Comedy Review: “Vir Das: Abroad Understanding”

Few people, let alone prolific comedians, can say that they inhabit two entirely different worlds. For Indian standup comic Vir Das, though, it is indeed his reality—and it’s something he’s skillfully incorporated into his April 2017 Netflix Original comedy special, “Vir Das: Abroad Understanding.”

Filmed half in an enormous Indian theater and half in a dark, intimate New York comedy club, Das plays with dualities to emphasize how he’s “made it” in India and is only emerging in the States. Born and raised in Delhi, India, Das earned his bachelor’s degree in the States at Knox College in Illinois, planting his feet firmly in two vastly different worlds. 

While the split in raw footage may seem like a recipe for a disjointed comedy special, the editing is seamless; at times, it isn’t even apparent that Das’ physical location has changed until he explicitly addresses the shift in his act. It’s a prime indicator of Das’ comedic style: subtly clever and oftentimes painfully real.

With a slew of acting and comedy credits under his belt in Bollywood, Das, 37, knows how to command the stage. He’s electric and dynamic in his presence and never shies away from roping in the elephant in the room, be it racial tension in America or religious extremism around the world. 

In the crucial first few minutes of “Abroad Understanding,” Das makes it clear that his thick Indian accent isn’t part of the joke or something to laugh at; rather, it’s how he speaks, and the joke is what he says, not how he gets there.

For the most part, Das delves into tough topics, navigating the choppy waters of identity politics with the grace and ease of someone who’s experienced and witnessed racial-ethnic and religious discrimination firsthand. There’s one slightly uncomfortable and awkwardly drawn-out masturbation joke … but in a sea of wealthy, white, American comics, Das has to play off of some sort of immature commonality to fit in, for better or worse. 

In an age where many popular standup comics err somewhere on the spectrum of uncomfortably profane to downright #problematic, Das stands out as a mature, relatable and hilarious act. (I’m pointing fingers at you, Louis C.K. … what on Earth was that most recent comedy special? The funniest bit in the first 40 minutes was an improvised audience interaction!)

“Vir Das: Abroad Understanding” is available for instant streaming on Netflix.