November 3, 2014
Guest: Aasif Mandvi
TERRY GROSS, HOST: My guest, Aasif Mandvi, is best known as "The Daily Show's" Senior Muslim Correspondent. But he insists that when he joined the show, he was a terrible example of a Muslim and knew nothing about the news, except what he learned from watching "The Daily Show." Mandvi has written a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man." He writes about "The Daily Show" and his life is an immigrant. He was born in India, but soon after, moved with his family to England. They moved to the U.S. when Mandvi was a teenager. He also writes about his acting career. He starred in and co-wrote the 2009 film "Today's Special," which was adapted from his off-Broadway one-man show. Let's start with a clip from "The Daily Show" that's an example of the kind of satire Aasif Mandvi is sometimes called on to do in difficult times. This was broadcast last year, one week after the Boston Marathon bombing, just after the photos of the suspects were released. Here's Jon Stewart introducing him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: But for all the conjecture, there are now a few things we do know for sure about the terror suspect. For more on that, we're joined by "Daily Show" Senior Terror Analyst Aasif Mandvi live in Boston. Aasif, thanks so much for joining us.
AASIF MANDVI: Thank you, John.
STEWART: You've been up in Boston. You have been following this story from the very beginning. What can you tell us about the suspects so far?
MANDVI: Well, I can tell you this, Jon - when they first released those photos, Muslims all over America said thank God they are not Muslim.
STEWART: Right, right, but then on - obviously, on Friday, we found out they were Muslim.
MANDVI: Yeah, but not Muslim-Muslim.
STEWART: You mean, 'cause they're white?
MANDVI: Well, not just white - the whitest of white. I mean, they were literally from Caucasia.
STEWART: I mean, but obviously, in people's eyes, it still - it can still link Islam to terrorism. I mean, why does it make a difference that they're white?
MANDVI: Well, because it means no one is going to be yelling at me on the street for the next month, OK? I mean they'll still say hey, Kumar, can I get your autograph?
STEWART: Right, I get that.
MANDVI: I'm okay with that. Now the bigots have to get creative. Good luck coming up with slurs for Chechens. Go back where you came from, Ushanka head. I mean, right?
STEWART: Is that a real thing? Or is that just a slur you made up?
MANDVI: Yeah, that's their distinctive fur hat, Jon. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. That's how hard it is going to be.
STEWART: I'm not sure that coming up with new ethnic stereotypes is really the most productive use of our time right now.
MANDVI: Well, you got a better idea, Jon? Because I can't make heads or tails of this mess, OK? The more we learn about these guys, the harder it is to get a handle on them.
STEWART: But we know they're Chechen-American.
MANDVI: Right, but that doesn't really help us at all. Because to Americans, Chechnya might as well be a suburb of Narnia. Look, for 12 years, Americans have been told a nice little story about who the bad guys are and what they look like. And then, along come these two. They're Muslim, but they're white, they're immigrants, but they're Americans, they're athletes, they're stoners. Jahar is a monster, yet he's kind of a hottie.
STEWART: All right, I get that.
STEWART: They're from the suburbs, yet they like the hip-hop.
MANDVI: No, no I'm pretty sure that what one is typical. But the point is, there's too much going on with these guys. Even the guy's name - Dzhokhar Tsarnaev it's like he managed to squeeze every letter of the alphabet in there. And you can anagram it to spell anything from overt hazard shank to Zac Efron sucks to Jell-O Pudding Pops. I mean, can't get more American than that.
STEWART: Jell-O Pudding Pops? Okay the last two - Aasif - I'm pretty sure at least two of those were not actually anagrams of that guy's name.
MANDVI: I do not know how anagrams work Jon.
GROSS: (Laughter) Aasif Mandvi welcome to FRESH AIR.
MANDVI: Thank you.
GROSS: It's really such a pleasure to have you on the show. You write in your collection of personal essays "No Land's Man" that when you were asked to audition for "The Daily Show" you were reluctant to do it. How could you have been reluctant to do it?
