Blog Editors' Note: Our newest blogger Priyanka Mantha comes to us from the University of California, San Diego, where she began her political activism career in reproductive justice, South Asian community organizing, and covering a range of topics on UCSD's KSDT radio. And if that's not enough to make you feel inactive, for her first Hyphen post, she chronicled her experience attending the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC with 200,000+ other attendees. This week, Priyanka kicks off her inaugural column post by discussing the differences between comedy and caricature on NBC's freshman series Outsourced.
Todd’s company, Mid American Novelties, has outsourced its call center to Mumbai, India, and he, helpless at the whims of a new global economy, is sent there to run it. What ensues is a series of one-liner gaffs that traffic in ethnic stereotypes and induce the involuntary eye-rolling I thought I'd left behind in my teens. Let’s dive right in and explore some of the offending dialogue, shall we?
Office manager Todd is trying to woo Asha, a beautiful young employee. When he invites her to a Halloween party, she states, “I don’t know if I should. I’m starting an arranged marriage; I should be looking at the resumes of potential husbands.”
India has modernized, yet it seems like these writers, much like many individuals from my parents’ generation, have a conception of India and Indian values that predates their immigration to this country. So the show’s depiction of Mumbai -- which the creators also seem to think looks exactly like Epcot -- is stilted, and based on archaic societal constraints (in this case with respect to marriage) that are actually no longer so severe. People in Mumbai do indeed participate in arranged marriages, but they also date, have premarital sex, and live with their partners. Despite this, the Indian women in this show are portrayed as virtuously virginal, and the only white female character acts as their (very) promiscuous foil. Entire storylines are devoted to people becoming offended at the slightest provocation -- for example while watching kissing on television, or being touched on the shoulder. Granted, I’m sure there are still some individuals who cling to this kind of conservatism, but it's unlikely that these sentiments remain quite so ubiquitous. They are notions that, at least in a city as metropolitan as Mumbai, have undergone major shifts.
Here's another. Todd is trying to slip his resume covertly into a file of prospective husbands being perused by Asha, but he needs help finding an Indian name to label it with so that he can stand on his merits, rather than his race or nationality, and win her heart.
Manmeet: You can use my cousin's name. It means “bliss."
Todd: Oh! Perfect, use that…wait what’s the name?
Todd: “No, I’m not going to be suck deep.”
Ironically, I’m the only one who’s gagging.
In eight episodes an overwhelming percentage of jokes have been related to unpronounceable or sexual-sounding names, not to mention strange smells and goopy food. Unlike the film that this show is based on, in which Todd manages to evolve and overcome his understandable feeling of culture shock, this Todd continues to be the classic “ugly American.” But he fails at even this, never ascending to the status of the artfully cringe-worthy Michael Scott from The Office, because the writers don’t commit to his ignorant commentary. Everything he says is a bland and overused one-liner rather than a shockingly offensive observation, which makes him an identifier for the lowest common denominator, rather than someone we can all love to hate. Comedy is truth alchemized, and this kind of myopic writing ignores true diversity in favor of recycled stereotypes that fall flat, and never allow their characters to deviate from two-dimensional caricature.
Caricature can be funny; the cringe-worthy minstrel show can be a tongue-in-cheek critical analysis of the way certain stereotypes are misappropriated in the media. But this humor is never cold blooded and fearless enough to make the falsehood of each stereotype legible. Take 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan for example: the writers have molded him into an absurd embodiment of every African American stereotype that exists, in order to poke fun at those who would genuinely regard persons of color in that way. Outsourced has instead opted for a simpler recipe, in which stereotypes of each culture are presented as truth, and humor is meant to be derived from a basic comparison of the two. The result is cheap and unintelligent humor that ignores clever nuance in favor of scrawling out scenarios that many of us have seen million times before, creating false conceptions of Indians and Indian culture that the uninformed viewer will take literally.
So how can we commit to the show and its characters when the situations that are meant to define them force us to brand them as the "other" and ignore the fact that their experiences have the potential to be universal and relatable? The characters, as flat as their circumstances are, do possess idiosyncrasies that transcend cultural lines. And any scene with Madhuri (Anisha Nagarajan), the shy office mouse, is pitch-perfect both in writing and in performance. It is in fact the moments where we can explore personalities like hers, these people we all know in one way or another, independent of ethnicity, that are funniest. But this far into the season, I don’t have a whole lot of hope that they’ll expand on these strengths enough to round out the show.
Anisha Nagarajan as Madhuri
So why am I being so serious about comedy? The truth is, to me, this seemingly insignificant show represents possibility. The possibility that the uniquity of what defines us culturally can become universally appealing through humor. It’s such a waste of potential, potential for the language that articulates our lives to finally become a part of the common vernacular. I gave it a chance; I waited for eight episodes and even laughed during some of them. And during those moments, I felt guilty for being so critical of this show. But that’s like being guilty when your cheating husband brings you roses; doesn’t matter how good they smell, they can’t mask the stench of fornication. Thankfully I don’t have to worry about it anymore, because I possess a skill that can overcome bad television. I know how to change the channel.
Outsourced airs Thursdays, 9:30/8:30c on NBC. Watch the movie instead.