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If Vir Das has to sell his house to stay funny, so be it

Vir Das comes to the Wilbur Theatre Saturday for a sold-out show.
Vir Das comes to the Wilbur Theatre Saturday for a sold-out show.ROBERT SEBREE

Sometimes when comedians reach a certain level of success, they like to shake things up to keep from getting into an artistic rut. Maybe go back to their roots in the clubs, or try acting. After a string of well-received Netflix specials and selling out venues internationally, Vir Das is taking the concept of going back to square one to the extreme for his new show, “Manic Man,” which he brings to the Wilbur Saturday for a sold-out date, and then to Foxwoods in March.

“I sold my house,” he says. “Two months ago, I sold all my possessions [from] the last 10 years. And I’m just traveling the world for the next year and a half with kind of, eight T-shirts and two pairs of pants. And just learning how to be funny again. So conceptually, that’s the show.”


Das has made a career out of restlessness. He was born in India, studied theater and economics at Knox College in Illinois and acting in a program at Harvard for four months. If he looks familiar to some Bostonians, they might remember him playing his guitar on the streets of Cambridge while he was here. He cut his teeth on stand-up in Chicago before going back to India to carve out a career in television and Bollywood. Around 2014, he began to get back into stand-up, and in 2017 released “Abroad Understanding,” the first of four specials currently streaming on Netflix.

But as his reach expands, he is feeling anxious. “I’m always suspicious of four or five years of success,” he says. “I’m always like, alright, something’s about to go wrong. So I’m going to beat the universe to it. Just kind of shake up my own life. I felt like the pandemic put me in a new place comedically, and [I] feel like I came closer to my voice. And then when you start to feel like yourself, like truly yourself, for the first time onstage, you want to put yourself through new experiences.”


There is a mixture of audacity and humility in Das’s comedy. He felt confident enough when Netflix signed him to ask to have two shows filmed, one in a stadium in New Delhi and one in a club in New York, and combine them into one special, “Abroad Understanding,” which he kicks off by singing and playing guitar. He seems to have arrived at this new stage fully formed — adept at the physical aspect of comedy, acting out a bit with a dance or a flutter of his hands, and with sharp material, socially conscious and silly, combining history and pop culture in the manner of Eddie Izzard.

But praise him for that prowess, and he resists. “I watch those specials, and all I’m seeing is flaws,” he says. “But at least it gave me the audacity to shoot for more.”

The 2018 special “Losing It” contains some of his best writing. In one bit, he talks about hearing the irritating phrase “she was asking for it” in media reports about sexual harassment and assault. To Das, that’s a philosophical disconnect. “The infinite beauty and fun of being a woman,” he says on the special, “is if she’s asking for it, she can just ask for it. Because ‘it’ is available, I promise you.”


In 2020, he released two specials vastly different in tone and style. “For India” explores his county’s culture and history, from its best cookie to its homophobia to the Western stereotypes of its people. “Outside In” is more intimate, a combination of 37 Zoom shows Das performed for charity during lockdown. “I’m always afraid of being the comedian who puts out something every two years,” he says, “and then it’s just like, same guy, fancier suit, bigger stadium, you know? What I like about the special releases, if you put them right next to each other, they’re not similar in any way. They’re different watches.”

During the run of Zoom shows, Das had the epiphany that he was looking into his audience’s homes for the first time, seeing them relaxing on their couch or sitting with their families, and it altered his approach. “It humbles you to see them in a more casual atmosphere, because then you lose your pretention as well,” he says. “So you have to be more casual and more conversational.”

Das was grateful the Zoom shows allowed him to keep performing stand-up, and he addressed that point at the end of the “Outside In” special. “It’s not when there’s a cure,” he said, “it’s when you no longer fear death, I, as an artist, get to live again. And that’s very ironic, to wait on that and not drown or get rusty.”

With resurgences of COVID and new variations of the virus, audiences likely haven’t reached a point where they can have a night out with no fear. Das is mindful of what people have been through as he tours the world. “It’s a river, and it kind of has two banks,” he says. “On one river bank is, people have been through pain, and they’ve been through loss, and you can’t ignore that. You have to talk about it. And then on the other bank, people are looking to escape. So you have to be able to just provide escapist content without being shallow. I think the perfect show, and I certainly haven’t written it yet, meanders between those two riverbanks. You have to be conscious of both ends of the river right now.”


There is an ultimate goal to Das’s push to evolve. He sees in himself the potential to occupy a unique space in the world as an Indian comedian. “I want to create work that is authentically Indian, but meant for the world, that the world can enjoy,” he says. “I think if I put in 10 years of very hard work, there is an opportunity to be a big voice in comedy, but still be a big Indian voice in comedy at a global scale.

“I don’t think we’ve had that yet. We’ve had an American Indian version, and we’ve had a British Indian version, we just haven’t had a guy from India talk to the world. So I’d like to be that guy. I’m working towards it. Give me, like, 10 years. I think it’ll happen. We’ll see.”