MANDVI: (Laughter) You know, it was a crazy series of events that happened where basically I got this call for "The Daily Show" - you know, I sort of associated "The Daily Show" with, like, stand-up comedy people. And, you know, I'd done this kind of thing before where I had gone to like David Letterman and done the voice of Saddam Hussein or played like a tech support guy on Jimmy Kimmel or something you know? And I thought it was going to be like one of these one-off kind of things where I was going to be pretending to - sort of fly around on the carpet or yell death to America in an Arab accent or something, you know, and I thought that's what it was going to be. And then I realized, oh they're actually looking for a correspondent. And what had happened was they had written a Middle East correspondent - like a correspondent actually from the Middle East and then they realized that they didn't have one. And so they needed to audition people. And so I came in that day to audition for this one-off piece that they had written and then auditioned for it. It went, I guess, really well because I basically just - I didn't know what to do. I was a fan of "The Daily Show" I watched it, you know, I never imagined being on it, but I figured I would just go down there and do my best Stephen Colbert impression and I guess it worked because Jon hired me right there on the spot. And then I was on the show that night before I could even tell anyone that I was hired on the "The Daily Show." And then I was literally on the air and people were calling and being like did I just see you on "The Daily Show?" You know so it was just - it happened really fast. And then, I guess Jon just, you know, liked me and so he just wanted me to keep coming back and so then he would just keep on inviting me to come back and do stuff and chats and things on the show. And then I did that for a few months before they finally sort of offered me a full-time contract.
GROSS: What was that first piece?
MANDVI: That first piece that I did which is actually still I think one of my favorite pieces I've ever done on the show which was about Hezbollah Israel conflict in 2006 and it was very pointed. It was a beautifully crafted piece of satire and it's a weird thing to say but it had a joke in there about 9/11 and I remember the audience sort of laughing but also kind of not knowing how to respond to that joke and it was just so - and I remember the tension after we did this joke on the air and there was this palpable gasp in the audience, but they were also laughing. And I thought oh, wow, that is something that is not being said in the Zeitgeist.
GROSS: So you write that when you started to work on "The Daily Show" your father gave you this advice - if Jon Stewart asks you any questions or your opinions about Islam don't say a word, just have him call your mother, she knows everything. Don't humiliate your entire family. That's real confidence boosting advice.
MANDVI: Which then he went on to say by the way, we're very proud of you - this is an incredible accomplishment. So it was like just sort of followed by that, you know, p.s.
GROSS: Did you have to call your mother for advice on anything?
MANDVI: Occasionally I did. You know, I did call my parents when stuff would come up. You know, I was often - "The Daily Show" writers are incredibly smart and very well plugged in but occasionally they would need me for certain specific things, you know, ethnically or about Islam or even India or - you know things like that where they would be like oh we don't know how to say this or - and that is sometimes when I would be like yeah, I completely know how to do that I can solve that problem. And that I would be like mom? You know - so yeah that happened a few times, but I mean it's clearly ironically named however it is sort of the senior Muslim correspondent or, you know, the idea that I had anything to do with like the speaking about Islam or about the Muslim world or anything like that was just absurd to my family, know? (LAUGHTER)
GROSS: (LAUGHTER) Why was it so absurd to them?
MANDVI: Well, because I hadn't been to the mosque in like 10 years you know and...
GROSS: ...Oh wait and you went to a Methodist Boys' School when you lived in..
MANDVI: ...and I went to a Methodist - yeah I actually, you know, am proud to say that I know the Gospel according to Mark better than I know any surah in the Quran, you know? It's an ironic thing about being an immigrant kid, you know, growing up - 'cause I grew up in the UK and went to a British boarding school and we would go to chapel every Sunday morning. And we'd actually have religious studies and religious studies means Christian studies where you study the Bible.
GROSS: So here's a related question - when - after Trey Parker and Matt Stone from "South Park" were being threatened with death because they did a "South Park" episode that the Prophet Muhammad figured into and it looked like it was the Prophet in a costume, but it turned out to be Santa Claus in a costume - but that didn't stop the death threats. And so "The Daily Show" did something on that and of course, you were the correspondent for it. And you write in your book that before doing that piece Jon Stewart asked you well, can we show the Prophet Muhammad on the "The Daily Show?" And you immediately responded...
MANDVI: I said no, I don't think that's a good idea. And I didn't say it because I was scared - I just thought it was incendiary and kind of unnecessary to do it that way. And so we actually came up with a much more creative way. He actually said to me can we have Muhammad? And I said no. And then, he said what about Jesus? And I was like Jesus loves the camera, you should totally have Jesus, Jesus loves being on the air. He loves it. You know, so just have Jesus on there, yes. But, you know, we actually did think about it for a little while and then decided not to go down that road and just have me come out and do a chat with John at the desk talking about my own personal feelings about it.
