Representation in Comedy Is About More Than Just Visibility
"Going Indian all the way" in improv class
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When I opened my computer, it was still dark. Morning, but early. I couldn’t sleep. I tried not to wake my husband, Quincy, blissfully passed out. The word on the title page glimmered before me: “Invisible,” in that classic, typewriter-like Courier font, backlit by the blank white screenplay PDF.
I’m new to comedy and performance, and to the comedy improv community. New to the experience of receiving scripts in the middle of the night. I apparently have the part of Sue in this sketch; this white man’s sketch; this white man’s sketch in a diversity-themed comedy show. I am not new to being a brown person in the arts, specifically a brown writer. I’m certainly not new to white men and white people in general traversing art spaces designed for artists who come from the margins. So when I read the title of this man’s sketch — “Invisible” — I only had one thought: Oh no.
I got the premise of the sketch — or the “game” — within the first few lines. Carrie, an actress, is auditioning for a part, but the casting directors don’t seem to see her. Am I dead? she wonders. Nope, she’s just an actress in her 30s. Sue, my character, is a friend of Carrie’s from their college drama club, who happens to also be at the audition. Sue has three lines in total, to be delivered, the screenplay tells me, in a “ghost-like voice”: “No one sees me either, Carrie,” “Then I had the baby…before I knew it no one could see me,” and “I’ll play the sassy friend.”
Somewhere along the way the actor Chow Yun-fat also joins the chorus: “In China I’m a huge star. Here, they put me in a movie with Stiffler from American Pie. No one sees me here, just like you, Carrie.”
“No one sees me either,” “no one could see me,” “I’ll play the sassy friend.” The phrases rotated in my head, along with the random inclusion of an “invisible” Chow Yun-fat. I tried to picture myself in the scene. But I couldn’t see myself in it, not so much because it made me invisible as because the scene itself was indecipherable.
We are not forbidden from writing across the color line. Doing so can, at its best, be a radical act of empathy. I once heard that Richard Pryor wrote many of the lines for Mongo (Alex Karras) in Blazing Saddles, turning Mel Brook’s one-dimensional white hulk into a Shakespearean fool, and that Donald Glover did the same for Kenneth the NBC page (Jack McBrayer) in 30 Rock.
And this sketch was even well written. You could see a sure and steady hand in how it deftly and playfully moved between real and surreal. Acting as our guide is a young boy named Peanut who, like Haley Joel Osment’s “I see dead people” character, has an apparent sixth sense for seeing out of work actors as they “cross over” into obscurity. He’s not dead either, just an out-of-work child star. He’s there to guide Carrie through her emotional journey, and of course the audience along with her.
But at the end of the day he was still a white man writing a sketch for a diversity-centered, not just diversity-themed, program — a white man who has not had to struggle with invisibility to the same degree, the same micro or macroaggressions, that others in the program have, and like I have.
Does he feel the same anger I do when, during an improv show, two white men start a scene with me by pointing to the stage window and saying, “Quick! The Indians are coming! Let’s go get the guns!” Is he left speechless when a white man shouts at me in a Clint Eastwood snarl, “Get off my porch!”? Can this white man — who takes space in a program dedicated to diversity; who, despite his fine writing, is still a white man capitalizing on diversity — really see us?
This was the biggest part I’d ever been assigned at the improv theater. Our first rehearsal was to be later that day. Refusing would mean inconveniencing the group, and consequently gaining a reputation for being an inconvenience.
Does he feel the same anger I do when two white men start a scene with me by pointing to the stage window and saying, “Quick! The Indians are coming! Let’s go get the guns!”
I weighed the scales: to cause trouble, or to be a brown girl in a white man’s diversity sketch? To bow out, or take a bow on stage?
Just a few days later I saw a brown man performing in a white man’s romantic comedy movie.
