The ABCD of Comedy: Aasif Mandvi
The actor on the Daily Show, his new film and being the outsider
Aasif Mandvi is not in the building. Our meeting has been postponed by half an hour. Waiting at a Subway right by the Daily Show studios in Manhattan, I am sitting by a glass wall panel which looks out into the street and the tail of the long queue forming outside the studio entrance — distinguished by the blue awning which reads the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in bold white and massive banners hanging atop featuring front profiles of Stewart and his correspondents posing satirically. Mandvi, the brown/Muslim/Middle-Eastern/South-Asian correspondent, zips by, without creating the slightest flutter; fans of the show, in line to get audience member tickets to today’s taping, don’t quite notice. I follow him to the back entrance of the Daily Show offices.
Mandvi is dressed for work, in a dapper, light grey suit and tie, and a mauve shirt. He was out reporting for a piece about how the sequester cuts have affected the Federal services in the United States. He briefly apologizes for the mess his office is in. The space reflects the sense of constructive disarray of this particular work day. Aside from the surface clutter, the room has got a utilitarian drabness about it – a garment rack stocked with freshly pressed suits, a small wooden cabinet stands in the corner, a desktop computer and a Macbook sit on his work station. Right now, the space is only illuminated by natural light that streams in through the partially drawn blinds of a window.
The 47-year-old Mandvi unabashedly guffaws in the face of conscientious, honest men. Men who have lost jobs, the financial ability to service more patients or feed the homeless — non-congressional people who have been lacerated by the razor edge of the sequester cuts. That’s how the piece plays out in the episode tonight, as Mandvi interviews the Executive Director of the NYC Coalition against Hunger, a Reverend at the Church of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, a doctor from the North Shore Hematology and Oncology Associates clinic, and a Federal Public Defender in Southern Ohio. Like everybody else on the Daily Show, Mandvi masterfully wields the device of political satire. But the relationship of the role as Daily Show correspondent and his artistic disposition is slightly more complicated than that of other correspondents on the show — like John Oliver and Al Madrigal, who are essentially comedians. Mandvi’s accent is rooted in British diction, but glazed and rounded at the edges by an American tongue. He spent his formative years in England before moving to America in his mid-teens and majoring in theatre during his undergrad. Mandvi is no stranger to playing the stereotypical Indian in Hollywood films.
During his earlier years, Mandvi had his share of being cast in roles that required him to fit a rigid mould, from playing the cabbie to the doctor, but he explored issues that plagued immigrants through his own work on the side, mostly through theatre. In 2006, he auditioned for the Daily Show and started off as a contributor, eventually gaining the status of a regular correspondent. “I think I would get bored if I only did comedy all the time, the reality is, the Daily Show is such a part of the zeitgeist and such a part of popular culture that you can’t help but get associated with it and I actually have a love-hate relationship with that association because on one hand it’s like I love the work that I do on the Daily Show, I love what it’s afforded me in my life and career but at the same time I also, sort of, have a slight resentment over people thinking of me only as a comedian,” he says. Mandvi was recently lauded for his portrayal of the protagonist, Amir Khan, in the play Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in April. Like with Disgraced, immigrant issues, ethnicity and identity politics underscore most of the work he is creatively involved with from his Obie award winning one man show Sakina’s Restaurant (1998) to his film Today’s Special (2009). In May, Mandvi visited India for a couple of weeks to shoot for the Disney film, Million Dollar Arm, which also stars Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin, and Tim Robbins. The film is about two Indians that ended up playing baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the minors, after having participated in Los Angeles sports agent JP Bernstein’s reality show called Million Dollar Arm. Hamm plays Bernstein while Mandvi plays the role of his assistant in the film. “It’s a very inspiring story, it’s kind of like, Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire,” he says. Hamm is the guest on the Daily Show the night of our interview, and while joking with Stewart he mentions that he was going to India to get married to Mandvi.
In this year’s release, The Internship, a comedy film set in the Silicon Valley, which also stars Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson, Mandvi plays the role of an Indian tech trainer at Google for which he adopted an Indian accent, one which emulates that of many engineers who work in that industry. While Mandvi does employ filters, he is wary of oversimplification and appreciates complexity when it comes to portraying Indians in film, television or theater. In some way, choosing not to play these roles in a relevant context – where the accent is not abused as a caricaturist device – would mean disregarding the existence of these people. “In theory, I have no objection to playing a cab driver. I have no objection to even doing an Indian accent, it’s more about the context within which it is placed and how I feel the character is being portrayed and who the character is,” he says. “I have rejected roles. There were things that I disagreed with on a personal or political level, like some scripts that I’d read after 9/11 that were just horrible, where they were demonizing Muslims in a way. I just felt like it was insensitive towards the culture, the religion, and being South Asian or Muslim-American. But I never made a blanket rule. I would have never worked otherwise.”
Mandvi has also been working on a book of short essays which “have to do with identity, and with being Muslim-American, growing up as a brown kid in a white world.” There is a faint echo of Naipaul’s idea of the ‘empire of self,’ as Mandvi explores the idea of being an outsider through his work. “My story is a little bit more complicated because I grew up in England and the United States, and I am Indian by nationality, so I have never felt completely anything really, so I have never felt really like an American, I’ve never felt like a Brit, and I don’t really feel like I am an Indian,” he says adding, “My voice comes from the perspective of always being the minority, of being discriminated against, or getting the benefits of being that outsider in some ways, I mean even on the Daily Show, the persona that I came in with, the reason I got hired originally was because I was the brown guy and so what’s been great for me is allowing myself to find a way to make that my power play, the one thing I can do which none of the other correspondents can do is that I can be the outsider. Which they are not as good at, well, not, not as good at but by virtue of who they are they cannot do that. So mine is always the guys sitting on the fence between cultures and the insider and the outsider at the same time.”
But Mandvi’s world is not defined by the active dissension and critique of White House politics that he participates in on the Daily Show, “I wasn’t really very political before I came here, this is like a weird job because I am really an actor and I am political about things I care about personally but I am not generally like a political news junkie kind of person, so this is sort of a departure for me from what I’ve done for most of my career.”