GROSS: So do you think your parents would've been offended by it? I mean, they're more committed practicing Muslims than you are. And were you thinking of that? Were you thinking like - you know, what would my parents think?
MANDVI: Yeah. I think my parents would be offended by it. I think that, you know, offended is maybe the - uncomfortable, you know? If you choose to be a Muslim then you believe that it is on some level wrong to show the image of the Prophet Muhammad.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Aasif Mandvi who is a correspondent for the "The Daily Show." He's just back from a leave because he's also shooting a new HBO series that he's co-starring in called "The Brink." And he has a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man". Let's take a short break - then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Aasif Mandvi. He's a correspondent for "The Daily Show" and now he has a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man." You write that you spent the first year on "The Daily Show" convinced you were the wrong guy for the job. Why did you think that?
MANDVI: Well, because, you know, I came from a very different sort of background and pedigree from the people who were on "The Daily Show," you know? I was an actor. I was sort of - the irony is that I've done as much dramatic work in my career as comedic work and I don't really think of myself as a comedian. So firstly, there was that, which is - I was like, you know, I'm an actor and what am I my doing here? And secondly, it was kind of one of those jobs that really no one can teach you. You know, there's nobody else sort of doing that. There's no school that you can go to and learn how to be a "Daily Show" correspondent and how to interview people and, you know, essentially leave your soul outside the door and go in there and kind of, you know, destroy people's lives sometimes. But, you know, Samantha Bee said to me when I first started on the show, she was like no - there is no - the only way you'll learn this job is by doing this job. And so you kind of - there was that first year where I was just like oh my God, like, what am I doing? You know, I would go out and it was very - in learning how to navigate those interviews and, you know, because they're not like - they're not like even a normal interview. You know, they're very specific. And so...
GROSS: They're really not.
MANDVI: Right, so, you know, but then you do learn and you sort of, you know, you figure it out. And I think, you know, that was - yeah, so I did. I spent the first year thinking like I'm just a complete fraud. What am I doing, you know?
GROSS: So you just walked me in to the next clip I want to play.
GROSS: This was after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act that protected voters from racial discrimination. And the majority decision said that those protections were no longer necessary. And right after that several states started instituting new voting restrictions. So you're in this clip talking with a Republican precinct chair in Buncombe County, North Carolina. His name is Don Yelton. You're talking to him about the new voter ID laws there. So this is from "The Daily Show" with my guest, Aasif Mandvi.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
MANDVI: North Carolina precinct chairman and GOP executive committee member Don Yelton thinks his state's new voting restrictions are just fine.
DON YELTON: What's going to happen as a result of this law, the process is going to more integrity. Right here in Buncombe County, there's always one or two that voted twice a year. They don't know...
MANDVI: One or two million people?
YELTON: No, one or two people.
MANDVI: And that's one or two out of how many?
YELTON: That's just one or two out of 60,000.
MANDVI: So statistically there is enough voter fraud to sway zero elections.
YELTON: That's not the point.
MANDVI: The point is that voter fraud does just barely exist, while racism, according to the Supreme Court, is a thing of the past.
YELTON: The bottom line is the law is not racist.
MANDVI: Of course the law's not racist, and you are not racist.
YELTON: Well, I've been called a bigot before. Let me tell you something - you don't look like me, but I think I've treated you the same as I would anybody else.
YELTON: As a matter of fact, one of my best friends is black.
MANDVI: So one of your best friends...
YELTON: One of my best friends.
MANDVI: ...Is black.
MANDVI: And there's more.
YELTON: When I was a young man, you didn't call a black a black, you called him a negro. I had a picture one time of Obama sitting on a stump as a witch doctor and I posted that on Facebook and I was making fun of my white half of Obama, not the black half. And now you have a black person using the term [bleep] this, [bleep] that and it's OK for them to do it.
MANDVI: You know that we can hear you, right?
MANDVI: Oh OK, you know that. You know that we can hear you.
MANDVI: OK, all right.
And then I found out the real reason for the law.
YELTON: The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt.
