Actor, TV writer, Obie Award-winning performer and playwright Aasif Mandvi has a busy couple of weeks coming up.
From October 27th to 30th, as Senior “Middle East/Muslim/Foreign Looking” Correspondent for The Daily Show, he’s hitting the road to Austin, where Jon Stewart and co. will be covering the November 4th Election. Mandvi will be reporting in his inimitable and ironic fashion, gathering more evidence for his theory that “when you put a camera in someone’s face, they have a lobotomy!”
From there, he’ll be promoting his entertaining and insightful new book, No Land’s Man, which will be released on Election Day. We put a microphone in front of Indian-born Mandvi, who’s now lived in America for 30 years, to see what we could stir up…
“I was convinced for the first year, they were going to fire me. [But] I was able to talk about Pakistan or the Middle East from the POV of an American but also someone who has a relationship with that part of the world. It became a unique position.”
The title of your witty new book, No Land’s Man, suggests a fish out of water story.
Everything I’ve written seems to come from the starting point of dislocation of identity and the immigrant experience. We first emigrated from India to Bradford, England, and then to Tampa, Florida. My one-man show in the late nineties, Sakina’s Restaurant, and my movie, Today’s Special, which I adapted from it, are both about similar themes. Now this book continues that, hopefully in an entertaining way—everything else is gravy!
How did moving around influence your performing career?
I probably had the DNA for acting in me already, and then a life of immigration meant having to adapt to different cultures and environments, and it probably turned me into a little bit of a shape-shifter. And I’ve had a varied career, from Broadway drama, musicals, Merchant Ivory films, to The Daily Show. I’m fortunate to have done a lot of different things, from drama to comedy.
As you say in your book, it wasn’t easy adapting to Bradford where you were sometimes called “wog.”
My drive to become successful probably was fueled a little by wanting to overcome the early days of prejudice and being marginalized, and being seen as not as good as white people. The bullying and racism probably fueled that. By the way, “wog” originally meant “western oriental gentleman”, but then became used as a derogatory term. But in another irony, I grew up in England in the seventies, only three decades from World War II, yet today chicken marsala is like the national dish. And, there was also that sense of the loss of the British Empire and then the “people who were colonized are now colonizing us”, especially in places like Bradford.
But then something happened when you came to America.
I felt it right away, a kind of openness and enthusiasm about America that has very little understanding of the nuance of other cultures. Once you come to America, you’re suddenly embraced by, Forget where you come from, forget all that past stuff you went through, you’re American now! Not to say there isn’t a tremendous amount of below-the-surface racism here, as well.
You auditioned for a one-time role as a Middle East correspondent, how did it turn into a regular gig?
I didn’t come from the traditional comedy or even stand-up comedy background. I was much more of a theater guy. But some of the best things in my life have come out of left field. I was anticipating a completely different kind of launch into the zeitgeist of America. But it happened via The Daily Show. I auditioned for Jon, and was on the show that very night. But it was just a single piece he wanted me for. To his credit, Jon saw the incredible talent before him [laughs]. And, I’m very thankful.
How has it given you a platform to become, as you put it, a “jihadist of irony” against bullshit and ignorance?
I was convinced for the first year, they were going to fire me. After awhile, being a brown guy and a Muslim—there were very few images like that in the culture here—I was able to comment on that culture as an insider and outsider, which my very smart Caucasian counterparts couldn’t do. I was able to talk about Pakistan or the Middle East from the POV of an American but also someone who has a relationship with that part of the world. It became a unique position. Plus, you get to work with tremendous writers, the funniest people in show business. Now, I’m able to riff off the character of Aasif Mandvi—someone who happens to have the same name as me—and I’m able to address stories in a different way.
Keeping busy: Mandvi corresponding for The Daily Show (left), and on the cover of his new book (right).
What do you see out there today?
I hear in the culture at large, there’s a lot of bigotry, prejudice and misinformation about Islam and Muslims, here. It comes out of ignorance, but also from a manipulation by politicians and the media to create that misinformation, to inflame certain core groups, especially on the right wing, people like Michelle Bachmann, where you play into people’s fears and prejudices in order to create a divide.
What else are you trying to accomplish regarding Islamophobia?
I’m putting out a series of PSAs, taking a concept we started on The Daily Show where we created a parody sitcom called The Qu’osby Show—the most American Muslim family in America. Basically, we’re suggesting that if Muslims had their own Cosby show, it would help with the prejudices the same way it did for African-Americans in the eighties. So we take that to its absurdist level and are now creating more parody episodes as PSAs to educate people about Islamophobia.
Last year, GOP official Don Yelton resigned over racist remarks he made to you on The Daily Show—why do people shove their foot into their mouths?
It happens again and again. Sure our job is to provoke and instigate, but sometimes the job is just stay out of the way, and people just hang themselves. And that’s exactly what happened with Yelton. He was more than willing to go down that road, expressing his racist opinions. People want to share their insides, if you talk to them long enough, and that happens all the time on The Daily Show.
What can we expect from “Democalypse 2014: South by South Mess” in Austin?
We’re going to cover the political midterm election races across the country, and it’ll be funny, and what The Daily Show is known for, when we go on these road trips. I’m sure the people of Austin will also get ripped a little bit along the way.
How are excited about your upcoming summer 2015 HBO series, The Brink, which you are co-producing and co-starring in?
It’s a geo-political satirical comedy that follows an international crisis as seen through the eyes of three US government departments. It’s like 24 or Homeland, if it was a comedy! And it all takes place in real time. The first season focuses on Pakistan and the Middle East, and the geo-political crisis that emerges in that part of world, which is something that we could never imagine, right? And it’s very funny, with Jack Black and Tim Robbins, a great cast.
What’s your take on ISIS?
I feel bad for the Italians because their “ices” are really getting a bad rap. The Italian “ices” business has gone waaay down!