TV’s Newest Tokens: South Asians as Sitcom Nerds

On the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, characters refer to the only African-American guy on their fictional writing staff as James “Toofer” Spurlock.  “With him you get a two-for-one; he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy.”  Later, we learn that Toofer was hired because of an affirmative action initiative, and he’s also strategically promoted the same day a congresswoman visits to check up on diversity efforts in the workplace. 30 Rock is often lauded for its self-reflective, meta-fictitious portrayal of characters like Toofer, whose characterization mirrors the struggle of many minorities in the television industry. To borrow the rapper Childish Gambino’s lyrics, up until now, TV shows only featured the “well spoken token” to boost ratings. Nowadays, the highest rated prime-time sitcoms are those that feature the newest “Toofers” of television: Indian Americans. And while Desi actors aren’t rocking the prime-time sitcom boat, they do raise a few questions about whether or not our “post-racial” nation is ready for a wider variety of brown people on TV.

My Interpretation of South Asian Representation on American Television:

There’s a reason I’m so jealous of the British. Seriously. They get the best access to Desi culture: the best food, art and apparently the best comedy shows starring South Asians. While we in the States get stuck with one-dimensional nerds like Rajesh Koothrappali and Abed Nadir (who isn’t even South Asian, but rather a Palestinian character played by an Indian dude), BBC is popping out stereotype-debunking, identity-politicizing, hegemony-questioning gold. On a freaking comedy show!

Don’t get me wrong, I really love being able to find a smattering of TV characters who kinda look like me, and I enjoy watching them play out imitations and fantasies from my own life. But scared networks could be doing so much more to tap into my burgeoning demographic. I have a theory – I’m talking to you, fellow grungy Asian kids! We are legion! We shall rise up! With genre-bending, game-changing shows like Lost and The Wire finding mainstream success while maintaining a healthy dose of intellectualism, why can’t this country’s legion of hip and funny American Desis have a bigger slice of the network TV pie?

So again, I call out to my fellow South Asian Americans: let’s demand more Kelly Kapoors and Tom Haverfords on our TV screens. Or at least demand a wider range of characters beyond the monomythic “second-generation brown nerd just trying to fit in/find love/answer Jack Donaghy’s office phone.” How? I’m not sure! Maybe we should just write the damn shows ourselves. (Incidentally, American Desis will be the title of a new reality show I’m pitching to NBC).

Did I leave out any actors/characters? Please let me know! And feel free to pitch your crazy cool show ideas too. 

Related posts about the Asian American diaspora:

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