MANDVI: Wow. An executive GOP committee member just admitted that this law isn't designed to hurt black people; it's designed to hurt Democrats.
YELTON: If it hurts a bunch of college kids that's too lazy to get out up off their bohonkus and go get a photo ID, so be it.
MANDVI: Right, right.
YELTON: If it hurts the whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything, so be it.
MANDVI: And it just so happens that a lot of those people vote Democrat.
MANDVI: That's right. To supposedly prevent one or two cases of fraud, this law could suppress hundreds of thousands of actual voters.
YELTON: I can't believe we got that many stupid people in North Carolina and people that don't know how to follow directions and go down there and get a photo ID for free at the DMV. Do you want those people picking your president?
MANDVI: No, we certainly don't want stupid people picking our president, or Democrats apparently.
GROSS: That's Aasif Mandvi on "The Daily Show." He is my guest and he has a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man." Aasif, that was really just remarkable. What were the consequences for the person you were interviewing?
MANDVI: Well, Don Yelton, who was the committee member down in North Carolina, was fired the next day after that interview aired. You know, and it was one of those things where, you know, on one hand I think you had the GOP down there in North Carolina reaching out to African-American voters and this guy coming on television and using the N-word and saying what he said. And, you know - and he, by the way, stood by everything he said. He was on the radio the next day talking about how the GOP were gutless and, you know, didn't have a big enough tent I guess to include racists and bigots as well. You know, but I think also there was a sense of like the GOP is sort of firing him, you know, because it was kind of almost the attitude - it was like listen, you're not allowed to say that on television. Come on, you know? Yeah, you can think that, but not out loud.
GROSS: Did you know he would do that?
MANDVI: No, I had no idea. We didn't know - you know, he was clearly opinionated and we knew he'd be a great interview. We didn't know that he would go into this whole thing, you know, about these racial things. And so it was very - you know, and those are the moments that you live for as a "Daily Show" correspondent. You know, that's kind of like - when that's happening, you're just like yes, thank you. And then it just became my job just to sort of sit back and let it happen and not interrupt, you know?
GROSS: So I think my favorite part was after he describes having the Obama as a witch doctor photo and talking about how some of his friends - best friends were black and that...
MANDVI: Right, right.
GROSS: ...Racist - now, oh, I had been called a bigot - all that stuff. You say, you know that we can hear you, right?
GROSS: Did you come in prepared with that line, or was that just right off the top of your head?
MANDVI: No, I - yeah, that was not a prepared line because we didn't know he was going to go down that road at all, so that was just the only thing I could think to say because, you know, I seem to remember just feeling like, you know, he must know. I mean, I think when I remember it now, I think I - there was a part of me that was just asking quite earnestly, you know, these cameras are on and you're saying this out loud, you know. Like, you know, it almost seemed like he was having an internal monologue.
GROSS: So did he know - did Yelton know "The Daily Show?" And did he know he was likely to not come out looking good?
MANDVI: I don't think he really watched "The Daily Show."
GROSS: So what's your job there? Like, you said in some of these interviews you have to leave your soul at the door...
MANDVI: Right, right, yeah.
GROSS: ...Like, do you feel like oh, I should really prep him that this is just going to be a disaster for him? This is...
MANDVI: Well, you know...
GROSS: Like, what do you tell him?
MANDVI: We don't lie to people. We tell - you know, they know what show they're on. They know that we're going to - they know what we're going to talk about - so I don't think he was a "Daily Show" watcher. He probably was familiar with the "Daily Show," but I honestly, you know, in talking to him, I don't think he cared. I think he felt completely right.
GROSS: Aasif Mandvi will be back in the second half of the show. His new collection of personal essays is called "No Land's Man." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with
Aasif Mandvi. He's a "Daily Show" correspondent who's played the role of senior Muslim correspondent and senior terror correspondent. He's returned to "The Daily Show" after a leave of absence that he took to shoot the first season of the new HBO series "The Brink," which he costars in. It's scheduled to premiere next year. Mandvi has a new book of personal essays called "No Land's Man." That's about his acting career and his life as an immigrant.
You were born in Mumbai, which was then Bombay - was it still Bombay when you were born?
MANDVI: It was Bombay when I was born there, yes. It's become now Mumbai, yes.
GROSS: And then when you were about 1 or just before that your family moved to England from India. Why did your family move?
