Aasif Mandvi

No Land’s Man

Air Date: April 4, 2015

Mandvi explores the virtues of satirical news as well as recollections from his memoir.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

A sharp performer who has starred in numerous theater, film and television productions, today’s guest is one of the funniest satirists of the contemporary age who pungently exposes our cultural space.

Most identified as senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Aasif Mandvi is one of the stars of HBO’s series, The Brink.

A self-described “Indo-Muslim-British-American actor who has spent more time in bars than mosques over the last few decades”, Mandvi has just published his hysterically smart memoir No Land’s Man: A Perilous Journey through Romance, Islam, and Brunch, a personal quest for meaning amid a conflated identity.

Mandvi recounts his ascent as the only self-described brown correspondent of the Daily Show smorgasbord …bringing what he called the “halal factor” as its “senior Muslim correspondent.”

“The longer I spent on The Daily Show, standing in front of a green screen pretending to report from war zones and hot spots around the world,” Mandvi writes, “the more I realized The Daily Show was radicalizing me…I was becoming a terrorist of comedy…taught how to commit a jihad of irony against hypocrisy and ignorance.”

These days when he is firing proverbial “missiles of satire across the airwaves of cable to the next generation,” I want to know from Aasif if his comic rebuke of a xenophobic United States, perhaps a plea to our better angels,” is making him feel more or less like America is, in fact, his home, his land? And it’s such a pleasure to have you here. Thanks for being here.

MANDVI: Thank you very much, thanks.

HEFFNER: How do you feel about America, is it your land?

MANDVI: It is. It is, you know, it is my adopted homeland and I always wanted to live in America, even as a child, I think, it represented something to me … and I talk about it in the book … this idea of like growing up as a little, you know, British/Indian kid in the North of England and sort of watching … I grew up on, you know, American pop culture. I grew up on American television and movies and Hollywood and you know all of that stuff.

So, New York, Hollywood, America, you know big cars and beaches and stuff like that’s kind of the America that I knew in the seventies, you know, as, as a kid … watched … that I watched on television in England and I think that I always wanted to live in America, it sort of represented some, it represented possibility to me, you know, in a way that, that my Northern English coal mining town that I grew up in didn’t, you know.

HEFFNER: And do you think it represents that possibility for the next generation? Do you think it still represents that possibility?

MANDVI: I think America always … yeah, I think it does. You know I think that one of the interesting sort of trajectories for me has been to … I mean one of the things I’ve been able to do on The Daily Show, for example, is be able to have a … a position to be able to comment on America from … as an insider and an outsider at the same time.

And so, you know, you sort of get to see a little bit of, of, of America from the perspective of an insider and, and that’s different, I think, you know, than when you’re an immigrant from across the, the water sort of looking at this place. So, so now I feel like it is my homeland and it is the place … it is my home … but now I also get to walk around my home and go, like, well, you know … this needs fixing and that needs fixing and, you know, this doesn’t quite work the way I thought it, it did when I first arrived here, you know.

HEFFNER: You brought a uniquely contemporary spin on this timeless question of American identity.

MANDVI: I was a kid who grew up in the UK and was raised in a Muslim family and, you know, and, and I came to America … I think, I think, you know, it was also the fact that I wanted to be an actor, the fact that I wanted to be a … was a natural performer and, and wanted to act, wanted to write. You know, America has been ultimately from, from the immigrant standpoint a real success story for me, you know.

It, it has allowed me to, to actually have the platform that I may not have had in, in any other country.

HEFFNER: Mmmph. Well, you described, in the book, your initial exchange in England when you were going on a train …you were, you were commuting …

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and, and there was racism that you experienced …

MANDVI: I grew up, I grew up in an England that was definitely, you know, there was a lot of racism that I dealt with, it was, it was a time in, in, in the late seventies, early eighties, you know, when there was a lot of political racism, you know, with the national front, and other organizations like that, which were sort of like …there was a lot of racism towards people from the subcontinent and stuff like that, so, yeah, on some level when I came to America I figured I would escape all of that. Or at least, you know, come, come to a place of, of more acceptance.