I was lying on my couch, flipping channels. I stopped at a scene in which Jennifer Aniston is running around in a pink towel, inside a cheery, sun-dappled suburban kitchen. She’s wrangling two preteen boys, her sons, and both of their friends, trying to get them ready for school and out the door. Minutes later the dad, Timothy Olyphant, comes in. “Did you look this good when we were married?” he asks. “No, I actually got better,” she quips back.
The kids take this in. “Your parents are divorced, right?” a friend asks. “Oh, trust me, there’s weirdness,” one of her sons replies.
I pressed the TV remote’s Info button for the runtime and title of the film: I was five minutes into Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day. I knew Marshall’s star-studded holiday trilogy, having watched the first two, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Day, in much the same way as I happened to be watching this one, catching bits of them on cable and then piecing them together. Released in April of 2016, Mother’s Day would not only be the last in the series but Marshall’s last film ever — he died just three months later of complications due to a stroke.
Valentine’s Day blew out the box office. When New Year’s Day came out Quincy and I had joked that the next to follow would be Arbor Day. We imagined this one’s iconic scene and tagline, a young blonde starlet standing in a field without a speck of dirt telling her male co-lead, “Anything can happen on Arbor Day.” Mother’s Day actually came close to this exact scenario, so it made for the perfect thing to watch when you felt like ignoring the rest of your life.
Unfortunately no escape plan is fool-proof, and before long I started to see the cracks. As Aniston’s kids scurry out the door, the next pair of players are introduced — Sarah Chalke and Kate Hudson as sisters Gabi and Jesse, estranged from their Texan, proto-MAGA parents. On Mother’s Day eve, Jesse begins to feel a remorse bordering on forgetfulness about their estrangement, particularly from their mother, to which Gabi replies:
Oh, let me refresh your memory. She saw a picture of you and Russell on Facebook, and even though he’s a doctor, she threatened to disown you if you continue to date a man whose skin was darker than a Frappuccino.
I was immediately drawn out of my couch stupor by this third-person character and his own invisibility. He was somehow less a person than a Starbucks drink. My attention faded in and out from the other storylines, but any talk of this man instantly snapped me back. Eventually, attempting to reconcile, Jesse Skypes her mom Flo (Margo Martindale), who says:
Gabi told me you’re not dating that Indian fellow anymore. Finally came to your senses. But I’m not going to rub your face in it and say, “I told you so” — but I told you so.
I told you so, I said to myself. I reached for the remote. Seconds later Russell himself walks in as Jesse slams the computer closed, abruptly ending their chat. I laid eyes on him for the first time — it was Aasif Mandvi.
Mandvi, the first nonwhite correspondent on The Daily Show, who went on air the same day he was interviewed for the correspondent gig.
Mandvi, whose Daily Show segment in 2013 called “Suppressing the Vote” — about voter suppression in North Carolina in the wake of a repeal of the Voting Rights Act — was cited in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in 2016 to overturn North Carolina’s racist Voter ID law, specifically drawing on Don Yelton’s comments to Mandvi in the segment (“If it hurts the whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it”) with Yelton resigning not long after.
The creator of Halal in the Family, which took on issues of racism, Islamophobia, and bigotry, all weaved into a spoof of an 80s sitcom. An homage, really, it was almost titled The Qu’asbies.
Mandvi, the outspoken artist-activist, who participated in things like the “Deportation Jamboree,” and “This Alien Nation.”
Who, when I worked for an Asian-American community arts organization, supported our 2009 literary festival and patiently waited for entry, even as my check-in desk volunteers asked, “What did you say your name was again?”
This Aasif Mandvi was playing a character introduced to the audience by being described as a man whose skin was darker than a Frappuccino.
Are these the fruits of surviving in comedy as a brown person?
I wish I could say that being called an “Indian fellow” whose “skin was darker than a Frappuccino” is as bad as it gets in the film. The sisters’ American flag shirt-wearing father Earl (Robert Pine) is the mouthpiece of these words: “Are you the houseboy?” he asks Russell during the parents’ surprise visit. And then, after the truth is revealed: “Oh holy hell. You’ve got a towelhead for a husband?”
