For four years, Aasif Mandvi has put his natural, snarky sarcasm to good use as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show, nailing comedy routines on how Muslims have surpassed black people in scaring white folks and the absurdity of flimsy reports the United States would spend $200 million daily for the president's latest overseas visit.
But there was one place the onetime Tampa resident found his cynicism failed: observing the more than 200,000 people last month who packed into the National Mall in Washington for the Rally to Restore Sanity.
"The Daily Show is all about cynical people making fun of the establishment, but you couldn't deny the sheer awesomeness and sincerity of the emotion being displayed," Mandvi said. "We just couldn't be snarky."
Mandvi will have a bit of homecoming Thursday, appearing at his alma mater, the University of South Florida, with a speech he says "gives the impression you're going to learn a lot about how we do The Daily Show." Born Aasif Mandviwala in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), Mandvi grew up in England and moved to Tampa as a teen, graduating from Chamberlain High School and studying theater at USF.
Now he's balancing a featured spot on TV's hottest comedy show with roles in films starring Kevin Spacey and Ricky Gervais, while an independent film he co-wrote and stars in, Today's Special, opens nationwide Friday. We snuck in a few questions to preview his return:
Did the rally accomplish what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert wanted?
"I don't know what they wanted. It was mostly about participation. I don't think they intended to effect any policy changes. I think we were giving people a chance to voice their grievance — (to say) we don't agree with this radicalization. This polarization of voices. This hijacking of the dialogue. That was kind of what is was about, and it did sort of accomplish that."
Some people said Stewart was talking in code to his fans, urging a Democratic vote or activism just before an election.
"That's how he always talks; I know to some people it sounds like alien code (laughs). No, it was mostly an airing of frustration and seeing if people showed, and 200,000 people showed up in the cause of reasonableness. A lot of people that I talked to said they couldn't hear what was going on … (but) it didn't take away their experience of the rally, which was amazing. It became about community."
You're a Muslim who lives in New York; has the Islamaphobia over the Park 51 project gotten out of hand?
"The hysteria around the mosque; it feels political, like it is leveraging and capitalizing on our most lizard brain fears. What is more American than allowing people that very freedom to do exactly the thing that you wouldn't agree with? After 9/11, I found that people were questioning, wanting to know answers. They were afraid, but they wanted to know. Now, these questions have gone away and they've been replaced with answers that tell people 'You should be afraid.' "
After four years on The Daily Show, can you watch the news at all with a straight face?
"I grew up as a kid in England where we watched the BBC and it was just the facts. Now (cable news) is treated like information when it's just opinion and rage and, you know, narcissism. You can throw out anything now and it becomes relevant because it's been said, you know?"
Today's Special was inspired by an Obie-winning play you wrote and performed in 1998 about an Indian eatery, Sakina's Restaurant. Could this film help humanize some of the issues we've talked about?
"I think so. I play a Manhattan sous chef who ends up having to take over his father's greasy-spoon Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, and in so doing, learns about life and love and the alchemy of Indian cuisine. In this world of Islamaphobia, it was important for me to portray a family that happens to be Muslim but is a family just like you and I, and within the context of a heartwarming, romantic, feel-good family story. This movie offers a nice oasis."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.