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Is NBC Outsourcing Their Comedians?

Is NBC Outsourcing Their Comedians?

October 01, 2010

NBC's latest offering isn't just unfunny--it's racist.

Indian stereotypes are a strange, awkward sort of bird. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and they usually have some truth to them. But what happens when a stereotype becomes outdated? Do new ones appear, or do old ones linger like a poorly written joke?

If Outsourced, NBC’s latest offering is anything to go by, old stereotypes stick around, regardless of how racist they are, and how far we have supposedly come.

Outsourced has been a long time coming--the series is based on a 2006 movie of the same name, and the pilot has been under development for at least 2 years. It’s also in a format that’s worked well for NBC, the slightly dark office comedy rife with misunderstandings and office-conflict, a la The Office and 30 Rock. But where the latter question stereotypes, even in their pilots, Outsourced appears to encourage them.

Better--or worse--the show’s inherent racism goes both ways. Sure, Indians come under the hammer (funny head gear, weird names), but so do Americans, and even Australians. Diedrich Bader, of Drew Carey fame, plays an overbearing xenophobic American manager who brown bags peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; Pippa Black is an Australian manager who’s gone native, eating curry and walking around in a safari outfit, less the hat. Main character Todd (Ben Rappaport) is an average middle America American, full of speeches about the greatness of America, and American novelties nobody needs. And although I take offense at the show as an Indian, I take greater offense at the show as a half-Indian, because the show suggests that people like me cannot exist as the product of an equal, bi-cultural relationship. In Outsourced’s world, a half-Indian, half-American baby would be the end result of a drunken snog at an office party, when the white guy realizes the Indian girl is okay, even if she speaks funny, and the Indian girl realizes the white guy isn’t so bad, even if he hasn’t bothered learning to say her name correctly.

Is it surprising that a show so incredibly racist has actually made it to not just a pilot, but a prime time slot in 2010 America? Not really. There’s a lot of bitterness about India-based call centers and lost jobs, and NBC appears to be trying to cash in on the trend by providing a way for viewers to mock said call-centers and feel good about themselves. Yet even that is backfiring: a quick Google shows so much anti-NBC feeling amongst middle America that some people are actually calling for an all-NBC boycott.

Could the show play to the coasts, like NBC’s actually smart, workplace sitcoms, 30 Rock and The Office? Maybe. But according to US census data from 2000 (reported by South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow), almost 2 million US residents were South Asian, with 1,678,765 identifying as Indian; SAALT reports that the majority of South Asians live on the coasts. While that may seem a small chunk out of the US’ 307 million residents, it’s a key number in the TV stakes. Following the high-rating show The Office, Outsourced pulled in about 7.4 million viewers, as compared to the former’s 8.4.

If only, say, a conservative 50% of South Asians are offended by Outsourced, that’s still 1 million people, or almost 839, 383 Indians. If each one of these possible viewers then tells just 1 friend how awful the show is or that it’s racist, that’s back to almost 2 million people not watching the show. If the numbers are higher, around 80% offended South Asians/Indians, then just over 2.5 million people could be boycotting the show on the coasts alone.

In an interview with Dave Walker of The Times-Picayune, executive producer Robert Borden said, “I think where we approach this is certainly not a mean-spirited place, and a lot of us have a life experience that’s relevant, and a third of the writing staff is Indian. So we’re not going to be wallowing in that kind of stuff that you’re insinuating, but we are going to have a lot of fun with characters who behave like relatable characters in a workplace comedy.”

Although it’s somewhat laudable that Outsourced has Indians on their staff, Borden’s quoting of a fairly exact (and not so high) number smacks of political correctness, an apology as useless as it is condescending. It would have been simpler to get straight to the point and say it: “Hey, look we like you! See, we’ve got brown people too!”

Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times adds in her review that “South Asians are no longer an exotic minority that needs to be sheltered from comic stereotypes; for one thing, there is no easily recognized stereotype,” a view that seems quite naive. Perhaps, though, Stanley’s view is informed by some of the excellent Indian performers out there, like The Office’s Mindy Kaling (also a writer for the show) and Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari--neither of which have resorted to mocking head gear such as turbans or hijabs, or suggested that India, even in a city like Mumbai*, is completely untouched by the US outside of call centers. In one scene, Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood) is confused by mistletoe, and does not get the joke behind a tacky mistletoe belt buckle. Or perhaps Stanley has never been tagged “exotic”, and doesn’t realize just how offensive the term is.

Will Outsourced make it past the first season? It’s hard to tell. Networks have been axing shows for less over the past few years, but as the adage goes, any press is good press. The controversial (read:offensive) nature of the show could be the very reason it survives. But I like to give shows a second chance, so I’ll watch the next episode--about the hi-hi-hilariously named Manmeet (Sacha Dhawan), who is a nervous wreck about employee evaluations--and try not to cringe.

Correction: this piece originally stated the sitcom was set in Delhi. It's actually set in Mumbai.


  • Tony Shepherd
    Tony Shepherd
    30.03.11 07:24 PM
    The show is great. If you have seen more than one episode you will realize Americans are lampooned at least as much -- perhaps more - than the Indian characters on the show. The have referenced the superiority of the Indian workers when it comes to language skills, the higher levels of morality they exhibit, and the ignorance of the boss when it ccomes to learning customs of another culture.
  • Oliver Night
    Oliver Night
    12.11.10 01:36 PM
    Honestly I think being offended by this show is absurd. It's really quite innocuous. I don't know what to say, I called my cousin, who's half indian half european, and asked him what he thought. He told me he thinks the show is hilarious, and he attributes any complaints in regards to it being offensive to people being stupid. As far as I'm convinced, the place you should be worried about racism in hollywood, is the number of good rolls for indians, and in that regard this show is a huge blessing. I'm fairly sure that anyone with a brain will agree.
  • GetALife
    04.11.10 08:20 PM
    How is it racist? You people can't take anything for a joke seriously.

    Get off you butt and do something worthwhile than criticizing others work.

    Outsourced TV series is hilarious! Much better than The Office US and 30 Rock together.

    I still wish 30R and TO-US would be funny as they used to in the previous seasons.
  • JB
    22.10.10 02:20 PM
    NBC just killed John Jeffcoat's baby.

    No, not his actual child, but rather the writer/director's 2007 film Outsourced, which was optioned into this cliche/ignorant/cheap TV series.

    The film was one of the best examples I"ve seen of a film following a mainstream formula (romantic comedy, in this case) transcending its genre's conventions and weaving in a great cross-cultural love story and social commentary in the process.

    It was well-acted, well-written, and actually explored India, America, and the culture clash between the foreigner and his Indian staff in an insightful and hilarious way.

    But former Office producer Ken Kwapis didn't want to see that baby grow up into a TV series. He smothered it with a pillow and adopted a loud-mouth, ignorant, and self-absorbed American sitcom instead.

    The key difference here is that Todd sees India as nothing more than a wretched experience to get through to get his money, and has no problem making lame "you people are so different it's funny!" jokes. Additionally, the Indian staff are much less aware of American culture than most urban Indians are in real life.

    Todd routinely insults the staff, and they almost never call him on it. He might befriend one or two as individuals, but he's yet to soften his view that Indian society is strange and terrible.

    Too often the writers go for the "this will sound funny if a guy in an Indian accent says it!" joke. In fact the writing staff seems to have not done any research at all - there are so many story angles that they could work that are inventive and hilarious, instead every old stereotype gets re-hashed, and things that are blatantly untrue are presented to an American public mostly unfamiliar with anything Indian as fact.

    ie - that it's impossible to get meat outside fancy hotels, when in reality you can throw a pakora and hit a great non-veg restaurant anywhere in any Indian city. Alas, even if you find this food, it will make you sick according to the writers, as happens every time Todd eats food.