MANDVI: You know, my father got a job at Bradford University in textiles. And he came for - I guess, you know, why do people immigrate? - like, for a better life to find, you know, a new world. And, you know, I think he always - he saw it as an opportunity. And so yeah so we came to this coal mining town in the north of England and that's where I grew up.
GROSS: Was he teaching at the University?
MANDVI: No. He was working in research. And then he sort of gave that up to become a businessman and ended up owning a corner shop.
GROSS: What did he sell in the store?
MANDVI: It was basically like a bodega. It was basically - what? - in England they call them news agency. You know, he sold pornography and candy to, you know, old, British people. (Laughter).
GROSS: Were you able to see any of the pornography?
MANDVI: Sure. Yeah, it was up there on the little stand, you know. But yeah, you know, that's what you sold. It was kind of candy and cigarettes and pornography and...
GROSS: That's like a gold mine for a boy. (Laughter). Right?
MANDVI: Yes, yes, yes. I think I discovered my first, you know, my first image of a naked woman was sort of sneaking a peek at one of those magazines that was in my dad's store.
GROSS: Your parents had an arranged marriage. How did your father feel about selling pornography?
MANDVI: You know, look, at the end of the day we are Ghodratis (ph). And if anybody out there knows what Ghodratis are, we are at the end of the day business people. And we make money in whatever way we can. So, you know, for my dad it was essentially, like, if this is what they want to buy this is what I'm going to sell, you know.
GROSS: (Laughter). OK. So then you went to a Methodist boarding school where you learned more about the Christian Bible than you learned - than you knew about Islam. Did you feel like an outsider at the boarding school?
MANDVI: Yeah. Very much. I mean, you know, this was in the '70s and there was a lot of racism towards South Asians and there was a lot of hazing and bullying and racism that really probably shaped me in some way in terms of, like, wanting to get out of there - you know?
GROSS: Get out of that school or get out of England?
MANDVI: Get out of that school and also when we decided to leave England I could not have been happier. I was sort of like - America seemed like the land of opportunity and, you know, it was Hollywood to me. It was - I think when we moved to Florida I thought that my days were just going to be spent hanging out on a beach and my girlfriend was going to be Miss Teen USA and my best friend would be a dolphin. You know, so I had this, like, completely unrealistic idea of what America was. But I wanted to be there, you know, I wanted to be part of it. It was, I mean, I grew up on American pop culture so everything that I fantasized about to get out of this sort of humdrum world of Bradford was about America. So when we decided to move there I was on the plane.
GROSS: One of the things you left behind when you left England was the expression Paki-bashing.
GROSS: As in bashing a Pakistani. So, I don't know, were you ever directly exposed to that? And would it have been helpful to say, excuse me, I'm not Pakistani, I'm Indian? Would that have saved you? Would it have made a difference?
MANDVI: (Laughter). You know, for anybody who's ever been on the other end of, like, racial violence logic is not something that can be used. You know, it's not like you can be like, excuse me, I believe that ethnically you've got me slightly mixed up, you know.
MANDVI: I don't think it really ever works. It's never a strategy. But Paki- bashing was kind of this term that was used in general to beat up anyone that was from the Indian subcontinent. And, you know - and Bradford specifically there were a lot of Pakistanis there. You know, even today it has a very large Pakistani population. So, you know, it was - you just got lumped in to that thing. And, yeah, it was something that I experienced - getting chased home from the bus stop after school by English kids, boarding school, being targeted for praying to, you know, what they call Allah wallah ding dong, you know. And so it was that kind of thing, you know, like, there was definitely a lot of targeting of South Asians. And, you know, England has an interesting relationship with the Indian subcontinent because the years of colonization and the history, you know, between the two places. And so it was - felt ironic to me that, you know, for a place that had colonized India and then those same people were now colonizing England. (Laughter). You know, re-colonizing it and sort of reverse-colonizing it to the point that today, you know, the national dish of Great Britain is Chicken Tikka Masala, you know.
GROSS: Is that true?
MANDVI: I don't know if that's actually true, but I know that there is a Facebook page that is dedicated to making that happen, and it might've already happened I don't know. But you can get samosas in any pub in England today, pretty much. So, you know, "Gunga Din" has come back.
GROSS: That is a good thing. I mean, British food was not famous for...