Then there’s Russell having to run panicked out of the house in a skimpy pink silk robe, lying on the ground as the cops racially profile him.
Not to mention Tanner (Ayden Bivek), Russell and Jesse’s unfortunately named child, seemingly designed to serve up the punchline for Flo’s joke that he is “too tan.”
There’s also Sonia (Anoush NeVart), Russell’s mom — or “mother of Russell” as she calls herself — who eventually comes to befriend Flo. In an effort to find common ground Sonia puts up with, and perhaps also cosigns on, Flo’s casual racism. When Flo says that she must love living near Las Vegas because she can “find some sand nearby when you get homesick,” Sonia replies, “I don’t get that joke but it sounds racist, and funny.” No Sonia, actually it just sounds racist.
Ultimately it’s not any of these things — the open and blatant acts of erasure — that get to me most. Not Jesse taking her family photo off the wall when she Skypes, or making Russell hide in the garage when her parents surprise-visit, not “towelhead” or “houseboy”, too-tan Tanner, or the fraught allyship between Sonia and Flo. What gets to me most is something slight, so fast it can almost be missed. At a playground, Aniston’s Sandy and Hudson’s Jesse speak to a third friend, Kristen (Britt Robertson) about her cold feet over marriage. “I get that. You don’t know until you give it a shot…are you ever sure?” Sandy says. “I was sure,” Jesse chimes in, almost regal and in her element among a protective ecosystem of white playground moms wearing athletic gear.
“You were sure? You were totally sure?” Sandy says.
“One-hundred percent, going Indian all the way.”
It’s so quick. And yet it feels like the worst blow of the film. I can see that “going Indian” is intended to be positive and funny. But it’s not. It’s just a reminder that Jesse, despite her hundred percent enthusiasm, doesn’t see Russell either.
When I first joined the improv theater, the repeated act of getting up on stage made me realize just how much of an issue I had with being seen. In his introduction to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison talks about how his narrator’s voice taunted him with the pseudo-scientific idea of “high visibility,” to not truly be seen by being dehumanized through racist caricature, reduction, and exaggeration. “High visibility” was a forerunner to the concept of the “problem minority” with its falsifications and exaggerations, concocted during the civil rights era to uphold the myth of white supremacy.
As I hit the stage, I felt that I’d fallen into the clutches of its opposite: “high invisibility,” a way to avoid the risk of an audience laughing at my brown body and not with me, by not letting myself be seen at all. Doing improv revealed my long-held assumption that the best thing was for me to keep my head down and avoid notice, to be the docile and agreeable “model minority” — in other words, to be acknowledged, but in a way that demanded the paradoxical and impossible bargain of self-denial.
While I could write (and write and write) pretty unfettered at that point, whenever I got up on a stage I felt the free-flow suddenly go dry. I couldn’t quite let myself enjoy being up there, wanting to make sure I got things “right.” I couldn’t tell you what right was, but I knew that I wasn’t doing it. After my very first class, when I felt particularly foolish about a scene where I acted the part of a space pirate, a classmate came up to me and said, “You looked a little sad when you got back to your seat. But you’ve got good instincts.” But what are “good instincts”?
Up on stage, most often with white people and in front of a mostly white audience, my instincts were working double-time. I could not simply give in to a moment the same way that I could in my writing. Instead, I found myself grappling with competing motivations: What’s better for the scene? What’s better for me?
Class after class I struggled with it. Class after class I tried to figure a way to take ownership of a scene, often despite a white person’s shortsighted initiation. In improv the only rule, the only “right” move, is to say “yes, and” — to accept and build upon whatever your scene partner has initiated. But as a person of color I can never simply “yes, and.” What will I be saying “yes” to? What will I condone by always playing along?
For my survival, I started to realize, it had to be “yes, but.”
Yes “the Indians are coming,” but they are coming for a Tupperware party.
Yes it’s your “porch,” but I bought the house.
With every “yes, but,” I began to feel myself truly turning up. And yet, the more I materialized up on stage, the more I hesitated to integrate myself into the community at large.