    To summarize I feel glad that this show looks set for cancellation, maybe the actors will go on to better things, but the fact remains that NBC has taken a big step back in terms of representing South Asians on TV.

    This series probably would never have seen the light of day in Canada, because South Asians are much more involved in not only acting, but also producing and writing content, and no network would have green-lighted something this offensive because of that.

    Frankly it's sad but expected that there are several people who seemingly can't see what all the fuss is about. Of course - these people probably have never even had a conversation with someone who's South Asian, never mind have a meaningful friendship with someone who they can talk about these sorts of stereotypes with.

    For the record:

    Grew up hanging out and eating at Pakistani friend's houses
    Fiance's family is from India
    Worked in Miumbai,
    Gained Pani Puri Addiction in Mumbai
    Kicked Pani Puri Addiction
    Relapsed Pani Puri Addiction
    Learned very rough Hindi
    Have been studying anything to do with South Asia for years

    Take it from me - this series misses the mark completely.
  • Darcy
    18.10.10 06:05 AM
    I am a middle aged white american and I actually really like the show. I realize that they have exagerated the stereotypes for entertainment value. However, I think they portray the Indian people as good people with the same types of issues we see in American. I think it helps to see the differences in culture and that these are just normal every day people trying to do their jobs and live their lives. I will certainly be much more tolerant the next time I have to call customer service and get a call center person from somewhere else.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.10.10 12:03 PM
    I watched Episode 3, and it was... a massive improvement! I would even go far as to say it was exactly what I hoped an American show about India would be. It has a few relevant insights into the culture and actually feels quite knowing this time around, but retains that American sense of humour and format and actually makes it work.

    Very much worth watching, especially after the frustration of the first two episodes.
  • Person
    09.10.10 10:33 AM

    Are you serious? Yes, go ahead and make Americans look even worse than they already do in the world. It's folks like you that are seriously ruining this world.

    Go back in the hole you came from and die a painful horrible death, you stupid troll.
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    08.10.10 04:08 PM
    In the UK we had our own version - Mumbai Calling - which was not commissioned past the first series. It was just too awful for words. I have yet to see Outsourced but cannot believe it can be any worse than our version.

    Mumbai Calling was produced and written by a team of NRIs, clearly no guarantee of quality. I am not overly sensitive to programming playing on racial, or other, stereotypes. I just want to be entertained!!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    08.10.10 03:26 PM
    I think being able to laugh at yourself, and even at each other, is very valuable in an increasingly sensitive world. I also think that some stereotypes are true, and indeed funny. The point is, 'Outsourced' laughs at a massively overstereotyped, unrealistic idea of India more than it does at the real thing. It also puts effort into making America look more normal and correct than India, which is weird at best, and offensive at worst.

    All this is by the by because the show's biggest offence so far is that it's not very funny, and actually quite boring.
  • Jeet
    08.10.10 02:25 PM
    well, yes but in this case it is Americans stereotyping another nation. It is more acceptable if India had made a programme making fun of themselves. Do you see the difference?

    Also, remember who has all the power in the world right now. The US does. It is easy to make fun of yourself when you are at the top. When you are a developing nation struggling for identity, you need to build and nurture that identity, not undermine it.
  • Abhishek
    08.10.10 07:05 AM
    I saw the promos and I didn't see anything that was offensive. People make
    fun of Americans all the time. Americans
    make fun of themselves all the time. We
    should behave like a confident and secure
    nation and laugh at ourselves.
  • Critic
    06.10.10 08:54 PM
    Yes, the Manmeet thing. It is a "clever" way of emasculating the Indian man, while making fun of his name in a derogatory manner. Manmeet is the name of a prince or a King and has probably been around for over 3000 years. It is the idiot American names that should be lampooned as well as their immature western culture.
  • Rudy Torrent
    Rudy Torrent
    02.10.10 09:30 PM
    In the worst economy in almost a century, NBC comes across a brilliant idea -- mock the millions of American workers who lost their jobs to low-wage scabs from India!

