love of American standup comedy.
“I was a big fan of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin,” Das said.” So, when I was in my senior year (in the Knox acting program) I just wrote a 90-minute standup show. That was the first time I did it. And once I hit that stage, it was just my favorite thing in the world.
“It was 90 minutes for 800 people. And then the second time I did standup, it was 2 minutes for five people.”
Asked about his trip to the United States in the context of the greatly increased diversity among comics in recent years, Das credits COVID-19. “As opposed to the live experience,” he said, “as opposed to the theatrical experience, when you sit and watch Netflix, you’re in your pajamas, you’re in your own environment,” he said.
“You definitely need something to get you out of your own environment, something that can take you across the world. That’s why a show like ‘Squid Game’ is so huge, because it takes you away.”
In his own country, COVID-19 inspired Das to immerse himself in fundraising its victims in India. “I made a comedy special for charity,” he said. “India had a very rough second wave, so most people with a social media following, or any measure of influence, we spent time just fundraising. So I worked pretty hard in COVID just raising funds.”
Lately, though, Das has returned to globe-hopping. One of his most entertaining anecdotes includes a joke about how many of his destinations were at some point under British rule. With all the languages and cultures he’s absorbed, and his many exquisitely accurate impressions of the natives’ dialects, we might think his sense of his own culture could be diluted. But his unshakeable Indian accent, his effortless code-switching between English and his native tongue, and, maybe especially, the cup of tea on his stage’s stool, tell a different tale. 
“I think as you get older whatever part of your culture flows through you is just there,” he said. “And then you have to remain open. So if it’s not conscious, and it’s sticking strong. I don’t overthink it. I’m an Indian across the world, and that’s my identity as far as I see it.
“I’ve gotten to see the world. That’s a gigantic blessing. I’ve been to every continent, but one, and not many people get to say that. So you’re going to deal with different perspectives and different people and different misunderstandings of who you are. 
“It’s still a privilege to see the world.”

SNL alum Rob Schneider has issues
Co-starring in Netflix’s “Home Team” with Kevin James, Rob Schneider may still be best known for his Emmy-winning writing for “Saturday Night Live,” and for his years performing in that star-making hit show. In the interim though, we’ve enjoyed his prodigious output writing, performing directing and acting on film and television. 
 In 2020, he released his first Netflix comedy special, “Asian Momma, Mexican Kids.” It’s chockablock with funny anecdotes and jokes about life in a multicultural family. But he’s bringing a new set, “I Have Issues,” to the Rialto Theatre at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16. Tickets are $35 to $60 via ticketmaster.com.

Comedy Details This Week
The Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress Street, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, foxtucson.com, $37.50 to $75, John Waters: End of the World Tour.
Laff’s Comedy Caffe, 2900 E. Broadway Boulevard. 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, and Saturday, Oct. 15, laffstucson.com, $15, $20 preferred seating. 
The Rialto Theatre, 318 Congress Street, 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, Rialto Theatre, ticketmaster.com, $35 to $60, Rob Schneider: “I Have Issues” Tour
The Screening Room,127 E. Congress Street, 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, LadyBitsTucson.eventbrite.com, $10 online, $15 door, Special guest Denver comic Lisa Lane of “How to Build a Sex Room,” with headliner Steena Salido, co-headliners Andrea Carmichael rand Ashley Johnson, and featuring Allana Erickson-Lopez, Holly Hilton and Amie Gabusi. Jen Blanco hosts.
The Screening Room,127 E. Congress Street, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, eventbrite.com, $20 suggested donation, Benefit Comedy Show for 9-year-old cancer victim Xavi Goodman and his family. Monte Benjamin and Andre Ferrell co-headline; Tre Farrington, Stephanie Lyonga Farrington and Tony Kanani Bruhn co-feature. Chris Molina hosts. 
Tucson Improv Movement/TIM Comedy Theatre, 414 E. Ninth Street. tucsonimprov.com. $7 each show, $10 for both shows, same night, free jam. Thursday, Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m. Improv 201 Showcase and “TIM Pilots”; Friday, Oct. 14, 6:30 p.m. Improv Jam; 7:30pm, “The Soapbox” with Dan Gibson, communications director at Tucson Medical Center; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, “Set Unlisted;” 9 p.m. “Spooky Season Double Feature”. 
Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Blvd., unscrewedtheatre.org, $8 live or streaming, $5 kids live, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, Family-friendly improv, 9 p.m. Unscrewed Fridays after Dark; 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, Unscrewed Family Hour with Comic Chaos; 7:30 p.m. Family-friendly improv; Monday, Oct. 17, improv drop-ins, free
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