< A Conversation With "The Daily Show's" Aasif Mandvi


Friday, March 01, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Aasif Mandvi is a stage and film actor, a writer and teller of stories and “Senior Muslim Correspondent” on The Daily Show. Born in India, raised in the UK, transplanted as a teenager to the Floridian paradise called Tampa, his background is so layered he calls himself a turducken. He’s a purveyor of fake news, an advocate of real issues, a Muslim but not, he says, the best example of one. Nevertheless, in an industry that hasn't very many, an example, he must be.


This week, I sat down with Aasif for a live event at WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space. I began by asking about his influences, and he told me about being inspired early on by The Fonz.

AASIF MANDVI:  But I used to watch Happy Days when I was a kid, and I thought that acting was riding around in a motorcycle and a leather jacket in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I sort of emulated these sort of American TV characters and kind of wanted to do that. But then I got into theater. I ended up going to like a children’s theater after-school thing, and that was really where it all began.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were a performer at Busch Gardens in Tampa.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And when The Daily Show sent you to Tampa in advance of the Republican National Convention –

AASIF MANDVI:  Yes, mm-hmm.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - you went and visited your old boss at Busch Gardens, and we have a clip of that.


ALAN TALBOT:  Oh, you had this ability to talk on and on and on in this Arabic gibberish kind of nonsense language.


AASIF MANDVI:  That wasn’t gibberish, Alan. That was just the way I used to talk back then.  



AASIF MANDVI:  What else do you remember?

ALAN TALBOT:  I remember firing you.

AASIF MANDVI:  Well, you don’t seem – upset about it.

ALAN TALBOT:  It was 25 years ago, and then we moved on.

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, I – I, I’ve moved on too, Alan! Okay? I’m doin’ big things, you know?


I’ve played a lot of doctors – and the occasional terrorist - and deli owner.


AASIF MANDVI:  Poor Alan, he was really excited to be on The Daily Show, and then we kind of ambushed him with this whole like – do you remember when you fired me kind of thing, which he didn’t really remember.


I had to remind him of – because it was a big deal in my career and in my life. Like, I was devastated. It was my first real sort of acting job, and, and I got fired. It was because I, I – [LAUGHS] I had taken some medication –



BROOKE GLADSTONE:  I always use that excuse when I’m fired.


AASIF MANDVI:  I took some “cold medicine” – and – was asleep in the break room and missed like a half a day’s work, and so they,  they fired me. But he had no – he had no recollection of that.


And I had to remind him. But he was a lot of fun. He completely played along. And then I think at the end of it, he sort of might have been a little sorry that he did it, [LAUGHS] which -


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  He must have known, if he was a viewer of The Daily Show, that he was gonna end up looking like an idiot.

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, well I think he thought he was just gonna talk about, you know, me being a, a street performer at Busch Gardens, and all the Busch Gardens executives were there, you know, who are all his bosses and stuff.


And then like I pull out, like, remember when you fired me, you [BLEEP]!


And so, the poor guy [LAUGHS] was a little – I think he was a little thrown.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  How much is ambushing a Daily Show strategy?

AASIF MANDVI:  It’s not really a strategy. I mean, there are two kinds of things that we do. We do sit-down interviews with people and then we do man-on-the-street stuff. And, and, of course, with man-on-the-street stuff, there is an inherent sort of ambushing that happens where people are not expecting to be asked a question. In the interviews that we set up, there were sometimes, you know, things that people expect to be asked or they’re gonna talk about, and then there are – we might go off into an area with they don't expect –



AASIF MANDVI:  - to be asked those questions. And I guess that inherently is kind of an ambush situation. But that’s kind of where you get the real – the real stuff, the real moments. You know, I think that we live in a - an age and a culture where everyone feels like they have something to say and a point of view and they need to get it out, and sometimes we’re the only  people that will talk to them.


And - they need to [LAUGHS] find an outlet, And then there’s also something Stephen Colbert said to me. When I first started on The Daily Show, they sent me to have a meeting with him and ask about doing field pieces, and he said to me – one of the things he said to me was, when you put a camera in somebody’s  face, they get a lobotomy.


