Ansari, Nanjiani Host SNL and Change the Face of PrimeTime

Aziz Ansari

Aziz Ansari

By Sanjay Stefan Malhotra

HOUSTON: 2017 has been an exceptional year for comedy and not just the heaps of comedy material the Trump administration bestow upon us on a daily basis.  Something quite remarkable has happened in the universe of American comedy that many South Asians may have overlooked.  For the first time in the 43 seasons history of Saturday Night Live, going back to 1975, the show was hosted by Indian-American Aziz Ansari in January and then by a Pakistani-American, Kumail Nanjiani, in October.  As most people know, Saturday Night Live (or more, colloquially “SNL”) is a sketch comedy show broadcast on NBC, that showcases a variety of comedic talent and contemporary musical acts.

Regardless of your personal comedic preferences, two South Asians hosting one of the most popular sketch comedy shows around is memorable for two reasons.  First, SNL has had a noticeable dearth in non-white cast members as well as hosts.  Prior to Ansari and Nanjiani, only two Asians have had the distinction of hosting SNL since the show’s inception: Jackie Chan and Lucy Lui.  Both actors hosted back in 2000, when some of the current cast members were still in grade school.  No self-identified Asian has ever been a cast member.  Predictably, the show has been criticized for its lack of diversity and SNL even acknowledged this fact in a few of its own skits.

Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick”

Kumail Nanjiani in “The Big Sick”

But what’s more vital than what’s lacking, is the show’s cultural significance.  SNL’s lifeblood is its ability to stay relevant in a world with infinite outlets for satire, competing for every potential viewer.  Every Saturday night, the show reaches millions across America, keeping the country in the loop of pop culture and exposing viewers to new talent.  Ansari and Nanjiani hosting is a nod to America’s changing demographics, albeit a forced one, as well as an acknowledgement of its cultural impact.

Ansari and Nanjiani’s comedy styles reflect their unique experiences as South Asians attaining fame in a world traditionally spurned by most South Asian families.  Ansari was born in South Carolina where he attended high school, while Nanjiani was born in Karachi and immigrated to Iowa at 18.  Their distinctive upbringings play a major role in the stand up and character roles they play.  

Ansari rarely, if ever, uses race as a part of his comedy.  He doesn’t focus on how he’s different, actually quite the opposite.  When Ansari appeared on the online sketch comedy show “Human Giant” in 2007, one was struck at how he didn’t use his ethnicity as a center point in his humor.  He has continued to show that he doesn’t need race to be funny.  Most South Asian comedians until that point, such as Russell Peters, exclusively used race for laughs.  By making that distinction, Ansari draws fans with a wider pallet for comedy.  Ansari went on to play the tragically hip Tom Haverford in NBC’s “Parks & Recreation” and then the overly contemplative Dev Shah in Netflix’s critically acclaimed “Master of None”.  

Nanjiani takes an entirely different approach, often playing the relatable odd man out.  He embraces his South Asian origins, especially as Dinesh Chugtai on HBO’s wildly popular “Silicon Valley”.  Prior to his break out on cable television, Nanjiani acted on the online sketch comedy website “College Humor”, where he played a wide cast of characters.  

Unlike Ansari, Nanjiani grew up in his native Pakistan and proudly incorporates that into his comedy, principally to provide context to the punch line.  He recognizes that he is ethnically different, and presents it in a manner that’s relatable to anyone that’s ever felt marginalized or put in an awkward situation.  This is on full display in his latest movie “The Big Sick”, a story about how trying to meet the expectations of all the people you love inevitably results in personal suffering.  Nanjiani’s comedy transcends his ethnicity and bridges the divide.

That these two South Asian comedians made comedy history in 2017 is a feat that deserves recognition.  As a people obsessed with firsts, this should be appreciated by even those South Asians who dismiss comedy as trivial. This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day for South Asians, which is what makes it all the more extraordinary.  Ansari and Nanjiani are part of an ever-growing group of South Asian comedians who deserve recognition for their talents. And in a time where overt racism and political divisiveness dominates, their achievements represent the community’s significant and rising presence in the mainstream.