“The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi breaks down the hierarchy of a search engine in The Internship
Author Jaime Lowe
According to “The Daily Show” bio for Aasif Mandvi, the satirist “began performing at the age of seven as a pixie in a school play wearing tights and a bonnet.” He knew from that moment on, “that discreet but comfortable leggings coupled with a desperate need for attention, was the secret of success.” But Mandvi’s success is only partially due to head gear and silly costumes—his voice, heard regularly on Comedy Central’s fake news program—is one of the few representing and challenging identity in America. In addition to his work on the small screen, Mandvi starred in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Disgraced at Lincoln Center and has been featured in a host of blockbusters from The Proposal to The Dictator. In his latest turn on the big screen, he plays the intern coordinator for Google in The Internship co-starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. Mandvi took a break from being the “brown correspondent” to talk about identity, potential Google aliens and his first gig as an improv performer in the Disney World-exclusive comedy troupe Streetmosphere.
You were born in Mumbai, moved to the U.K. as a one year-old, and then ended up in the U.S. at age 16. I am a turducken—an Indian wrapped in British and then wrapped in American. I go to India and I feel like I simultaneously belong there and like I’m a complete foreigner.
You were in Mumbai recently shooting Million Dollar Arm. [A big-budget 2014 release about a sports agent recruiting cricket players for basball.] What was it like to be back? I’ve gone back to visit family but this was the first time I was back shooting a movie—it was a whole other experience. The way to see India is through the guise of a blockbuster movie. You don’t have to deal with rickshaws; there’s air conditioning everywhere and food for the crew.
Shooting in Mumbai seems like it could be a Sisyphean task—it’s so crowded and just complete chaos a lot of the time. Indian people have enormous pride in their country. When we were shooting, we had like 300 extras and some were Muslim, some were Hindi, some were Sikhs. It was 120 degrees and we were losing extras. This wonderful actor Darshan Jariwala was shooting a scene with Jon Hamm, the one tall white guy, and to rally the extras, Darshan got on the megaphone and yelled, “Let’s show this white guy what we Indians can do.” And the crowd erupted.
What did Jon do? Jon was on his iPhone, playing a video game, and he said, “I don’t know what just happened but I think it has something to do with me.” I don’t even think he looked up from his phone.
Was Mumbai different than you remember? Well, I’m different. My immune system is so weak that I’ll get sick at the slightest thing. I feel like we are soft as Americans. But there’s a kinship, something very familial, there is an element that this is where I came from.
You are, for all intents and purposes, Anglicized—do you still feel a connection to India? As a kid who has grown up in the west, everyone around me was predominantly white and I was always the brown kid. India is full of so many different types of people—religions, languages, and different types of food. It’s a completely different culture in different parts of the country. I was raised Muslim—I’m a Jakarta-speaking Indian Muslim. India is as much of a melting pot as America.
Have you read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? No, but I saw the movie because I’m a lazy American! I remember as a very young child, in India, it was the ’67 or ’68 Pakistani war and I could hear the air raid sirens, and there was a complete blackout in Mumbai. At the time, we put up black crepe paper in the window so we wouldn’t have to turn off the lights.
Your title on “The Daily Show” is the Brown Correspondent. Explain. At the end of the day, we are doing a parody. We are parodying those racial stereotypes that exist in the news media, you know, they always have a certain type of person covering the Middle East. I came in 2006 as their Brown Correspondent and we were playing off that idea.
A lot of people watch “The Daily Show” as their main news source. Unfortunately, more people watch CNN and Fox News than our show but it’s possible that mainstream media has lost the level of integrity that we had with Cronkite. You know, we have to put out a half hour comedy show based on the news, four days a week. It’s surprisingly serious business.
On the flip side, you got your start in an improv troupe at Walt Disney World. It was my first gig out of college and it was great. I did the whole theme park circuit in Orlando before moving to New York. It was the hardest place to catch an audience and a great way to dive into the world of working in theater. In terms of improv skills, that was my training ground. And it was fun having free passes—I saved people thousands of dollars.
The group was called Streetmosphere. What was it like when you were there? We would dress as characters from 1940s Hollywood. I was a fast-talking New York cabbie who had found himself in Hollywood. Strteetmosphere still exists and you get assaulted by these characters that rope you in to some skit that they’re doing.
And from Disney World, you’ve moved on to The Internship. Did you film on the Google campus? I did go to Google HQ for a day—I didn’t see much work going on. I saw a lot of people wheeling bikes around, lying in sleeping pods, checking out Google Earth. They have the coolest cafeteria of all time. They have every different kind of food there, but the largest number of people is waiting in line for Indian food and this is, seriously, the best Indian food in Northern California. It was pretty authentically amazing Indian food.
What was it like working with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson? Vince and I actually got to do some improv together—he’ such a character. Vaughn and Wilson were great—I play the head of the internship program. A lot of my scenes had to do with my trying to run this program while these two idiots are doing everything wrong.
Is Google gonna take over the world? Once they decide to shut down and destroy all of our lives—yes. Before then, we’re gonna be plugged into our Google glasses, our Google cars, Google internal organs and we’re gonna eventually find out that Google is owned by three aliens on a space ship light years away. And this is some plan that they’ve had in place for years.