Once upon a time, and for a long time, Russell Peters was the be all and end all of South Asian representation in stand up comedy in the West. When he was in town, his show was where all the cool aunties and uncles would be and kids would be left with the babysitter, because his sets were not child friendly. Russell Peters has immense international popularity.
The entertainment industry increasingly focuses on global appeal when producing commercial content. It’s surprising that comics, and actors in general, of South Asian descent haven’t always been on the roster for major productions. But instead millions in profit were left on the table. It was not until the change in the political landscape caused by the 2016 election that stand up comics of South Asian descent really took centre stage in the entertainment industry.
It was post-election rather than before, or even during an election, in the midst of racist, sexist and xenophobic comments that Hollywood executives started giving these voices a platform. Consequently, it seems like giving diverse voices a platform is a way for the powerful in Hollywood to say they are doing something, reactively, to compensate for the fact that had they given these voices a platform earlier, we might have avoided this disarray.
It is a little appalling to show outrage at an outcome when you did not do anything to stop it before.
Fast forward to now, and there are a slate of talented comics of South Asian descent taking over the mainstream stand up scene. From Hasan Minhaj to Aparna Nancherla to Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, Hari Kondabolu, comedians of South Asian descent appear on a variety of major outlets, from network television to late night shows to their own Netflix specials. It should not take a dramatic turn of events to give these consistently talented South Asian comics a chance to shine on major platforms; executives should be be more thoughtful about the consequences of the decisions they makes and the voices they elevate in a more consistent manner.
Saturday Night Live is considered the zenith of comedy, and yet the first host of South Asian descent in the show’s more than 40 year history was Aziz Ansari in the first episode post inauguration. Ansari was already a personality of reasonable popularity due to his character on “Parks and Recreation” and yet never hosted SNL until then. But in early 2017, “Parks” was long over, Ansari did not have any upcoming projects to promote, and yet the show still brought him on that show particularly to respond to the inauguration.
It seems it took a more than year long campaign run on xenophobia and a Muslim ban, and the campaign's successful end, to get an Indian Muslim on this platform.
It was in reaction to an unfortunate turn of events that led to this articulate and humorous presentation of the South Asian experience on SNL. Why does it take so much to get talented minority the same platform as their non-minority counterparts? It should not, and there are devastating consequences when it does.
And humour is one of the keys to why South Asian comics are particularly important. Good humour and well written sets make specific experience universally relatable. It relates pain and hardship in an understandable way, without preaching. No one likes being lectured at, but humour, empathy and realness is what binds humanity, and a talented stand up brings these emotions to the table along with laughs. Through comedy and entertainment, important issues are made more digestible and reach a wider audience than sleepy speeches. Entertainment plays and important role in changing minds and stereotypes.
Later the same year, Kumail Nanjiani also hosted SNL and brought similarly insightful and hilarious presentation of the Muslim American experience in America. He is sometimes self deprecating, he sometimes calls out racists and their inaccurate knowledge of geography, and sometimes he just pokes fun at the network he is on. It is a retelling of the variety of issues that affect him everyday, and the complexity and multidimensionality of human experience.
Had these hardships and experiences been communicated on a similarly popular platform in such an eloquent way earlier, it might have even led to a better outcome, creating real change rather than a reactionary response to compensate for the lack of diversity and thoughtfulness in earlier creative decisions. When these voices are given a platform reactively it feels like just that, a reaction, rather than a typical, normal experience. When we act proactively to give these voices a stage, it normalizes the diverse array of American experiences and opens up people’s perspective who might not have a first hand view of American experiences different from their own.
While these comedians’ stories, and all of ours as people of colour, have always been relevant and interesting and important, it is impossible not to notice these comedians explosion of popularity post the perspective changing 2016 election.
Hasan Minhaj hosted the White House Correspondents dinner in 2017, the first Correspondents’ dinner in the Trump era. His Netflix special describing the immigrant and first generation experience told with humour makes these hard experiences digestible, and the serious moments even more touching. It’s almost as if the WHCA is saying “You want to run a campaign on building walls and travel bans? Here’s a performer that stands for exactly the opposite.” It should not take that to get performers like this that stage.
In an America where an Executive Order had instituted a Muslim ban, Minhaj was the White House Correspondents’ Association’s effort to subtly protest the unconstitutional ban. It's fair to fight a law that you disagree with, but it's more effective to ensure there is no position to instate it in the first place by being proactive about the voices that are given a platform. When we let bad laws pass before fighting them, millions suffer in the meantime under these vicious policies.
But it is particularly this kind of reactionary course of action that led to this problem in the first place. Being proactive and giving diverse voices a platform before it is too late facilitates understanding a variety of perspectives. The sooner the entertainment industry, that so strongly says it advocates liberal policies, understands the consequences of not consistently elevating a diverse set of voices, the sooner we will begin to see the positive results of these decisions.
The stories brown people have been telling for what feels like ever are finally comprehensible to a majority white population because they are seeing parallels happening concurrently in their real life. These comedians all existed and were doing great work even before this backwards era in American history. They did not begin their careers in response to the election, but they have been elevated to a more central place on the entertainment stage as the media industry’s response to the election and realising how important hearing these perspectives are in order to avoid another such disaster.
When the industry acts reactively, often it is too late for many people who have since suffered from the travel ban, family separation and other such destructive policies. Had people of colour been given a platform proactively it might have done more to make people understand the struggle of minorities and immigrant communities and have a real impact on the election. It should not take a catastrophe to hear diverse voices, it should be the norm.