Of course America has it’s own very potent racism that, you know, then you become exposed to once you, once you get here and start living here and, and that was a … and that was a different thing.

And that again changed after 9/11 when it wasn’t just the racism of, of ethnicity, but the racism towards religion, you know. When I first got to America I think I felt a little bit invisible. I felt a little bit sort of like, you know, I talk about it in the book that like in, in England growing up as a kid … being an Indian kid in England, you never feel like you’re ever going to be British. The British have a very … at least in my opinion … in my estimation, I think the British have a very mistrusting attitude towards foreigners. You know, maybe because they’ve defended their island from invasion for thousands of years, they sort of feel like, you know, you’ll never really be British, so you can live there as long as you want … when you get to America … there’s another attitude which is “now you’re an American”, it’s the opposite kind of thing.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

MANDVI: You know, it’s sort of this, this instinctive sort of reaction of like, well you come to America and so you can forget that you have a thousand years of … you know ten thousand years of culture and history and all of that. Just, just pledge allegiance to the flag and now you’re an American and, and that’s what it is and, you know, it’s ironic to me that a country built on immigrants, has so little curiosity about the rest of the world. And, you know, that, that’s what I found as I, I say in the book, that, you know, Americans think about the rest of the world the way New Yorkers think about the rest of America … they don’t. You know. And that’s what I found when, when I got here.

That, I think, changed somewhat after 9/11 and for the first time I think America was, was forced to look at other people in the world and say, “Wait, what, what is our relationship and what, what are our policies and what are our politics, what have they been over the last 100 years in regards to the rest of the world and different regions in the world, especially the Middle East.

HEFFNER: Well, your work is credited with clarifying for Americans some of the … if not inborn … the, the racism or xenophobia that bled on to them as a consequence of those terrorist attacks … do you find that that was an important piece of your work which was to show Americans that some of these assumptions are misguided?

MANDVI: Yeah, well, you know, after 9/11 I remember … look I, I got into The Daily Show around 2006 … so it was about four or five years after 9/11 and, and I felt like …

HEFFNER: Might have even been the height of abuse by the …

MANDVI: Yeah, it was sort of like right in the, you know, in the middle of, of the war on terror and all of that stuff and Iraq and all that stuff … so, I feel like, you know … there was something that happened. You know, I was never a political artist or writer or anything and, and, and something politicized me after 9/11 and it was this idea that like suddenly I was seeing the, the religion that I had grown up in and I’m not a, you know … religion is as much about culture as it is about what God you pray to, you know.

So, culturally I was a Muslim and, and I was seeing the religion that my parents believed in, that my grandparents believed in, that I had a very complicated relationship with, but a familial relationship with, you know, suddenly being demonized in the media. By people who had no idea what they were talking about. And literally had no idea … I mean they were … I remember one guy on, on some news show was talking about how the word “Eid”, which is the Muslim holiday after Ramadan spelt e-i-d … in English, right, although you could also spell it other ways … spelt “die” backwards, and so therefore, this was somehow symbolic of Islam’s sort of Led Zepplin type backwards satanic messages, you know, that were sort of in the religion. And I thought …this is insanity, this is crazy, like why is nobody calling this out, this kind of absurd just, just rhetoric that, that just fills the air … was filling the airwaves … continues to fill the airwaves I think about things that people really have no idea what they’re talking about. You know. So, so then, I think that did make me want to react and respond in some way. I didn’t quite know how at the time. And then The Daily Show

HEFFNER: But it uiltimately was a perfect format to, to conceive of that, that kind of satire … that can, that can open people up to these assumptions and some of the misguided attitudes …

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … that the media were abusing people’s minds, abusing and, and exploiting …

MANDVI: Well I think the media …

HEFFNER: …. fear.

