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Aasif Mandvi talks about acting, comedy and Middle Eastern Corresponding

Aasif Mandvi talks about acting, comedy and Middle Eastern Corresponding (photo)

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For more than four years, Aasif Mandvi has been a staple of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as its “Senior Middle East Correspondent,” but if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t think of himself as a comedian. Since his adolescent years, Mandvi has worked in a wide variety of theatrical disciplines, with comedy being just one of his many areas of accomplishments; as a film actor, he previously played Peter Parker’s rightfully exasperated boss in “Spider-Man 2,” an indefatigably upbeat physician in “Ghost Town,” a villainous general in “The Last Airbender,” and an ambitious chef in “Today’s Special.” And he continues to explore numerous opportunities on TV and in film, as he’s working on his upcoming roles in films such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator.”

IFC spoke with Mandvi recently to talk about how he ended up on “The Daily Show,” and how he looks at his hugely successful comedic work in the overall context of his acting career. In addition to detailing his origins as an actor and comedian, he talked about the challenges and opportunities of being a performer of color, and offered some insights into the creative process that made him one of the most celebrated contributors on “The Daily Show.”

You’ve done a variety of work as an actor and comedian, but how did you get started in comedy in particular?

I think it just sort of happened. I never consciously got into comedy. It was sort of one of those things where I was a theater student, I was acting, I was doing comedy, I was doing dramatic stuff, so it’s been something that I’ve always done and enjoyed doing and had an instinct to be relatively good at. But I don’t really think of myself just as a comedian; I think of myself as an actor, and comedy is just a part of that. I think more people think of me as a comedian now that I’ve been on “The Daily Show” for five years, so you get sort of labeled with this kind of “well, he’s a comedian,” when the reality is that most of the work in my career that I’ve done, I would say it’s about 50-50 in terms of that and dramatic stuff. So I’ve really always been involved in comedy, since school.

Did you undertake any formal training for comedy that differentiated it from the other acting work you’ve done? And do you see it as a different discipline than dramatic acting?

I went to school as an actor, but I think most of my training once I got out of school was sort of on-the-job, and I did do like improv comedy and street theater and stuff like that. But I don’t think of it as a different thing, really. I guess some people do, I don’t know, but for me it’s all part and parcel of the same skill set. So I feel like I don’t really separate my dramatic work from my comedic work in that way. It’s just a different way to approach a character, or anything – it’s just a different angle.

In that case, was “The Daily Show” sort of just another audition you went on?

Like I said, I had been doing comedic stuff as well, and I’d done a little stand-up comedy, and I was in a sketch comedy group. But “The Daily Show” came as an audition; they were literally looking for a Middle Eastern correspondent, originally for a very specific piece that they had that they had written and they didn’t have a correspondent. So they actually held auditions just as a one-off for this one piece, so I came in originally to audition for this one segment, got it, did it that night, and Jon Stewart was actually the person who I guess sort of fell in love with me and decided “I’m going to bring him back, because I like him.” So he just kept bringing me back and having me do more and more on-air chats with him on the show. And then after about six months of that, they offered me a full-time job. But I think at the time I auditioned for “The Daily Show,” they were not necessarily looking for someone who came from the traditional comedy background, who came from stand-up or stuff like that. They wanted an actor – a comedic actor.

Why do you think that is?

I think because of the kind of role that I was originally hired to play. It was very character-driven, sort of like they didn’t want me to be too broad. They wanted me to be very understated and grounded, and I think that’s why they were looking for someone who had more acting experience.

How do you approach each segment, since you’re using your own name, but you’re adopting an on-air persona?

I play a character who has my name. he’s a lot smarter than me, he’s a lot better-looking than I am, and he travels around with a team of comedy writers. But the thing is I kind of feel like he is an extension – the more you do it, the more yourself and the character start to find a common ground. And you have to find a unique voice within that character that I feel like is somewhat of a persona, you know?

Are there any comedians from whom you took inspiration, or who might even have taught you?

Well, specifically for “The Daily Show,” I would say that there’s a long history of terrific performers that have been on that show, like Carell, Colbert, Ed Helms, and so I think there’s a particular style and a particular tone that you fall into on that show that has kind of preceded us. And then you find your own niche, your own version of that, and that is really something that gets developed over time, and the more you do it, the more you sort of perfect that or find the nuances within your own particular character. And I guess in terms of other comedic stuff that I’ve done, there are terrific comedic actors out there that I grew up watching. I gravitate towards people and the work of people who do both, because I think that definitely brings such a richness to that. All of the actors that I’ve known and I came up in school with and worked with over the years, I feel like have been known through theater and are now doing comedy and they’re on TV shows and stuff, you know, and I think part of what makes them as funny as they are is the fact that they’re grounded in a broader base than just comedy.

How would you characterize the style of the segments you create on “The Daily Show?”

I definitely think there’s a certain approach to “The Daily Show” – we’re sort of high-status fools in a way. And I feel that way about my character and I think the character that Colbert plays and a lot of us on the show, I think it’s that kind of persona. In terms of the interviews and the style, I think it’s something that you fall into, the structure and mechanics of it. But in terms of the character, it is that sort of ‘the guy who knows everything, but actually knows nothing.’

You mention mechanics – how refined or careful are you about language or delivery to make things funny, and how purely intuitive is that?

