The Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi routinely displays a mastery of the sucker punch interview as if he were born to be a fake journalist. Consider the time he lured a pundit into comic speechlessness by describing health-care conditions in a "Third World" hellscape, which turned out to be Knoxville, Tennessee. Then there was Mandvi's response to a North Carolina politician's use of the N word: "You know we can hear you, right?"
Though he seems a natural, Mandvi spent decades trying to figure out his place in American culture as a Bombay-born, U.K.-raised, Indian-American Muslim. In his new memoir No Land’s Man, Mandvi describes how serial obsessions with the Fonz, Omar Sharif, Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields and the International House of Pancakes helped shape his identity. "One of America’s greatest exports is its popular culture," he tells Co.Create. "Growing up in England, I watched American television shows, listened to American music—that was what I thought America was."
From Los Angeles, where he’s been on hiatus from The Daily Show working on HBO’s 2015 series The Brink, Mandvi talks about his awe-inducing "Billie Jean" moon walk and other show biz milestones that marked his immigrant's journey from grade school outcast to primetime wise guy.
Emigrating from India to England at the age of one, Mandvi attended private school, where he and his classmates idolized Henry Winkler’s cocky Happy Days sitcom character. "I used to impersonate the Fonz because to me and my friends, he was the epitome of American machismo. He represented the sexiness of America and also, his full name was Fonzarelli, which was just as odd as my family name Mandviwala. I was like, 'He's got this name that nobody can pronounce yet he's the coolest guy in the world!'
Mandvi later switched allegiance from the Fonz to Omar Sharif after seeing Doctor Zhivago. Still, he says, "Happy Days got burned into my mind around the same time as Grease and Saturday Night Fever and john Travolta. These images didn't represent my father's culture. It was a different kind of masculinity that I was looking at and trying to emulate."
At age 16, Mandvi moved with his family to Florida. One of only two South Asian-American students at his Tampa high school, Mandvi struggled to fit in. "I was not welcomed by the black students and not really understood by white students," he says, "so I was sort of in between."
Everything changed when Mandvi saw Michael Jackson on TV. "It seemed like he was transforming himself into something outside of race, beyond race. That spoke to me on some unconscious level. I thought, 'Yeah, that’s how I feel! I feel kind of in between.'"
Mandvi learned Jackson's legendary "Billie Jean" dance routine and became an overnight sensation when he performed it at the school talent show. "I was just this nerdy Indian kid with an afro and zits. I wasn’t white and I wasn’t black but as an indian kid, I could Jheri curl my hair and put on a glove, and people could believe I was Michael Jackson. So here I was on stage doing all the kicks and the twirls and girls were screaming! In that moment, I discovered the rush of my own power to transform an audience. Nobody in that high school auditorium cared if I was Indian or black or white or whatever. I felt not only accepted but admired. It was intoxicating"
Mandvi harbored an adolescent crush on Brooke Shields, decorating his bedroom wall with one of her publicity shots. "She was the beautiful American goddess," Mandvi says. "We were the same age, so Brooke Shields was my fantasy American girlfriend who lived in this place called New Jersey. I looked it up on the map and thought 'New Jersey’s not that big, I could probably go to New Jersey and run into her.' These were the naive thoughts of a 12-year-old, but they came from a place of feeling outside. Brooke represented this unattainable aspect of the culture that played out many different ways in my life where it's this sense of "You’re not allowed to have the things that were sold to you.'"
Flash forward to adulthood: Mandvi, semi-famous for his Daily Show appearances, got invited to a New Year's Eve party hosted by Shields. He brought half a dozen Indian pals who were high on marijuana brownies. It didn't go well. "We walk into this very white patrician cocktail party and get thrown out," Mandvi recalls. "To be fair, we were stoned, and we were eating food, and Brooke Shields had only invited me, but still, I get literally dis-invited from the party. 'You can stay but tour friends have to go.' And I chose to leave with my friends because I’d grown up in a way. I was not that 12-year-old boy any more. I'd found a certain strength in my own culture by understanding what it is to be an indian immigrant man as opposed to still trying to get this approval."
In 2001, Mandvi landed the lead in The Mystic Masseur after producer Ismail Merchant saw his one-man show "Sakina's Restaurant." Merchant, producer of three Oscar-nominated pictures directed by James Ivory, decided to direct this one himself. Mandvi memorized the script forwards and backwards only to learn that Merchant favored a seat-of-the-pants approach. "Merchant was this larger than life Barnum and Bailey type character who'd barrel forward with relentless ambition and enthusiasm even sometimes when things would get fucked up and broken," Manvi recalls. "The lesson I learned from Merchant was to embrace the situation and figure it out. I think in many ways that's the immigrant theme: how do you fit in and figure out how to excel at the thing that you have actually been shut out of?"
Mandvi's agent called him in 2006 to audition for The Daily Show. He got hired on the spot. Then the panic set in. "When they offered me The Daily Show I remember being like, 'Holy shit, what am I doing?' This a world of Ivy League-educated, smart funny people and I come from theater, Chekov, Ibsen, drama school. I don’t consider myself a comedian. I’m an actor. The idea that I'm suddenly now going to be a fake journalist interviewing people—I had no idea if I could do it."
Mandvi adapted. "What I’ve learned is that my different-ness and outsider-ness is actually my greatest source of power," he says. "Being the first non-Caucasian correspondent on The Daily Show, I can stand in between cultures and comment on America from the inside, and I can also comment on it from the outside. This is something my predecessors couldn’t do because they were ultimately white American guys."
Mandvi returns this month to The Daily Show where he plans to deliver more subversive prank journalism peppered with his distinctive point of view. "Jon Stewart took a chance on me," says Mandvi." I remember early on, Jon told me ‘You’re a creator now. We want you to create. We want you to be a creative force here.' He gave me the freedom to align my voice with the voice of The Daily Show and say things into the zeitgeist that no one else of my cultural and religious and ethnic background was saying. In that way I think, Jon’s a really remarkable champion for brown people."