Aasif Mandvi got his start in theater, but quickly worked his way into film and television, and now has a long and prolific filmography. Aasif has been appearing on The Daily Show for a couple of years now, and has recently been hired full-time on the Comedy Central “fake news” show. Aasif has also appeared on the CBS drama Jericho this year, and has worked on various TV dramas in the past (ER, Oz, CSI). Aasif was kind enough to stop by and talk with us at BuddyTV about his early career and how he found himself working on one of cable’s most popular shows.
Below you will find both the written transcript and the full mp3 audio of the interview.
BuddyTV: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start in show business?
Aasif: How I got my start in show business, wow. I was a young boy…I actually started acting when I was very young, not on a professional level but like on a community theater sort of school…It was always something that I wanted to do since I was like 10. I actually was a young kid and I saw this movie called Bugsy Malone, I don’t know if you remember that movie, it was a movie with Scott Baio and Jodie Foster and it was all these kids in a gangster movie and it was like on one Christmas or something. Because I grew up in the UK and they used to play these movies at Christmas time and I watched this movie and I was just like, “I want to do that!” So that’s kind of how I got into it and then I just sort of started working with children’s theater companies and stuff like that and then when my family moved to the States I ended up just going to college and stuff and getting my degree in Theater. And then my first professional gig when I got out of school was actually at one of the Disney theme parks down in Orlando.
When started out in theater, what direction did you want to go? Did you want to stay in theater; did you want to branch out to film and television, what was your goal?
I think I always wanted to sort of do everything. I think as an actor you kind of get into this business and you know it’s always theater that’s sort of a launching pad in terms of like where you get your training and stuff. But, you know, I think that you always have to make money and make a living at it so ultimately I think there’s always that hope of doing film and TV you know?
You’ve been on a bunch of TV shows; kind of some big ones like ER, Sopranos, CSI, Oz and most recently Jericho. Do you enjoy the challenge of playing recurring one off characters or do you sort of like to go theater and stick with the character for a while?
It’s like a different muscle. Doing a recurring character on TV is fun in the sense that you…coming back and doing a role over and over again is more like doing a character in a play or something where you get to develop the character a little bit. And doing theater is a completely different animal. You’re up on stage in front of an audience, there’s very live interactive kind of things going on and doing theater over a long period of time I think you learn a lot more about the craft. You learn a lot more about like, especially doing a comedy or something, you say a line one night in the beginning of a run that might get a laugh and then four or five weeks later you don’t get that laugh anymore in the same way and you have to figure out what to do to get that laugh back, and stuff like that. So it’s a much more, I think in terms of the actor and his craft, a long theater run teaches you a great deal about just the work that you get the advantage of doing when you’re doing something in front of a camera and it’s just one time and you do the scene. Even if you do a character over and over again, even if you’re a series regular on a show, the fact is that you only get to do a scene once and then it’s gone forever you know. I mean, you get to do it a couple times in that moment but once it’s shot and once it’s in the can you never get to do it again. So that you never get to experience in television or film the way you do in theater, that aspect of it.
You’re from India. Does it ever become an issue where you show up to an audition for a TV or a film or whatever and the role is just blatantly stereotypical?
Oh, no that never happens…yeah that happens a fair amount I would say. I feel like I’m at a point in my career now where it happens less because of the roles I go in for. When it was early in my career it happened all the time and TV is the worst sort of culprit of this because it’s such a machine, the TV factory. Sometimes, I would literally read a part and think it’s great that these people have written a character for an Indian person but it’s too bad that they’ve never actually met an Indian person, you know? There were definitely moments like that.
Doing dramatic work on TV, which seems to be what you’ve done most of, that really doesn’t seem like the typical stepping stone to doing political comedy on The Daily Show.
Ironically I’ve actually done…my comedic sort of work and my serious dramatic work has always been parallel to each other. I just haven’t done a lot of comedy work on TV but I have in film and I have in theater. I was part of a sketch comedy group for two years called The Associates and I did a one man show, which also was you know dramatic and comedic. My first gig I told you about when I got out of school and I worked for the Disney theme parks was improvisational comedy that I did for a year. I feel like the comedy part of me has always been right alongside the dramatic work and I’ve been very fortunate in having gotten to do both in my career. It may look like a bizarre step for someone who is doing Jericho and ER and stuff like that to being on The Daily Show but it actually in terms of my life and in terms of what I’ve been doing it’s really not that bizarre. It seems like actually quite an obvious step. The fact that I’m doing a dramatic show and a comedy show at the same time almost is not that unusual for the way my career has kind of shaped up, you know?