MANDVI: Right exactly we added the spice. We brought the spice.
GROSS: Yeah, no, exactly, exactly. One of my favorite stories in the book was when you moved to America. And how old were you when you moved?
MANDVI: I was 16.
GROSS: OK. That your father (laughter) your father decided that when you did road trips that you should all wear IHOP, International House of Pancakes, T-shirts, but to have it say on the bottom International House of Patel because that's, like, a common Indian name. What was the point of this?
MANDVI: Well, you know, again like I said we are Ghodratis and there's nothing that Ghodratis like more than a bargain.
MANDVI: And so for my parents it was all about getting a deal and, you know, my dad came to America and he heard of this concept of brunch. And I remember, you know, him talking about this idea. He didn't quite know what it was. And he thought it was this other meal that existed between breakfast and lunch. He was kind of like - I remember he sort of was like America has so much food that between breakfast and lunch they have to stop and eat again. They have brunch. You know, and it was so - it's a breakfast and lunch combined, brunch. And he thought it was, like, this thing, you know, so he was really excited about this third meal that existed in the middle of the day. It was completely legal it was, like, a legal meal that you could have, you know. I mean, clearly it wasn't the only reason he came to America, but I think it certainly sweetened the pot for him.
GROSS: So with the IHOP T-shirts - the International House of Patel T-shirts - the idea was that you would go to IHOPs for your meals when you were on a road trip and they would give you a discount because you were wearing - were they supposed to assume that you had your own IHOP franchise?
MANDVI: I think it was just more brand loyalty or just the cleverness of it that would ensure us some kind of discount. And usually it worked, you know, so it was good.
GROSS: Did you ask for the discount or did they just offer?
MANDVI: Oh, no. It was just something that was intimated. (Laughter).
GROSS: And Patel is usually Hindu name.
MANDVI: Patel is a Hindu name. We are Muslims. You know, the other South Asian patrons of these restaurants would be appalled to know that, you know, my father would - because my grandparents would be with us and that my father would pawn off his Muslim in-laws as Hindus just so that he could get free pancakes, you know?
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Aasif Mandvi and he's a correspondent on "The Daily Show." He's a costar of a new series that starts next year on HBO called "The Brink." And now he has a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Aasif Mandvi. He's a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and author of a new collection of personal essays called "No Land's Man." So your parents had an arranged marriage, which, you know, to most Americans I think just sounds so, like, remote and old-fashioned. And I'm wondering if there was this, like, huge gap between the idea of romantic and sexy love and sex before marriage that people of your generation, you know, on the whole in America subscribe to. So the gap between that and what your parents experience and what maybe they hoped for, for you?
MANDVI: Yeah. From my parent's generation the idea was not that marriage was about some kind of idealized, romantic love. It was a partnership. It's about creating family. It's about creating offspring. It's about, you know, Indian culture is essentially much more of a we culture. It's a communal culture where you do what's best for the community - you procreate. And then in America, you have this kind of individualism, this, you know - and in the West, essentially, you have this individualism - this idea of my own personal fulfillment. And there's this existential crisis in America and in the West of, like - who am I? - based on this searching for individual fulfillment, which you don't necessarily have in the East in the same way because you're kind of told what to do. I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm just saying that's just, like, the reality. So, you know, you do find a lot of your time in the West kind of searching for your place in the world - your voice, your identity, like, who am I? Like, what is my reason for being here, you know? And in that same way who am I to be partnered with, you know?
GROSS: So you're not married and you don't have children, right?
MANDVI: (Laughter) Having said all that of course it stands to reason that I'm not married or have children.
GROSS: So you're a total failure is what I'm getting to.
MANDVI: Yes. It is ironic that it doesn't matter how successful I am in any other capacity. Ultimately, my parents marker is do you have a wife? And do you have children? You know, that is this sort of - like, I remember my mother she's passed on now, but...
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that.
MANDVI: Oh, well, thank you. She, you know, up until she died, she was, like, it was literally, like, she was, like, look you have - you're on television. You've done the thing that you wanted to do, now don't you think you can now get married? Doesn't that give you enough reason to now want to get married? You know, and so that was really just the thing that she always - and my father continues with that conversation to this day. Like, that is the thing that would ultimately sort of be, I guess, in some way, the realization of whatever the American dream is. You know, to have that wife and kids and the picket fence.