    Let NBC know that displacing American workers is not funny, and has contributed to the destruction of our economy. Millions of Americans are unemployed, many after being forced to train their foreign replacements in the Indian outsourcing industry.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    02.10.10 02:18 AM
    Seen it now. OK, so, they made a show about a call center in India that is actually more awkward and off-putting than an actual first day in a call center in India.

    Outsourced plays like a group of comedy writers took a collection of derivative stereotypes and unfunny jokes from their uninspired heads, then awkwardly spilled them into the Office/30 Rock template and hoped for the best. India, and Indians, are objectified in virtually every moment of the show, and as Amitha notes, they are objectified in a pretty unrealistic way. It doesn't even feel like it's playing to the gallery - it seems to exist only to dumb down the populace further, like Robyn Lowry says.

    Anyway, quality article as always - I too will give it a chance and watch the second episode, probably only to see Manmeet flounder again before finally becoming More American and thus Cooler. (His name is funny because it is a combination of the English words 'man' and 'meet', which, when taken together, have a homosexual connotation; this is doubly funny because, being Indian, he is unaware of the connotation.)
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    01.10.10 11:44 PM
    Oh dear. That "a third of the writing staff is Indian" sounds suspiciously like "I'm not racist - one of my best friends is an Asian!"

    Still, I must watch it, seeing as I am very much in this outsourcing business. Working in Kerala rather than Mumbai/Delhi/Bangalore etc alone ensures that I won't relate to most of what happens in the show, but I'm eager to see just how badly they miss they mark. I'll return to this article one I have seen the show.
  • Amitha
    01.10.10 10:32 PM
    Great post, Peta! I think the statement that by Stanley ( “South Asians are no longer an exotic minority that needs to be sheltered from comic stereotypes") is just simply untrue. There maybe a lot of Indians on the coasts, but in the rest of the country, there really aren't that many Indians. Because of this, people will not see the characters on the show as "hilarious" caricatures and stereotypes they are meant to be, they will think Indians are *really* like this since they have no basis for comparison.
  • Robyn Lowry
    Robyn Lowry
    01.10.10 09:15 PM
    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary on the show Outsourced. I am a 35 year old white American working mother, born and raised in the (classically culturally intolerant)American South, who, simply due to geography, has no Indian friends and I am deeply offended by this show. As an American I am ashamed that a major American network would even think something like this would be a hit. How stupid, insensitive and culturally bankrupt does NBC think Americans are? Sadly, there is a market here for this show and NBC knows it.

    There is a reason why India, China, Europe and other regions of the world are surpassing America in so many economic and educational areas....the pervasive intellectual and cultural "dumbing-down" of America that has become a cancer to our society.

    There are many examples of the American "dumbing-down" phenomenon, the popularity of Sarah Palin (who ran for Vice President of America in 2008 with a DISMAL educational resume) and the growing strength of the racist Political Tea Party who wants to abolish all taxes "cause it ain't in the constitution!" but who has no plan to pay for tax-funded socialized services like the US Postal Service. This show is just another symptom of the cancer that is consuming America's intellect and emotional maturity

    As an American, if I may, please let me apologize for this show and please let me assure you that there are plenty of Americans who are working to have this show canceled and working to stop the intellectual and cultural "dumbing-down" of America that NBC continuously feeds and nurtures.
  • Patel
    01.10.10 07:10 PM
    Seriously dont understand how is it offensive to the Indians, I have seen many indian film and they also make fun of the Americans (Bollywood is best know for plagiarize from hollywood)I saw the show last night and thought it was hilarious, I chouldnt stop laughing, every sitcom/movies and even music has mockery in it, I dont know why people are upset.

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