MANDVI: Right. I think the media has always taken that stuff and sort of you know, fanned those flames in order because it’s exciting, it’s much more, it’s better for ratings. And I think politicians do it a similar thing to sort of get votes.

I mean look, fear and ignorance go hand in hand and their very good for votes, you know. The more ignorant and fearful you can keep people, you, you can tell them anything and they’ll believe you. You know. So, I think that that kind of stuff and then getting on The Daily Show was sort of … for me became almost, you know, I do talk about it in the book that this idea that I became a terrorist of comedy, you know. With this army of Ivy League educated Jewish comedy writers (laugh) …

HEFFNER: Fuel on the fire …

MANDVI: Fuel … yeah, fueling my fire …

HEFFNER: Right.

MANDVI: … to be able to like give, you know, a, a response back into the zeitgeist … battle a lot of that stuff. And, you know, and that was very satisfying and, and weird for me because I … it was sort of … I became associated with a faith that I personally did not feel deservingly … deserving to be associated with because you know, like I said, I’ve been in more bars than mosques … you know over the course of my life. So, but on a cultural standpoint it did, it did matter to me, you know.

HEFFNER: Agnostic Jews and an agnostic Muslim teaming up, right?

MANDVI: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: Well, I want to ask you about that. Off-camera we were discussing this a bit, there is nothing in your mind more inherently offensive to Muslims about comedy than there is to any other faith because that’s something we might talk about a little bit. There …

MANDVI: Are you saying that Muslims are not offended by …

HEFFNER: I’m saying, you know, ever since the Danish cartoon …

MANDVI: MmmHmm. Right.

HEFFNER: … incident, there has been a perception in the country, at least in the US, if not abroad, that Muslims fear comedy …

MANDVI: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: And they’re not going to tolerate it.

MANDVI: Right. Well, look, I think that … look there are many Muslim comedians out there, who are doing comedy on a regular basis. You know, there, there’s a comedy group currently like in Iraq itself that is, that is making its business to make fun of ISIS and to, you know, so, so that kind of satire and speaking truth to power … through comedy exists in the Muslim world and, and, you know, it has not … I think it, it … it’s less about Islam than it is about politics, you know.

It’s about dictators in that part of the world who don’t want comedians, you know, making fun of them, you know … that’s … this is why people go to jail. Not because it has to do with Islam.

HEFFNER: And that’s kind of a chicken and egg … some people say, “Well, what leads to the totalitarian regimes …

MANDVI: Right.

HEFFNER: … is it faith, is it some other dynamic within the relationship between the electorate or the populous …

MANDVI: Right.

HEFFNER: … and government.

MANDVI: There’s such a, there’s such a, there’s such a …

HEFFNER: And you can’t just lump the two together.

MANDVI: Right. And also, like a lot of these politicians in this part of the world use Islam as a tool … just like politicians in America use Christianity as a tool. You know, they, they fan the flames, so like if you have something like a Danish cartoon and you have, you know, a certain sector of society who is perhaps more than offended or, or more than troubled by it … but actually wanting to go out and protest and kill people and sort of be violent because of that. Then you have another, a political sector … a political factor that comes in and then wants to like, you know, fan that and wants to make more of that because that it, it serves their own political agenda. Right? So, so all of this stuff is kind of .. I, I believe inter-connected in some way.

HEFFNER: Have we disabused ourselves of that mind-set since 9/11 or do you think it still permeates the country at least here in the States just as much, the attitude … misguided attitudes towards Islam and Muslims.

MANDVI: Oh, I think, I think it goes on even now …

HEFFNER: More exacerbated than in the direct aftermath?