We are walking to the bar after our improv class lets out. I count off to myself — one, two, three, four white people out of our group of six. What am I getting myself into? I try to contend with the angry feeling growing as I do this mental accounting. I try my best to notice this anger. In my mind’s eye, I shine a spotlight on it as bright as the midtown block we’re on, so it doesn’t go off like a land mine inside of me.
Soon enough we are having fun, feeling ourselves one group, on the outs with all the people at the bar wearing team jerseys and watching football on the TV.
“My husband always dares me to live-tweet the Super Bowl and even though I don’t know anything about it, I always cave,” I say.
As soon as I say this I feel like I’m being typecast. Is it just me, or are they thinking about the Indian IT guy/doctor/lawyer I must have married? Should I mention that my husband is black?
“How did you guys meet?” says one of my classmates, a white woman. I’m standing beside her and another classmate, a white man.
“Through a friend,” I say. “The two of them went to writing grad school together in Philly.”
That must flag something for them. Writing grad school in Philly means I didn’t go down some expected route. But maybe I’m paranoid.
“I find it hard to meet people through friends,” the woman says.
“It actually didn’t happen instantly. Our friends knew each other for years, and when we finally met they were like, ‘Ah, doi?! Why didn’t we put them together sooner???’”
They laugh and I begin to let my guard down. Is this us becoming friends?
Just then I hear it. The white woman says, “arranged marriage” — something about how she fantasizes about it.
Without missing a beat, I start telling them about biodata — the term that sometimes appears in Indian online matrimonial ads. As opposed to a personal “about you” blurb, biodata is a list of facts — school, height, weight, job.
“Every first-generation kid knows this word,” I say. “It’s like profile information, but less the flirty OKCupid kind, and more LinkedIn.”
They laugh, and I immediately regret what I’ve done. This feels like a bit of cultural capital that I’ve commodified into a quirky, harmless “Eat, Pray, India.” And suddenly I feel as if I’m not there, standing next to my body rather than inside it, watching all of this go down.
The white guy says something like “that’s awesome,” or “that word makes so much sense, all personal ads should have it.” My classmates are respectful, which is the best of situations for something like this. And yet, I leave the bar feeling awful.
The truth is I’d be okay talking about this with a bunch of South Asian people, my community. “Biodata.” This word that I would say loud and proud, perhaps even elongating the vowels and making a few of my friends’ eyes roll as I do. But here, even as my white classmates-cum-friends respectfully crane to hear my voice, over the yells of fans going bonkers because of the game, I feel like I’m farther and farther away from them.
When I picture myself on stage for the white man’s sketch, I don’t so much picture having fun in a “Sixth Sense”-y social commentary kind of way. I see myself as the sole brown-skinned angel in my Catholic preschool play. I see myself dressed as an “Indian woman” for Halloween, until I make my own costume in the 4th grade, dressing up as a hippie, a white 1960s hippie. I see a ten-year-old blue-eyed, blond-haired white boy dressed in a loincloth and getting a standing ovation on “Africa Day.” I see myself so happy to be winning the laughter and applause of my white lunch table crew, at the expense of impersonating my mother’s Punjabi accent. I see myself in college standing in the open quad having agreed to be a living statue of Krishna for my white friend’s Sanskrit class final project. “All you have to do is stay still,” she said.
I felt tired of the choices I’d made and risked continuing to make in the hope of being seen. In this case the choice was still mine.
Morning was turning afternoon. The sun was out, mixing with the computer’s glare, making the screenplay’s “Invisible” a little harder to read. Rehearsals would start in an hour but I was still in my nightclothes.
I am not new to being a brown person in the arts, yes, but, “I’ll play the sassy friend.”
Yes, but, to cause trouble or to be a brown girl in a white man’s diversity sketch.
Yes, but, Aasif Mandvi.
Yes, but, Invisible Man.
Yes, but, “all you have to do is stand still.”
I go to my email, hit reply, and write No.