GROSS: It's sometimes really hard to live your life the way you want to live it with the feeling somehow that you're really killing your parents by doing that. Like, you are breaking their hearts every day.
MANDVI: Right, right. You know, I mean, look I think family dynamics are definitely very interesting. And in my case my sister did get married. She gave my parents a grandchild.
GROSS: You're off the hook. (Laughter).
MANDVI: And so in some ways for many years I was off the hook, yeah, you know. When my niece was born after that their attention was focused on that and she did that. You know, that was in our family that's what she did. I went off and chased this dream and this career that very other few people in our, you know, in my family, but even culturally were doing. You know, and sort of became somewhat successful at it and found a voice in that. And so, like, you know, like, for me it was like sometimes I felt I think that, like, my parents, like, had the grandchild on one hand and then I took them to really nice parties with famous people.
GROSS: Well, I'm sure...
MANDVI: And they got to meet Bill Clinton because of me. You know, so that was, like, my, like - I tried to use that as, like, you know, as my thing of, like, OK this is what I did, right? You met the president, you know.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a pretty big deal.
MANDVI: You may have a grandchild, but I introduced you to Bill Clinton, you know.
GROSS: Has your father started conversations by saying to strangers ever watch "The Daily Show?"
MANDVI: Yes all the time. Well, that's the thing, right? So, like, you know, as much as they wanted me to get married they constantly talk about my - and they're very proud, you know, of the success. And my son is on "The Daily Show" and, you know, and when my mother was in the hospital it was like everybody on the floor - every nurse, every doctor in that hospital - knew that she was the mother of Aasif Mandvi on "The Daily Show." Like, she made sure that everyone knew that, you know? So, yeah, they were very, you know, clearly very proud and happy for my success, but still would love that grandchild.
GROSS: So when you started acting, before you really established who you were, and before, like, "The Daily Show" really helped you establish that, you were offered - my impression is from your book - you were offered a lot of, you know, stereotyped parts. So what were some of the stereotyped parts?
MANDVI: Well, you know, I mean, it was this sort of traditional kind of, you know, cabdrivers, you know, the deli guy, you know. And I also would get - one of the first auditions I had in New York was for a commercial where I had to go in and audition to be a snake charmer.
GROSS: Yeah, so what was the context of that?
MANDVI: It was some kind of - it was either some bank commercial or something where they wanted a guy charming a snake. It was kind of just a bit in this commercial. And so they had me come in. But I remember they wanted to know if I actually knew how to snake charm.
MANDVI: And I wanted the job so badly that I said well, you know, I'm Indian, so it's probably in my DNA. I could probably figure it out. But, you know, 'cause I was so desperate and they wanted to know if I owned a turban because they didn't really have someone who knew how to tie a turban. And then I think I said something like no I don't own a turban because if you do own a turban, you kind of don't leave home without it. You know, you wear it. It's not, you know, - so I didn't get the part.
GROSS: Did you ever actually see the completed commercial on TV?
MANDVI: I think I did, yeah, and it was a white guy who was sort of swarthy looking and, you know, and I talk about it in the book. I say, you know, he was swarthy looking, bobbing his head from side to side doing this broad Indian accent, not worrying at all about what his parents would think of him.
MANDVI: Just putting that money in the bank.
GROSS: One of the great things about family is that often the parents are really embarrassed by what the children are doing and the children are really embarrassed by what the parents were doing. So is it embarrassing to you when your parents would point out who you were? Or did you feel like you wanted to share your fame with them and any way that you could share it was a good thing?
MANDVI: I understood why they needed to do it. Sometimes it was embarrassing, you know, because the worst thing is when, you know, my mother or even my father would say, like, do you ever watch "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart? And then the person would be like I don't watch that. And then they would - well he's on that show. And then they'd be like, oh. And then they'd be - he is a correspondent on the daily - and I'd be like dad they don't watch the show. So now the conversation now has to end. They don't watch it. They don't know what you're talking about. Like, it doesn't - but they would continue on as if the person was like, I'm a big fan, you know. And they would be like he is on the daily - and then they would start reciting - the movie. Did you see this movie? Nope never seen it, and then it starts to become embarrassing 'cause then you're like, they have no idea who I am. To them, I'm just this Indian guy, you know?
