Tuesday, October 2, 2012

South Asians achieving comedic milestones on US and UK television

The always amusing Hari Kondabolu has a nice bit here about seeing a few more brown faces on the small screen these days, with the premiere of Mindy Kaling's new series The Mindy Project.
(This clip is from Totally Biased with W Kamau Bell)

His line that “there are now enough Indian people where I don’t need to like you just because you’re Indian” is so funny because it reflects something real. Often, members of minority groups feel so starved of representation in the media that we will automatically like anyone who ticks that box regardless of how good they actually are. But the reverse can be also true, as we can be overly critical of someone in the public eye who doesn't represent us properly. This might seem silly to some; white people don't tend to feel embarrassed because Honey Boo Boo Child is making white people look bad. But that's because there are enough white people everywhere else on TV that Honey Boo Boo is not going to create or perpetuate stereotypes about all white people. A subset of white people, perhaps.

Meanwhile in the UK, the BBC's first South Asian sitcom, Citizen Khan is well into its first season. Starring its creator Adil Ray, it portrays a British-Pakistani family man who overestimates his influence and importance as a community leader. Its debut episode stirred a lot of controversy and complaints that it mocked Islam and relied on lazy stereotypes. The latter count is true enough - it often feels like something that was made in the 70s or 80s rather than 2012. But it also plays with the stereotypes cleverly enough at times to make it just about worth watching, even if the laugh track seems overdone.
As for the accusation of being insensitive or insulting to Islam... meh. The aspect of the show that seemed to cause the most consternation was Mr Khan's daughter Aisha, who plays the perfect Muslim daughter in front of her parents but leads a rather different life when they are out of sight. But as Homer Simpson once said: "It's funny 'cause it's true." It's reflective of one of the major themes that runs through the show - the contrast between the public facade and the private reality, exemplified by Mr Khan himself. Also cleverly done is the interaction between Khan and the mosque manager, a white Muslim convert.

Funny-wise, Citizen Khan has a few laugh-out-loud moments but overall is well below the standard of the UK Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, and perhaps not even at the level of The Kumars at No. 42. But I actually think this is an important show, even if it's not quite as funny as it should be. Being able to laugh at oneself, and by extension one's own culture, seems to be an important part of fitting into the British way of life. And frankly, if there's one community that needs a show like this, it's the British Pakistani community.

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