Throughout my life, even though we’ve never met, Aziz Ansari has consistently beaten me to the punch. It’s becoming a theme. A sometimes very annoying theme. Although, for various reasons I’ll discuss below, I do believe he has been the most important Indian Comedy Actor in the past 10 years.
In his new series on Netflix, Master of None, Aziz Ansari says “There can only be two,” referring to the idea that there can only ever be 2 Indians in one show at any point, max. Studio Executives and Networks are afraid to put any more than that, and they’re afraid most of the time, to even put one on.
I remember when I started doing stand-up in New York City in 2003, and after watching me, a fellow comic asked me “Oh, do you know Aziz Ansari? He’s an young Indian stand up as well.” Aziz was another comedian starting out in NYC at the same time as me. But even then, in 2003… in one of the biggest cities in the world, I got the feeling, “Wow, it’s like there’s only two of us.”
I love acting. Since I was a kid, it was the only thing I ever wanted to do in my life. I was good at it too. I won theatre awards in Middle School, High School, and University. It was my dream and I was determined to make it happen.
But, as an Indian guy with a British passport and an American accent due to growing up abroad, it’s been somewhat of an impossible dream living here in London. Not just because of my lack of talent with accents, but with the inherent racism that seems to quietly exist within the entertainment industry here.
The great myth I had, when I started stand-up, was that doing stand-up would lead to comedy acting. It was the only reason I was determined to compete in U.K. stand-up competitions like the Amused Moose or Jongleurs, and try and win them, which I did. And it was the only reason I continued to grind away on the circuit for 8 years, day in and day out, and do stand-up spots on TV, with the tiny hope that I would get the opportunity to act in something, which would then lead to something else. But I never enjoyed stand-up, and I did it for no other reason than I thought it would potentially guide me back to acting.
But the reality is, stand-up is not the TV or Film industry. Stand-up is a meritocracy. If you work your ass off, the best comics will, for the most part, rise. You can command audiences to come see you. And these audiences will pay regardless of your race or gender or ethnicity. They just want funny.
The same is not true in TV or Film. Stand-up was always a means to an end for me. The problem, I discovered, is that the “end”, does not exist.
In Britain, the below is the essence of every conversation I’ve ever had with a Producer or Agent or Director:
Them: We can’t cast you because of your accent.
Them: Well, we’re looking for someone from London.
Me: But I live in London. I’ve lived here for over 10 years.
Them: I know. But we’re looking for someone English.
Me: I am English. I’ve lived here for 16 years of my life. I was born here.
Them: I know, but English English.
Me: What’s that mean?
Them: Someone with an English accent.
Them: Because… uhhh.
This has been my life as an British-Asian-American Accent actor in London for the past 11 years. There-just-aren’t-any-roles.
Of the roles on my acting showreel (Found here: https://vimeo.com/135233056), about 85% of them have come from friends and performers essentially writing parts for me: Dan Clark, Julia Davis, Noel Fielding, etc., all wrote parts specifically with me in mind. Only two roles I’ve ever gotten in 11 years have come from auditioning. One was an ITV2 series called Trinity, in which I played a University student, and the other was a BBC3 pilot called UP!, in which I played, yes, a University student. It is as though the only possible scenarios in Britain to have an American or Asian in a show is if it’s set at university or school. It’s frankly, insane.
I’m not even talking about Asians either. I’m talking about how parochially BRITISH shows are in Britain. If you were to watch English comedies, you would get the sense that there are absolutely no American or foreign people here at all.
Catastrophe, starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, is one of the first comedies I’ve seen in the U.K. that stars an American. The Mighty Boosh, with Rich Fulcher, is the only other one in the past 11 years I’ve seen since living here. 11 years. 2 Americans in comedies. It’s shocking.
I remember being in a meeting at the BBC about an Australian female comic. They said it was hard to have her be a lead, however, because she was Australian, and British audiences wouldn’t understand how she ended up in London. My heart sank. What in God’s name were they talking about?!? We live in LONDON. A capital of the world. People from all over the world move here and live here. Why would an audience find it odd to have an Australian lead? It’s mind boggling.
As Aziz states in his brilliant article (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/arts/television/aziz-ansari-on-acting-race-and-hollywood.html?emc=eta1&_r=0), what we see on TV isn’t representative of the diversity we see in life. We don’t live in a closed world anymore. People move around. People have weird accents. People have weird names and looks. And here’s the thing: it’s not that important. In fact, it’s the least interesting thing about that person.
Kal Penn (from Harold and Kumar fame) has talked extensively about how he had to change and aglicize his name because he wasn’t getting any auditions with his real name, Kalpen Suresh Modi. After he changed it, his job offers escalated by 50% because Casting Directors couldn’t tell he was Indian from his name anymore.
Arj Barker (from Flight of the Conchords), another one of my favourite comedians of all time, also changed his name from Arjun Singh.
Why is this necessary? Why does this keep happening?
It is why I admire Aziz Ansari so much. In 2003, in New York City, you did not want a name like “Aziz Ansari.” It was still post 9/11, and the comedy climate was not good. People were still on edge, and walking on stage with a name like Aziz could not have been easy. I know that walking on stage with a name like Arnab wasn’t easy. People judged. Quick.
But he never changed his name, and he hustled. He started doing his own shows at UCB, made one of the best sketch shows I’ve ever seen in my life for MTV (Human Giant), and played Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation. Tom Haverford. He beat a whole bunch of white dudes to land that role. He’s the man.
As much as I support and appreciate the female fight for wage parity in Hollywood, a really awful and selfish part of me always thinks “At least you have a wage battle you can wage! We can’t even audition for any roles!”
I’m not asking anyone for anything. I’ve learned in this life that you have to hustle and bust your ass to get anything. You have to write your own scripts and make your own things. I’ve also worked in Advertising, TV writing, and as a Producer just to make a living, because I couldn’t make a living doing what I wanted to do. Not everyone in life can do what they want. Life is not fair, and I’m not going to cry about it. And there are obviously much worse off people than me in the world. But, one of the main problems for me, and for other Asian actors, is that we can’t get breaks in our careers, because there are none to be had.
There’s a problem with the industry, and it has to change. It starts with Commissioners, and it works it’s way down to Producers and Directors and Writers. It’s a group effort, but when you see shows like Master of None or BBC3’s Romesh Ranganathan: Asian Provocateur, you genuinely realize we’re neglecting a lot of interesting voices out there.
I recently wrote a comedy pilot called “International Boy” which was exactly about all the above themes that I’ve had to deal with in my life. It was a personal script about the complicated times in which we live, and how one can’t seem to be accepted because they’re just too many things. Aziz Ansari might have beaten me to the punch again about this, but that’s ok. Someone needs to get the message out there that things need to change, and he has the smarts and hustle to do it.