Mar 23, 2008

The Desi Guy in Sitcoms

Years after Apu, there have been a string of desi guys who have shown up in supporting roles on sit-coms. Everyone remembers "Babu Bhatt" from Seinfeld (though I'm still trying to forget). I'm sure people can name their favorites (or crappiest), but I'll just do this quickly. After all, I'm sure some of the pop culture sites have probably covered this a million times:

1) Unhitched - Shaun Majumdar - I just watched a snip of this, and it was bad. The dude's accent sucked - I don't know if he was hamming it up to prove the point that he doesn't actually have an accent, but it was pretty bad. Though he was apparently a "pro" at getting the "O" when married, of course it was tied to "tantric" technique, which he then went on to teach another character. So he's a sex machine. That doesn't really inspire me to think his character is breaking any molds (reading that he's a doctor in the show doesn't help). I couldn't stand it anymore.

2) Aliens in America - Adhir Kalyan - when I first heard about this show's premise, foreign exchange student from Pakistan lives with a family in Wisconsin, I really expected the worst. I heard from somewhere that it wasn't that bad, and because "Unhitched" was so terrible (and I was coming off a really funny Simpsons), I decided to check this out a gain. I'm glad that I did. The show actually dealt with some issues of difference and understanding fairly well for a sit-com. I was pretty pleased - I thought it would be more of a gloss on Gene Yang's Chin-kee character (see the wonderful, American Born Chinese), but it was a little more layered than that. In a way that is simplistic (who's the target audience for this show, after all), it is still humanizing this kid and gives us something better than the b.s. thrown out every week in shows like 24 and the like. Hey, and there's a cover of "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding" on the show that features Salman Ahmad of Junoon. That's pretty cool. I actually thought the episode I watched was better than most of the "Little Mosque on the Prairie" stuff I watched earlier.

3) Weeds/30Rock - Maulik Pancholy - The roles are not specifically desi, and that's kind of cool, actually. His politics are good, and he's a funny actor. I really enjoyed seeing him on Weeds, and haven't seen an episode of 30Rock with him, but he's just a character, not a desi character, and that's refreshing.

I'm pretty sure that show with geeks or super geniuses and the female neighbor (I think it's called Big Bang Theory?) has a desi guy in it, wielding the protractor or some other nonsense, but I haven't watched more than a snip of the pilot.

Beyond the quick run-through of characters, I think it's an interesting comment on how the desi guy has become the new accessory in these shows. Is it the accent? Is it some residual glow from the "Harold and Kumar" phenomenon? I'm really not sure, but it's definitely become more prominent. "Aliens..." actually focuses on the character, while the other shows have the characters in much more supporting roles, but it's an interesting time to watch what evolves out of this for desi male actors. Will they graduate from the boxes that they're placed in at this point (or do we say "not playing a terrorist" = the second wave of desi men on the little screen?).

Regardless, I still think Mindy Kailing, of the office, is the funniest South Asian on American television. And she's writing a lot of the stuff herself!


Anonymous said...

Mindy Kailing is awesome on the Office.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Kal Penn? What about the comedian Russel Peters?

Rage said...

Kal Penn seems more with it than he lets on. I've heard that he was supportive of AALDEF's work in NYC (I think they even honored him, and they don't give their recognitions lightly, unlike some of the other NYC APA groups). There are roles he's taken that are kind of odd, but I know the biz is what it is. But then, you know, he got to kick Superman in the first installment of the return of the Man of Steel (I know you're feeling the comic book nod), he's the stoner king through H+K Go To White Castle, and he's even teaching Asian American studies at UPenn.

Russel Peters, I don't really know. I feel like he's revisiting the ethnic humor route, but I don't know what his politics are, and I don't like that he thinks he's got license to talk about East Asians because he dates/d a Chinese Canadian girl. So, I'm not really sure. You have any more insight on him?

Incidentally, Hyphen picked up on the same whack Shaun Majumdar performance on Unhitched. I flip channels on TV so rarely - it was kind of disappointing that this where my clicker brought me.

Anonymous said...

I really like Kal Penn, even for the simple fact of being a Brown actor who's been able to achieve a respectable level of success in a terribly racist industry; but yeah, that role in Superman was super random, no pun intended.

Can't say I can offer anymore insight into Russel Peters, but I do echo your thoughts on him.

Yo, American Born Chinese is the shit! Gene Yang was actually one of my high school teachers. He's a real mellow, humble Chinese dude and high school teacher who happens to make some great graphic novels on the side. Glad to hear you enjoyed his work, last time I talked to him it sounded like he has some interesting upcoming projects too.

Rage said...

Wow. Gene Yang was one of your teachers? I really feel like I missed out, growing up in suburban NY. Get me to the West Coast!

Seriously, I thought American Born Chinese was just awesome. I feel like I should check out all his earlier stuff just because he's got such skill. As with political/conscious/radical APA music, I look at people like him and wonder "where are the desis who are doing this kind of work?"

trish said...

Asif Mandvi from the Daily show with Jon Stewart. I believe he has written his own independent film.

"reading that he's a doctor in the show doesn't help." I'm not making light of your argument but as far as stereotypes go it could be worse. I would take that stereotype over being seen as a criminal any day.

Rage said...

Trish - thank for reading and writing in.

I haven't seen Asif Mandvi's work for years - his one-man play, "Sakina's Restaurant" was pretty problematic, but I'd give him a chance again, just to see where he's at. I've heard he has a big ego, but whatever - that's Hollywood, I guess.

I'm not saying that his being a doctor is the most offensive aspect of the character, and again, this is based on very limited exposure, but it's just more of the same. I don't know if we should be patting Hollywood on the back for casting desi men as something other than terrorists that Jack Bauer beats up on 24. At the same time, I'd be curious about what the character's backstory is supposed to be: where did he go to medical school? He looks pretty young... did he just come to the U.S. to start practice? Did he go to medical school in the U.S.? If so, how did he get in (isn't that very hard to do as a foreign undergrad). I guess the internal logic of why the dude has this pronounced accent doesn't seem to work for me, which is why I made mention of the fact that he's a doctor (not to mention that it's just a boring choice).

trish said...

I saw an interview of his and he did seem a little pompous.
Great Blog!

Rage said...

Thanks Trish! Please keep reading!