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The Daily Show's "Brown Guy": Aasif Mandvi Interview

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Comedian and actor Aasif Mandvi speaks to us about life at The Daily Show, life after Sakina's Restaurant, and why Muslims shouldn't complain about negative portrayals in Hollywood if they don't get involved.

So how does it feel to be, unofficially and involuntarily, the media ambassador for all things Muslim on The Daily Show?

Aasif Mandvi: Is that what I am?

Does anyone see you as the Muslim representative by virtue of your last name and your background?

If they do then they're in big trouble (Laughs). Yeah, you know that by virtue of being brown on the show, I've become the ambassador for all things brown. Muslims often fall into that category.

Most mainstream audiences know you, especially the youth, from The Daily Show. What's that bridge? How'd you get that Daily Show gig?

The Daily Show gig came out of left field, honestly. It's like a lot of things in life. It's like that old quote, "Life happens when you're making other plans." They wanted to audition people for the Middle East correspondent on The Daily Show. They wanted to hire somebody ethnic for that slot. Helms had left, Cordry had left, and they felt that they needed an ethnic face.

So, I went in and auditioned and I got the job. I auditioned for Jon Stewart that afternoon, Jon Stewart offered me the job five minutes later and, basically, I was on the air for the first time that night.

Whoa. What was the feeling? Goosebumps? Excitement? All of the above?

It was amazing. It was a show that I was really, really excited about being on because I was a big fan myself. I always used to watch The Daily Show, and there were all these comedic geniuses there.
I didn't know if I was going to be hired full time or not. At the beginning, I was sort of hired as a part time, on and off guy. When I first got hired -- it was August 2006 -- and I was working on and off and they'd call me whenever. And then in December 2006, they offered me a full time job and I started in March of 2007.

It's been great. The thing about it is that you'll be working and you'll be doing stuff and then you get something like The Daily Show which is right at the center of popular culture. It's kind of a bizarre thing, because suddenly you realize that this is something that is actually penetrating the culture.

You can do all kinds of stuff. You can do movies and TV. I worked with Ismail Merchant on The Mystic Masseur, I did Sakina's Restaurant, I've done plays, I've been on Broadway, I've done movies, I've done TV... but nothing has had the pop culture penetrative impact as The Daily Show has. It's the nature of the beast.

The Daily Show was just in the news recently, when a survey came out saying it had some of the Fox News approach and yet it maintained its diversity in the sense of the guests that it chooses - Republican and liberal. Is The Daily Show news or is it comedy? Stewart hates being called a newsman, he says he's being a comedian, like you mentioned. It's still, nonetheless, very penetrating and talked about, especially for young audiences. They see it for their news.

Jon will always say he's a comedian. None of us are news people. We're all comedians, we're all actors. We're all performers at the end of the day. We're out creating satire. That satire has a place in the society right now that is really, really necessary.

The artist never really has any control over the impact of his work. If he starts thinking about the impact of his work, then he becomes a lesser artist. On some level, it is important that we keep doing what we're doing. The impact it has is another thing. And what we do is another thing. They're two separate things.

Take us behind the scenes of a Daily Show episode. How does one day's news turn over so quickly and how are you a part of that process?

I'm not very intrinsically part of that process. I am more a part of the process when I'm on the show. We're there pretty much all the time, but we're not always involved in the days because, as correspondents, it depends on the way we're being used for the show.

Basically, they go over the news, they start coming up with stories, and they've got these amazing writers, they've got the producers, they've got a whole team of people who do this. Usually by 4:00, we have the makings of a show.

There's a rehearsal around 4:30. Between the rehearsal and the actual taping, which is around 6:30, the entire show can change. They go into the rewrite room, Jon, the writers and the producers. In that sort of pressure cooker situation, it's good because you end up cutting away things that don't work and you keep the things that do work. It pares everything down, it cuts out the fat really quickly.

You go for the laugh and you go for the thing that is the easiest to communicate. Sometimes things that are cerebral or convoluted in the original draft, then they get pared down and simplified and woven in by 6:30 (when) we go on the air.

Jon said to me once (that) the show is disposable on one level because it's everyday. Once it's over, you've got to move on to the next thing the next day. It's the best show they can create in the day.


A lot of Muslims and/or brown folk always lament the choices and roles that are depicted on the screen, like you mentioned. Since you've been an actor in theatre, on television, and in movies, where do you place the blame?

Well, there's nobody writing the roles. Though it's not just one thing to blame. It's just the reality of the situation. You started off these questions saying, "How do your parents feel about you being an actor?" That ties into it, right? We don't have the numbers of people out there in this profession.

People lament that there's no roles being written for South Asian or Muslim characters. But their parents don't want their children to go into the entertainment field. You don't get it both ways. The more people write from that point of view, the more people write from the perspective of being Muslim, being South Asian, being Middle Eastern, then you will have more realistically depicted characters.

Also, it's about marketing. It's about marketing this stuff to an American audience, which takes money and funding. It's about creating the infrastructure that allows these positive images of Muslims and South Asians, complex images, out into the mainstream for popular consumption.

You need the creative side of it and you need the business/marketing/financial side of it. Both those need to be working in tandem in order to create that infrastructure. And we have the talent, we have the money, and we have the resources within our community. We just don't have the will.

How have your reactions or criticisms been from the "brown" and/or Muslim community to your work? Do you ever get any criticism? Sometimes the people who are most critical are your own ethnic groups.

There are, but they haven't come up to me. I don't find a tremendous amount of criticism in terms of the stuff on The Daily Show. I think people are happy that there's representation going on. I think people are happy that there's this point of view happening out there. I don't find a lot of criticism coming from my own community in that way. Not yet. Maybe I'll just have to be really awful and then I will.

I'm thinking of Obama and his speech on transcendence... Do you think that a brown, Muslim comedian avoids facing the political nature of his very being as a performer in post-9/11 America? Can you transcend this by just playing any role by avoiding it? Or does a brown performer, a Muslim performer... does he transcend all this baggage by confronting it, the stereotypes and generalization? Can you transcend it by avoiding it?

Yes and no. I think that what you have to do as a performer is just keep questioning it, just keep on raising the level. What does an artist do? An artist's job is simply to take the mirror in front of your face and hold it there. It's not to give you any answers. It is simply to take that mirror and point it at you.

If any performer is doing that, you will transcend stereotypes because you will force people to ask questions about themselves. So, hopefully, you use irony, you use ambiguity. All these paradoxical things ...we do that all on the Daily Show. We make things very ironic, we juxtapose paradoxical things and try to create humor out of that. By doing that, you're constantly raising the mirror and saying, "This is you. This is America. This is what it is. Are you ok with it?"

As a playwright, as an actor, as a writer. I think that's all you can do. And then hopefully it will transcend. But if you go out there and you say, "Oh, I'm going to transcend all this stuff," I think you run the risk of preaching, and then nobody wants to hear from you.

Anything else new that's happening that you want to talk about?

I'd like to plug the fact that we're about to go into production on my film this summer called Seven to the Palace, which is inspired by Sakina's Restaurant. It's a comedy about Indian Food, but it's also about a Muslim American family that runs an Indian restaurant. And I will be starring in it.