MANDVI: I always, I always felt like after 9/11 the average American was kind of asking questions about …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

MANDVI: … well why did this happen? What happened? You know, why would this happen to us? What is our relationship to the Middle East? You know, what are the political and reasons and, and, you know, our foreign policy … these things, I felt like these questions were being asked and then in the decades that have followed … I feel like that composition has been hijacked by politicians, by the media and these answers have been given. So that people feel like they now have the answer to those questions and those … the answer often is … you must be afraid. Islam is evil. You know, the, these kind of like pat sort of answers that then allow us to kind of feel good about ourselves … and be “Well, we figured it out. Islam must be an evil religion that, you know is, is bent on the destruction of the United States.” You know and, and so these kind of things then just, I feel like are much more prevalent now than they were on September 12th, 2001, you know.

HEFFNER: Well, this might give us an opportunity to segue into one of the funny anecdotes in the book …

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: How did you end up reading prayers from the Koran …

MANDVI: Yeah, yeah, yeah …

HEFFNER: … at a Christian prayer group?

MANDVI: Well, you know … again …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Because at least to that young woman, who you were dating …

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: or involved with …

MANDVI: … wasn’t really dating, but yeah …

HEFFNER: … seeing …

MANDVI: … yeah …

HEFFNER: … in some form. She was accommodating …

MANDVI: Right, right.

HEFFNER: Hysterically …

MANDVI: I wanted to write a piece that was, you know, about the relationship between … the, the relationship I had as, as a young man towards Christianity … you know, I went to, I went a Methodist boarding school when I was in England, so I was very familiar with Christianity. I … we … you know, I, I … would, would go to chapel every Sunday, you know, and, and, so when I came to America and I was invited by this woman to a, a born-again-Christian prayer revival type thing … I, I went and actually became friends with all these like sort of born-again Christians and, and, and you know … there, there was … in the story there was a conflation between my, my religious sort of … it’s all spurred on by a need to actually … an attraction to this woman, right. But, but I do end up in, in that sort of reading passages from the Koran to a group of Christians, who, to their credit were very accepting and very Christian about it, you know.

And … but it, but it was an exploration of my own faith, it was an exploration of, of what I believed in relationship to another faith you know and, and so that’s what I found really interesting about that experience and, and what I wanted to explore in the story was this idea of like, you know, can Islam and Christianity come together even if it’s to make one young man’s sexual fantasy come true.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) And did they? They did. You co-existed.

MANDVI: Ah, you know, I never really answer that question in the book. So, I’m going to leave that … you know …

HEFFNER: To our imagination.

MANDVI: … kind of left to your imagination.

HEFFNER: And the subject of Islam or, you know, Muslim’s treatment of women is, is one that’s gained a lot of attention in recent years in particular.

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: As a dynamic speaker, actor, comedian who engages with a lot of people across many faiths, do you feel now that Muslim men are beginning to have more tolerance …

MANDVI: Women are the most oppressed people on the face of the planet at this given, at this time in history, and at any time in history. Right? And so, Islam is a reflection of, of that. And there are places where Muslim women are, you know, there are varying degrees of that level of oppression, if you want to call it that, right. It has less to do with Islam and I think it has more to do with culture.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

MANDVI: Ah, you know, Saudi women are not allowed to drive … not because in the Koran it says women are not allowed to drive, you know … that’s a cultural thing that exists there. So, so I think that a lot of these things get attributed like, “Oh, it’s, it’s about Islam”, you know, and, and I just think it’s really … Islam is such a varied and diverse faith and it treats so many different people in, you know, like women are treated so differently in Indonesia versus Saudi Arabia, or whatever, you know, or wherever you want to go … like, so … you can’t … it’s very difficult to kind of reduce it down …

HEFFNER: It’s nuanced.

MANDVI: Yeah, people seem to want to do that, they want to seem … they seem to want to reduce it down to like, well, you know, is Islam a violent religion? You get … and, and, and … sure, it is … it also is a peaceful religion. It’s a lot of things, you know.