GROSS: Aasif Mandvi, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MANDVI: Thank you. It's been great.
GROSS: Aasif Mandvi is a correspondent for "The Daily Show" and the author of the new collection of personal essays "No Land's Man." You can read a chapter on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our tech contributor, Alexis Madrigal, has some advice for creating secure passwords for many websites without having to memorize lots of secret words and numbers. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the downsides of all the conveniences of online shopping and banking, as well as social media and email is coming up with all of those darned passwords, and worse yet having to remember them. Many people use the same password for different sites, or store their multiple passwords right on their computers, leaving themselves vulnerable to hackers. Our technology correspondent, Alexis Madrigal, suggests a reasonable course for protecting ourselves online without too much effort.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, BYLINE: It's time I admitted something. Though I've written about the Internet for years my online security practices are not good. Despite constant warnings from knowledgeable friends, I persist in doing all the things with my passwords that you're not supposed to. I don't make them complicated enough, I reuse the same ones over and over. I don't change them very often and I keep a list of important ones in a file on my computer. Frankly, it's shameful. This fall, though, I decided it was time to get serious. I made a resolution - I would come up with a system for dealing with my passwords. First, I had to figure out what I wanted to protect and email sits atop that list because if you have access to my inbox, you can probably gain access to everything else. The best way to secure an account, like Google's Gmail, is to turn on two-step verification. Basically you link your phone with your account and then when you login from a new computer, Google text messages a random six digit code to your phone that you have to enter along with your actual password. This means that even if your password fell into the wrong hands, without your phone, would-be attackers would be thwarted. Apple's data syncing service iCloud offers the same protection, as do prominent social media services like Twitter and Facebook. So I enabled two-step verification in those places too. My particular bank doesn't offer two-step - shame on them - but many do, and the waiting for the text message and then entering the code is a minor hassle. It's worth the peace of mind. But that's only the very top security tier. Some sites are important, but not that important. And you might not want to introduce that level of friction into using them. For this trench, I decided to generate really lengthy passwords using a specialized piece of software called, logically, a password manager. Three I've heard and read great things about are 1Password, Dashlane and LastPass. I chose to use 1Password because it's been around since 2006 and longevity seems like a good thing in the security industry. The key to a password manager is this - if you don't have to remember all the dozens of passwords yourself, then you can use really, really tough ones for each site you visit and it'll remember them all for you. The whole program is controlled by a master code, which they encourage you to make the length of a sentence and essentially uncrackable. Basically, you make a deal with yourself - remember one really, really long tough password in exchange for the software remembering the rest. Now, I'm not going to make the picture rosier than it is. 1password is not the easiest software to use. You have to install the desktop program, then the browser extension and most likely an app on your phone. Then for every site you visit, you need to have it store that credential. Even more annoyingly, if you currently have weak passwords, you need to change those to something very difficult to guess. Then store that login in the software. Doing this over and over is quick but a hassle. For my 15-key sites, it took 22 minutes of concerted effort to complete. For other semi-important sites, I'm just dealing with them as I go. I add a couple a day at most, so slowly my security hygiene is improving. But you know in some diets there are cheat days? I have cheat passwords. For sites that truly don't matter, where login is merely a formality, I have used and will continue to use the exact same easy-to- remember password. If someone hacks these accounts, nothing really bad can happen. I'd like to say that if you take all these steps you'll be forever safe from malicious forces, but that's not true. In an effort to make customer service easier, many companies allow the security questions like where did you go to high school? - To stand in for your password itself. With our ever more Google-able identities and underground malicious services that traffic in Social Security numbers and other personal information, bad actors will continue to use this loophole to compromise accounts. But none of this actually sends me running from the web. All I really want is peace of mind that I did what was reasonable. My attitude online is the same one I have off-line. Consider that we hand our credit cards to strangers every day and our private mail sits in our mailboxes untended. Theoretically we could take crazy precautions to prevent problems, but the odds are nothing horrible will happen, and people make that trade-off. Perhaps one day a fingerprint or Iris or facial scanner will completely replace all the numbers and letters that unlock our digital lives. But until then, a couple hours will go a long way towards making your data secure from criminals. Simple precautions will fend off the dumbest of them and nothing will stop the smartest.
GROSS: Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and is the Silicon Valley bureau chief for the Fusion cable and digital network.
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