So remember that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  How did you get hooked up with The Daily Show?

AASIF MANDVI:  It was really just an audition, and initially I said no because, you know, I had gone to these kind of auditions before, the, the sort of – like, I’d gone down to Letterman and different things, and like, you know, and they’d basically just used to sort of be like, hey, can you put on this turban and sit on this carpet and pretend like you’re flying –


- for like a comedy bit that we’re gonna do? You know, so I thought, ah, it’s gonna be one of these things, and so I said no. And then they called back five minutes later and they said, are – are you sure? They – they, they kind of want you to come down, and it’s not for what you think it is. It’s for a correspondent. And so, I said, well what time do they want me to come down? They said, by 3. I said, well, I’ll be there at 3. I don’t know why I had this attitude.


But I kind of had this sort of like [UPPITY ACCENT] “Daily Show, it’s beneath me. I’ve been on Broadway!” You know what I mean?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were in “Oklahoma.”

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHS] There you go! So –


- I was like, I’ve been in “Oklahoma,” Mr. Stewart. I don’t know if you are aware of my resumé.”


But I did. I went down and, and I, I met Jon. And, you know, I was a fan of the show. I used to watch it back then, don’t anymore.


But now – no. But we just did this piece that they had written, and I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I just figured I’ll just do my best Stephen Colbert impression.


So I did, and Jon turned to me and said, congratulations, welcome to the show. And, and, and I really thought he was kidding. I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” But he said, “Well, you’ll be on the show tonight.”


And he was like, “Do you have plans?”


And what’s really bizarre about it is that I go into my first-ever rehearsal, and it’s usually just a couple of producers and some writers and stuff sitting there, and I’m rehearsing and I look out and there’s a guy sitting there with a baseball cap on, and he’s like watching the rehearsal. And, and I sort of looked closely and I realized that it’s Bruce Springsteen.


And I’m like, wow, Bruce Springsteen works at The Daily Show.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But then you get the job and –

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, but then I get – yeah, I get the job. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And, and you – and you were the “Senior Muslim Correspondent” -


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - the “Senior Brown Correspondent”


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It’s not being on a carpet in a turban, but did it irk you at all?

AASIF MANDVI:  It’s a, it’s a version of that is what you’re saying.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Well, no, no, it, it’s –


AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, I know what you’re saying.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It’s knowing.


AASIF MANDVI:  No, you know, I think – I mean, we are ultimately, at the end of the day, sort of parodying the real news. So I was happy, at that point, ‘cause initially I remember saying to Jon like, do you want me to do an accent? And he was like, no, no, not at all. So I was – I think I was in this place where I was like just happy to like not have to be like the [TALKS W/INDIAN ACCENT] da-da-deh-deri me, like that.


And I could just be myself and sort of play a – you know, an Indian American. So yeah, I – I started on – and, you know, still do a, a lot of the pieces that pertain to brown people. And brown people are in the news a lot, so it’s good.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And, and it’s Senior Muslim Correspondent with a very sharp point. One of my favorites was after the home improvement store Lowe’s –

AASIF MANDVI:  Right, right –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - pulled its ads from a show called “All American Muslim” –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - because just associating with anything Muslim was controversial –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - you reported on why Lowes should shut down entirely.



Without the store Lowe’s, the jihadist goal is unachievable, Jon. If you were a Muslim who wants to build a bomb – sorry, I’m obviously being redundant -

- but what would you - what would you build it out of?

JON STEWART:  I don’t know how to build bombs. I, I just – well, wiring, PVC pipe, fertilizer.

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, yeah, or, as they call it here, Aisle 5!


Jon, Lowe’s is to Muslims what FAO Swartz is to nine-year-olds.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The Council on American Islamic Relations gave –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - you a, a Courage in Media Award.

AASIF MANDVI:  Uh-huh, yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The ACLU gave you a Social Responsibility in Media Award.