Well, I think a lot of it is intuition, and a lot of it is just comic timing – you have to have an innate understanding of comic timing in order to pull off those gags. And also in the field pieces, sometimes we can ask a question several different ways, and experiment with the funniest way to do it – they’re a little looser in terms of it isn’t a more long-form thing. But I think a lot of it is just intuiting the moment. And there’s a great quote by Lucille Ball, and she said, “I’m not funny, I’m just brave,” and that’s what it is in terms of “The Daily Show” – you just have to be brave. You just have to be willing to go there, and if there’s a moment in your mind where you’re like, “I’m going to try this,” and sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it just doesn’t play, but it’s as much about being courageous and brave in that moment comedically. Because if you think about being in that situation, if you start censoring yourself or holding onto yourself, or trying to find what is exactly the best word, if you become that self-conscious about it, then you will lose the spontaneity and the comedy and the sort of instinct of it.

In the field segments, how often are you actually asking all of the questions that you do, and how much does editing play a part in enhancing the shock value of some of the interviews?

We try to be as authentic as we can be in that people will say exactly what they say. The skill set is probably that we go out there when we go to these interviews and we have a series of questions, and we know what kind of responses we are hoping for. So we have questions we already are prepared to ask, and sort of follow-up questions, and you pull out these scenarios in your mind about what can happen and jokes and stuff that we can do. So we go out there as prepared as we can be for these interviews, and then once we’re actually in the free fall of the interview, then anything can happen – and that’s when the rubber hits the road for the correspondent. Because that’s when you have to really be in the moment, and find the funny, find the back and forth, because if it looks manufactured then it’s not good. So as little as we can do that, we do that.

How much do you feel like your ethnicity plays a part in your comedy, and how much do you want it to?

I realized a long time ago in this business that I’m never going to be a white guy (laughs). For a long time, I thought I would be, and I thought I could graduate to being a white guy, but the reality is that I’m brown. And I think I got hired on “The Daily Show” for two reasons, A, that I was ethnic, and B, that I was good, hopefully, in that position that they wanted me in. But it definitely helped that I was the right ethnicity for the role, so I feel like we’ve definitely exploited that, but there are also things that I have done that have had nothing at all to do with my ethnicity. But I actually don’t mind, because I don’t mind using my ethnicity, because I feel like it has actually been one of those things in my career that has challenged my career, but it’s also something that has enhanced it, and I think I get to do pieces and sit on that fence between cultures and have a very unique perspective and a unique voice within the culture, especially as it is today that I don’t think I would have if I was Caucasian. So I actually like it; I don’t want to do roles that minimize or stereotype or reduce the ethnicity down to some kind of accented sound byte that is funny; that feels to me like the wrong exploitation of the ethnicity. But the right way exploit it is to actually expand it in the way we do it on “The Daily Show,”which is, here is a guy who is brown and comes from a different perspective sort of on the fence between cultures and I think actually, I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I feel like “The Daily Show” has benefited from having that ethnicity and that color on the show. I don’t mean they benefited like, “it’s now a better show.” It’s like they’ve gotten to do stuff and explore things with me that they wouldn’t get to do with a Caucasian correspondent.

Where do you draw the line between playing an ethnic character who is interesting and funny, and one that you think is stereotypical or offensive? I remember not being sure how I felt about Ken Jeong’s character in “The Hangover,” but I also realize it isn’t up to me to decide if that’s problematic or not.

I draw the line like, I would never take off my clothes and show my tiny, tiny penis. So I won’t do that (laughs). For a laugh – I have too big an ego for that. But I think it’s a case-by-case scenario; it is one of those things where you read something if you’re doing a TV thing or a film, and if it feels like it’s crossing a line and it feels like, “uh, I’m not so sure about that,” you hope that your instincts about that stuff and your red flags show up. There have been times in my career when I have sort of said, this feels to me that it is unnecessary, or it goes beyond the line for me of what I feel comfortable with. And usually it’s a conversation – and sometimes you win that conversation and sometimes you don’t, and then you have to make a decision. I mean, I’ve definitely felt like all of us, and what I mean is all South Asian, Middle Eastern, even Asian comics and comedians or actors have at some point had to compromise that sort of line in order to get work and to do things to build a career. But then you get to a point where you’re like, okay, now I don’t want to compromise any more.

Having done comedy on “The Daily Show,”have you made an effort to take on different challenges elsewhere to demonstrate your other talents?

Well, the thing is that I have gotten to do other stuff while I’ve been on “The Daily Show,” so it’s been a really sweet deal in the sense that Jon has let me go off and let me do a movie called “The Last Airbender” a couple of years ago where I played the villain, which is not something you would necessarily associate with somebody who’s a comedian. I’ve gotten to do other stuff where I get to stretch a little bit. But I enjoy doing comedy, and I’m getting a lot of comedy stuff coming my way now because of “The Daily Show,” and I certainly enjoy it. I’m developing a show with CBS right now, and that’s a half-hour comedy, but I definitely feel like there’s other stuff going on, and to me it’s really more about is it an interesting role – is this something that I’m interested in doing? So I don’t really look at it like, oh, I want to do comedy, or more comedy, or whatever, it’s just about what I find to be interesting.

What’s your favorite Aasif Mandvi performance? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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