Funny shade of brown

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on December 27, 2019

Not so serious: Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act on streaming platform Netflix dwells on socio-economic issues while also keeping the laughs coming   -  NETFLIX/CARA HOWE

Look who’s here: Lilly Singh’s skits as Superwoman, about an NRI Punjabi family and its challenges, made her famous internationally   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Indian-origin comedians, TV show producers and talk show anchors are striking a gong for diversity in international television

“When 9/11 happened, my dad said, ‘whatever you do, don’t tell people you’re Muslim and don’t discuss politics’.” Hasan Minhaj, an immigrant kid who grew up in the backdrop of rising Islamophobia in the US, remembers feeling an instant generational gap at that moment. “My dad belongs to the generation where they look at it as some sort of American dream tax. If you come to this country, you endorse some racism. If you don’t get killed, you lucked out. But for me, and for many of us, I was born here. So I actually have the audacity to demand equality. I’m equal, I don’t deserve this.”

And his dad doesn’t understand, Minhaj continues in Homecoming King, his one-hour Netflix standup special, addressing his largely white audience, “You’re the guy who argues with the man at Costco because you want to return used underwear. And I’m being unreasonable when I want to argue with bigots?”

As the laughter subsides, he resumes, “I don’t know who’s more right, me or my dad. As immigrants we always have to put out these press releases, we feel like we’re always auditioning to prove we love this country.”

Minhaj’s complaint that no Westerner can pronounce his name correctly rings true not only for cross-continental immigrants but just anyone who has experienced migration, even within countries. When talk show host Ellen DeGeneres asks him what he does at Starbucks (notorious worldwide for wrongly spelling customer names on coffee cups), he says, “I just say Timothee Chalamet.”

He is among a new crop of Indian-origin comedians, TV show producers and talk show anchors in international television carving a niche for brown representation. It’s not all laughs and jokes, though; there is some serious politics on the side. Proof of that was when Minhaj was denied entry to the Howdy Modi event in Texas addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump in September 2019. The event’s organisers — Modi’s huge base of Indian-American supporters — did not take kindly to Minhaj’s utterances on Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party’s politics in his popular show Patriot Act, a riff on the Indian political scenario. Minhaj coolly set down a chair in the venue’s parking lot and live-streamed the show, while also managing to click a few selfies with fans.

While brown stand-up comedians are not exactly a new phenomenon on American TV — presenters from the subcontinent have for a while now been bringing in a perspective that’s different from the predominantly all-white pantheon — they largely remained a tick-box for diversity hiring. So you had the sole ‘exotic’ face in comic TV shows, such as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons, or Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory. What’s different today is that brown narratives are central not just in films and serialised fiction, but also mainstream late-night talk shows.

So you have Mindy Kaling aka Vera Mindy Chokalingam writing and acting in mainstream films and doing comedy, not just for desis. Former YouTube star Lilly Singh aka Superwoman is the first brown bisexual late-night host on American TV. “People like me aren’t normally on prime time To be on prime time, people like me have to be a computer engineer from NCIS, and your main line is ‘I hacked the mainframe’,” Singh says while introducing herself to her audience for A Little Late with Lilly Singh. “That’s why so many Indian kids grew up to be computer engineers, but thanks to me, now they’ll grow up to be bisexual, person-of-colour talk show hosts.”

On the other side of the Atlantic is British TV star Tan France, born to Pakistani parents, who hosts the popular web series Dressing Funny. As the first openly gay South Asian fashion expert on TV, France gives comedians such as John Mulaney, Ali Wong, Hasan Minhaj, Pete Davidson, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Miranda Sings, and Nick Kroll a makeover in his show, even as he chats them up for their droll take on life in comedy.

South African comedian Trevor Noah rose to become the Daily Show host, formerly occupied by the redoubtable Jon Stewart. Noah keeps up the steady stream of political commentary (including his Trump section, which he’s now most watched for), but peppers it all with jokes about cultural gaps and anecdotes from back home, bringing in a different perspective from another continent.

What has changed in the last few years, thanks in part to rise of online streaming services, is the infusion of cultural influences from across the world in the programming mix. Indian-origin Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, Master of None, for instance, is again about the immigrant experience and draws from his personal life, featuring his real-life parents Fatima and Shoukath. Many of the gags end up feeling very ‘like real-life’ as a result.

American TV networks are still among the most watched worldwide, and the growing diversity in its programming is a shout-out for brown representation, culture and politics.

Lilly Singh’s skits as Superwoman, about an NRI Punjabi family and its challenges, made her famous internationally. The skits, in easy-to-consume 5-9 minute formats, also has her rapping. Her talk show A Little Late with Lilly Singh had an introduction rap addressing stereotypes that a brown woman has to fight with an all-white-men team. Her desi rap for Christmas, perfectly encapsulates the immigrant experience in a lighthearted way:

Jingle Bells, Mommy Yells, Family’s on the way,

Braid my hair, pretend to care, while the rishtas run away, Heyy!

Jingle Bells, Daddy Yells, Aunty’s bugging me,

Gained some weight, now who will marry me?

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Published on December 27, 2019
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