I mean, you use your powers for good.

AASIF MANDVI:  I make funny faces. The CAIR Award was, was really nice, although it was a little bit absurd because I, I remember going out to the ceremony and the guy that they were giving the [LAUGHS] award to before me was a Syrian pianist and composer whose parents had been beaten up by the Assad government and he had been – they had death threats against him, and all of this stuff. And they’re showing a video of his work and his family, and it was a devastating story of real courage and standing up to a despot and all this stuff. And he gets the award and then next it’s me, and it’s basically like – I’m like  [MAKES SOUNDS]


You know, and they’re showing clips of me doing pratfalls and making faces and, and [LAUGHS] so it was, it was a tough act to follow, you know?


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] But how important is Muslim-ness to your work?

AASIF MANDVI:  I’ve spent more times in bars than in mosques, you know, so I'm a terrible sort of role model for anything Muslim. But culturally I am Muslim, and I also recognize how few sort of faces there are of moderate Muslim American identity in today's media on television, anywhere. So I recognize the need for that in our culture and in the media. So I don't think about it too much, my Muslim-ness. The sort of character that I play on The Daily Show, what he means on a cultural level is beyond what I am.

I mean, there was a period of time when I was doing a lot of pieces back to back that were all about like Islamophobia and Muslim stuff, and I remember saying to Jon, actually, in the hallway one time when I met him, I was like I just need to do like a normal piece, like one, one piece now where it has nothing to do with like being Muslim or anything like that. It started to sort of like get to me a little bit, you know. But, for the most part, it’s fascinating to me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Haven’t you ever just had a moment where you just couldn't believe what the clueless guest was saying?

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah. That is one of the perks/depressing things about being a Daily Show correspondent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That woman in Tennessee?

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah [LAUGHS] like, there you go!

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  She’s opposing this mosque being built in Tennessee, and then she goes on to say everything she knows about Muslims, culminating with the fact that a third of all Muslims are terrorists.


AASIF MANDVI:  You do know I'm Muslim, right?

WOMAN FROM TENNESSEE:  Nobody's perfect.



AASIF MANDVI:  You know, that moment when she says nobody's perfect –


- is such a classic sort of Daily Show experience because that wasn't her initial answer. Her initial answer was something much more diplomatic like, well I assumed that perhaps you were, da-da-da, you know. Then we had to stop and change tape and her husband, who was sitting off to the side who sort of fancied himself as a standup comic, said, you know, honey, you know what you should say when he asks you that question about the – being Muslim, you should say, hey, nobody’s perfect!


Right, eh, eh? And she actually –


- was like, oh, can I redo that?


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So as a fake journalist doing fake news –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - do you feel any sense of journalistic responsibility?



I mean, other than the fact that we are dealing with real stories and real news items. In that way, we want to tell the story but, you know, our, our currency is ultimately comedy, and, and we sort of look for the hypocrisy. We look for where the laughs are.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Okay, so let’s see, I took a little inventory. You were a doctor in The Dictator.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were a doctor on CSI.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were a doctor on Oz.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And on the Sopranos.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And on the TV series Jericho.



BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And in the Ricky Gervais film Ghost Town.

You were a terrorist in Sleeper Cell.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And that was very scary.

AASIF MANDVI:  Welcome to Hollywood, folks. This is what it is to be a brown guy in Hollywood. I used to play cab drivers when I was starting out, and then I sort of –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You were promoted –

AASIF MANDVI:  To doctor. And then I got promoted to terrorist, yes, you know?


I actually even played a doctor on a soap opera, where they were just they just couldn't be bothered with a name, so they were like, why don’t we just call you Dr. Mandvi?



AASIF MANDVI:  And I was like, okay. And so, literally in the, in the –


- in the soap opera you hear like, Paging Dr. Mandvi.


Paging Doc” and, you know, my mother was very proud, and –



But in June there’s a new Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn vehicle -


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - called The Internship, that hits screens -


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  They play interns at Google, and your character’s running the internship.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You’re a taskmaster.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You have a thick Indian accent.