Can you tell us how you got your job on The Daily Show? Did you have to audition?
Yeah, it’s actually kind of a cool story. I’m glad you asked. I went down there, it was August 9th 2006, and I got a call that morning from my manager saying they wanted me to come down and audition for The Daily Show at 3 o’clock that day. And I basically put on a shirt and tie and went down there at 3 o’clock and met Jon Stewart and went on The Daily Show set and did this piece with him and we just did it and he basically just turned around and said, “Congratulations, you’re hired.” And I wasn’t hired as a regular correspondent initially; I was hired as a one-off, kind of coming in every now and then when they needed something. But it was amazing because basically I got hired right there and I was a huge fan of The Daily Show anyway. I was kind of just in this place, I was like, “Really? Awesome.” It was just that kind of moment. And then he was like, “Yeah we rehearse at 4:30 and then we tape at 6 o’clock, can you did it?” And I was like, “Yeah.” So that’s how it went and then I came back for rehearsal at 4:30 and the way it works on the show is that we rehearse the show at 4:30 in front of just crew and whatever and the audience comes in after that. And I look out in the audience and there’s a dude sitting in the audience with a younger guy and I realize that it’s Bruce Springsteen and his son. And I like came off stage and I was like, “Bruce Springsteen is out there!” And they were like, “We know! It’s amazing!” And then that night I did my first gig on The Daily Show, which was a piece about the Israeli/Lebanon war and Springsteen was in the audience that night and he came backstage and he shook my hand and told me I did a good job and I told him he did a good job too. It was kind of amazing the way it all happened and very fast.
One of the things I’m interested in while I’m watching The Daily Show is kind of the process for the correspondents. Do you write your own stuff, is it all collaborative, do they give stuff to you? How does that work?
I’m not a “comedy writer” so they have 15 writers back there who have Emmy awards. The stand up pieces that you see where we’re standing, reporting from wherever, Washington or Baghdad or whatever, those are usually done that day and we get the piece and then there’s a re-write session that we’re in on and we can sort of you know throw in ideas or whatever but those are kind of more formulated pieces that the writers create. And then the field pieces we actually get to work on more closely and actually put more of our own imprint on. You know, where we actually get to work with a producer and a writer, a couple writers and kind of come up with the whole idea and come up with the jokes and so there’s more collaborative stuff on the field pieces than there is on the stand up pieces.
Last month, if I’m reading this correctly, it was announced that you were hired as a full time correspondent. How does that change your duties? Are you just going to be doing more?
Well, it’s really more about how much they own me now. Basically I go there everyday. Before I was kind of freelancing with them so they would call me and be like, “Are you available?” And I would either be available or not available. And now it’s more like I’m there every day. So I show up everyday and also it just helps in terms of creating field pieces because I’m available to work with the crew producers and the writers and stuff and pitch ideas for field pieces and stuff. So that kind of stuff, I’m just in-house more now, I have an office there and I’m there everyday. And also to your question of would I be on the show more, yes I would.
Cool. How is it working with a guy like Jon Stewart?
Obviously, you know, he’s on top of the world in a lot of ways, but I think The Daily Show is very New York, it’s got this very kind of familial feeling about it. It doesn’t feel like it’s big and corporate. Comedy Central is a small place and I think they’ve kept it really kind of small and kept their mission to be that and get swept up in the hype. The thing about it is also they have to do four shows a week. They’ve got to bang it out every week and the bar is set really high so it really is just a very kind of work-oriented place. It’s not like a laugh place where people are throwing spitballs and having a good time. It’s kind of very serious business back there, you know? I’m sure they’ve had offers to move the show to other networks and stuff but I think they’ve kept it where it is because I think they just want to focus on what they’re doing and not get caught up in a lot of other corporate things that they would if they tried to take the show to a larger venue or go to a bigger network or something.
Is there anything coming up for you outside of The Daily Show that you’d like to tell us about?
Right now there’s nothing happening. You know I’ve got some writing stuff that I’m working on and looking to make a movie that I wrote this year, later this year sometime. So yeah, just stay tuned.
(Interview Conducted by Oscar Dahl)