And, and it is thousands of years old and you can’t decontextualize it … you know … you can’t just be like … well, in the, in the last 30 minutes that I’ve been studying Islam … it feels like it’s a religion …

HEFFNER: Right.

MANDVI: … about violence, you know. Well, why don’t we go back a thousand years? You know. Why don’t we go back to the Crusades and talk about Christianity, you know what I mean. So, people keep saying like, well, you know … in recent history … well, no, because, because history actually is … affects where we are today, you know. So, where we are today is because of history, so you can’t decontextualize these things, you can’t just look at something in an isolated sort of … view point. You know. And, and that’s what I find a lot of … is going on. It’s just kind of … it just becomes sound bites and things that like are salacious or exciting to, you know, and, and get ratings and, and get people afraid and perked up and angry about stuff. And that’s kind of what the agenda really is … it’s not really to tell the truth. Nobody’s interested in the truth, they’re just interested in, in marketing their brand and if their brand is fear then that’s what they’re interested in marketing.

HEFFNER: And people take note of that because they find their news on The Daily Show and elsewhere where you’re really exposing this.

MANDVI: Right. Well, I mean people come up to me all the time and say, “I only watch The Daily Show“, you know, like that’s my news … you know, which in, in some ways is, is a terrifying thing to think that the only news that some people are watching is a satirical comedy show, that is where they’re getting their news. And that says something … not only … well, it says something about us, perhaps we’re (laugh) speaking into the zeitgeist in a way that, that other news outlets are not.

We are, we are saying something about the culture that other news outlets are unwilling or are unable to say. And that is disheartening. And I think it’s … it creates a disillusionment about the media, about politics, you know. We have these mid-term elections coming up and you know a lot, a lot of the discourse is like … it doesn’t really make a difference at the end of the day. Does it really make a difference, when there’s such a disillusionment about government and about like what our elected officials are doing and, and whether overall the, the system is so entrenched in what it is, it doesn’t matter whether you have a Republican or a Democrat in the White House, you know.

So, you know, the fact that people watch The Daily Show to get their news I think tells you a lot. That comedy has become the news and, and the news has become a joke.

HEFFNER: I don’t want us to put our viewers in a morose mood …

MANDVI: Yes. Let’s, let’s … (snaps fingers)

HEFFNER: Because “No Land’s Man” is a terrific book …

MANDVI: And it’s a very funny read as well … so, you know …. I want them to know that.

HEFFNER: A funny read. And, and we began this conversation … I want to return to this theme …

MANDVI: Yes.

HEFFNER: … a possibility.

MANDVI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The possibility that you saw … as, as you recount in your own life’s journey … what does that possibility look like now? As far as how comedy can untangle all of these social ills and disharmonies?

MANDVI: Right. I mean look I, I don’t profess to, to … you know I, I’m a cog in the wheel of The Daily Show. Right. I’m, I’m one of the, the people that works there and does that … you know I don’t profess to be a person who is, is on the agenda to make great social change.

What I really want to do is, is create art. You know what I really want to do is write and tell stories and at the end of the day I’m a story teller. You know, and that’s what I really want to do and, and hopefully and those stories will always come from my own experience. You know …

HEFFNER: What did you enjoy writing about most here because there’s so many personal memoirs and recollections.

MANDVI: I think that … I, I really loved some of the earlier stories of like life in the UK, you know and, and stuff like that. But also some of the career stuff, you know, like working with Ismail Merchant of the great Merchant/Ivory team and, and some of the, the more, I think absurd things that have happened in my career and, and, you know, like the early days of coming to New York and auditioning to be a snake charmer for a commercial and the, the director asked me if I actually knew how to snake charm. And I said, “Yes, I probably do, it’s probably in my DNA somewhere” …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

MANDVI: … because I just really wanted the job so bad … I just … you know, and, and so, so those things were fun to recall and, and write about, you know. Yeah.

HEFFNER: Aasif Mandvi …thank you so much for being here …

MANDVI: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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