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For Aasif Mandvi, cultural irreverence on 'The Daily Show'

Photo by Gavin Bond

Photo by Gavin Bond

NEW YORK — For an actor who has spent his career mining material from the sweet spots where cultures collide, there is no better time for Aasif Mandvi to be where he is right now.

When we meet, Mandvi is sitting in the offices of The Daily Show, a sprawling, loftlike space along W 52nd Street with the offhand feel of a college dormitory lounge.

But as the show's senior Middle East correspondent — an archly ironic voice on the war on terror — Mandvi may be the only India-born actor with a regular voice on a bona fide cultural and political TV phenomenon.

A Muslim with roots in Tampa, he uses comedy to help shape the way America grapples with the post-9/11 world.

"We're at a crossing . . . a fulcrum point, whether Barack Obama gets the nomination or not, where race, ethnicity, Middle East cultures, it's all coming together," said Mandvi, who grew to his teens in Britain before his family moved to Tampa in the late '80s.

"I think, coming from so many places — England, India, Tampa, New York — speaking to where the world is going is something I can hope to do," he said. "I think that I can say stuff on the air that resonates in a way that if a Caucasian guy said it, wouldn't resonate the same.."

Case in point: A Daily Show skit las month where an incredulous Mandvi "reported" on food riots in East Africa while fellow correspondent Rob Riggle insisted on talking about the rationing of 50-pound rice bags at a New York area Costco.

Another recent gag featured Mandvi reporting from inside the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, marveling at a video clip in which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia maintained that torture is not defined as punishment.

"In what kind of world could inhumane acts of brutality be dismissed so glibly?" Mandvi shouted, while pretending to drive through a virtual landscape of carjackings and armed assaults. "That is f----- up! And that's coming from a guy who just ran over a crossing guard in an El Camino."

Mandvi auditioned for the Comedy Central show in August 2006, after writers came up with a bit for a Middle East correspondent they didn't have. He got the job immediately after his audition — appearing on the show that evening.

The sharply sarcastic tone of Mandvi's character — also named Aasif Mandvi — comes from a source fans would readily identify.

"I just decided I was going to do my best Stephen Colbert impression," Mandvi said.

"Eventually, you start to find your own voice, and each correspondent kind of settles into a niche," he added. "It's an organic thing that I try not to analyze too much, because I worry that it will go away."

As we talk in a small lounge near the office space shared by married correspondents Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, Jones stops to needle Mandvi for talking so long "this guy could write a book on you."

Just across the hall sits Mandvi's spare office with a wardrobe rack holding the tools of his current trade: a sport coat, tie and light blue business shirt. According to Mandvi, correspondents work whenever the show's writers need them, depending on what's in the news.

Before The Daily Show, Mandvi was a familiar face with supporting roles in Spider-Man 2, CBS' Jericho and The Sopranos. He's also played peddler Ali Hakim in a Broadway revival of Oklahoma and given an Obie-winning performance in his own one-man show about an East Indian family, Sakina's Restaurant.

But Mandvi says he still struggles to find roles that speak to the unique lives of second- and third-generation immigrants.

"I'm either playing Mr. Patel, the cab driver/deli owner hotdog vendor . . . or I'm playing Dr. Saunders, who's got this white name and nobody pays attention to the fact that he's brown," said Mandvi, who is now developing his one-man show as a film.

"People don't know how to deal with race in this country," he added. "I see it in Hollywood all the time. . . . If you don't acknowledge differences, it's as bad as stereotyping or reducing someone. . . . It's going to get resolved in our public consciousness and then it will be reflected in Hollywood."

Mandvi, 42, experienced his own culture shock in the early 1980s when his family moved to Tampa's Northdale neighborhood from working-class Bradford, England. Back then, he was Aasif Mandviwala, coming from a community with limited tolerance for immigrants.

"I think it's often the journey of the immigrant to assimilate and then go, 'Who the f--- am I?' " he said, noting he had no nonwhite friends in America until he moved to New York. "I had contempt for my own culture (back then) . . . and it wasn't until much later that I started to appreciate the richness of my own experience."

In 1984, Mandvi graduated from Chamberlain High School, studying theater at the University of South Florida.

"He's a student who knew what he wanted, worked selectively and was unrelenting," said USF professor Denis Calandra. "It's tricky in this business, because you can't do it on your own . . . (but) you can't let anything stop you."

After USF, Mandvi worked for Disney/MGM Studios before following a girlfriend to New York — where his threadbare living arrangement worried his parents.

"We were both in tears . . . but he was so determined," said Fatima Mandviwala, 65, recalling the visit she and her husband, Hakim, made to their son's studio apartment. "I would talk to him about becoming a doctor or an engineer. . . . We Indian parents always like our children to (be professionals). But that would have spoiled him for all his life. He's doing what he wants, and that's why I'm really proud of him."

These days, Mandvi feels a responsibility to expose often-unheard voices in his work.

"My experience on The Daily Show is that . . . sometimes you get the thing that you want, but in a way that you never expected to get it," he said. "Like an important time to say something as a Muslim-American, as a brown person, as an immigrant. I feel like a lot of my work is about (exploring) that gap between cultures . . . I just want to keep building on that."

Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521.

The many faces of Mandvi

Aasif Mandvi on some of his most notable roles:

Pizzeria owner Mr. Aziz in Spider-Man 2: "I actually turned it down when I first got the part, because I thought, 'I've played this kind of part before.' . . . What kind of planet was I on? So you go in, do it for a day, you have a great time and . . . literally people are coming up to you afterward mad at you because you fired Spider-Man."

Dr. Kenchy Dhuwalia on CBS's canceled drama Jericho: "In the second season, it felt like we had come back from the dead, saved by the fans sending in nuts. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had on a TV show because the cast had such a great family feeling."

Likable doorman Khan in the film Music and Lyrics: "It was actually a much bigger role than ended up in the film and that was disappointing. But it was so much fun to do, that made up for it."

For Aasif Mandvi, cultural irreverence on 'The Daily Show' 05/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 4:31am]
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