AASIF MANDVI:  Well, not so thick -


- as all that.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Does it bother you at all that they asked for the accent?

AASIF MANDVI:  Initially, I was like, I’m not doing the accent. And then they were like, here’s how much money you’ll make. No.


All right, I’ll do the accent, da-da. [SHAKING HEAD]


But honestly, I often feel like with that sort of situation that it’s really about the writing and it’s really where the comedy comes from. If the comedy is about the accent, then I have a problem with it. But what makes it funny is not his accent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In 1998, you created a one-man show called “Sakina's Restaurant” -


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - out of which grew the film, which is incredibly sweet called, Today’s Special

AASIF MANDVI:  Yes, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - which is a romantic comedy about a prodigal son who’s a young chef who cooks by the book.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But he learns how to trust himself, improvise, embrace life and even pleases Dad.

AASIF MANDVI:  Yeah, yeah. They were all characters that are based on my family, and we developed this one-person show. And I didn’t know where to set it. I thought well, I’ll set it in a  restaurant because it's a very easy access point for most Americans.

And then when we made the movie, we took the, the restaurant element and really used food as a metaphor of transformation and culture. And for me, the movie is really about the integration of identity, you know, and the idea that the lead character can never really be himself, until he has reconciled his immigrant identity and where he comes from with where he is today and so, and ultimately becomes whole.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And you got raves for your performance in “Disgraced.” It ran on Broadway until very recently. It's a, it's a story about how to make it in America.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And it could have fit into any era –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - really. In the case of your character, he rejects the Muslim faith he was born into, he gives himself up, voluntarily –


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  - for searches of the airport.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  He’s a successful mergers and acquisitions lawyer.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What drew you to that? Is it that theme of integration which the character in your film handles more successfully than the character in “Disgraced.”

AASIF MANDVI:  Well, the character in, in Today’s Special is dealing with some of the very same issues, but we just come at it from a comedic tone. And in “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the play, a brilliant writer who sent me the script about two years ago, and it was one of the bravest plays I'd ever read.

And when we did it at Lincoln Center, you know, it was really interesting. The beauty of plays is that you start to understand, especially a new play, you start to understand what the play is over the course of time as different audiences come and, and – and see it.

And, you know, it really is about a Muslim-American man who is struggling with his identity, and it ends in a very sad, devastating place. But how many people sort of identified with that character, you know, and identified with his struggle that when push comes to shove, however much we want to talk about United Colors of Benetton, we end up gravitating towards these very based tribal identities that we have?

And whether you had – you had Muslims or Jews or African-Americans, or whoever, like come see this play, they - they recognize something about themselves.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Tell me about how, for many years, Omar Sharif haunted your life.



You know, it’s funny because we finish where we start, which is basically that these American iconic characters that I used to watch, you know, like “The Fonz” and stuff like that, and then one day I saw this actor, Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago. And, at that time, he was the only sort of non-Caucasian heroic figure that you could find in Hollywood movies, you know, he and Sidney Poitier. That was it. I met him as a waiter at a restaurant. I said, you know, Doctor Zhivago changed my life, and he turned to me and he said, oh really? Mine too.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Is it true, you know, you’ve raised Jon Stewart, that absolute power corrupts absolutely?

AASIF MANDVI:  Are, are you saying that’s – that about Jon Stewart?


AASIF MANDVI:  I can’t answer that.


He’s “awesome,” he’s a benevolent dictator.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Thank you again –

AASIF MANDVI:  Thank you.



What a pleasure, really, so great.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Of course, this was just part of a much longer conversation with Aasif. To watch the whole video, go to our website, onthemedia.org. By the way, you’re listening to music from his film, Today’s Special.  [MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD:   That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Khrista Rypl, our intern who, we’re sorry to say, is leaving this week. She was fantastic and was a big part in the piece on the White House. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Frankel.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:   Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:   And I’m Bob Garfield.


Aasif Mandvi

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Brooke Gladstone