“I don’t wanna trade on racial stereotypes,” says one of the comedians in The Get Brown, UCB’s first all–South Asian sketch comedy show, just before another of the comedians pretends to be an IT specialist and another pretends to be a doctor. Despite how it appears, though, the show's stars — Shaan Baig, Kunal Dudheker, Skander Halim, Sai Lang, Kausar Mohammed and Saagar Shaikh — aren’t exploiting cultural clichés, they’re lovingly spoofing their shared heritage and Americans’ misconceptions.
Comedy is no longer exclusively a white man’s game. Just look at Russell Peters, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu and Aparna Nancherla, not to mention Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, who’ve become household names. Last year, Saturday Night Live hired its first Indian-American writer, Nimash Patel. And even South Asian comedians from the U.K. are crossing over — look at Romesh Ranganathan, who recently starred in his own Showtime docuseries, Just Another Immigrant.
While those comics are primarily known for stand-up, The Get Brown uses sketch to goof on the comics' dual identities and connect with the audience.
Sitting at UCB Sunset’s training center, Baig, Dudheker, Halim, Lang, Mohammed and Shaikh talk about how they formed the team, the challenges of being young comedians of color and, of course, what their parents think.
All six are first-generation South Asian–Americans. They range in age from 26 to 36 and hail from different parts of the country (Halim is originally from Ontario, Canada). Collectively, they’re of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent, and of Hindu, Muslim and Jain religions (Halim is also half-Dutch). They trained at UCB, iO, Second City and the Groundlings.
While most of The Get Brown are pursuing acting full-time, some have maintained their day jobs: Baig is a dentist in Sherman Oaks, and although he’s also a full-time actor, Dudheker holds CPA, real estate, mortgage loan office and notary licenses.
“When I told my parents I was leaving an accounting firm to move to L.A. to do stand-up comedy, they were very unhappy,” Dudheker recalls. “They were not happy for years until I could prove to them that I could support myself, that this was a viable option. Now they’re very supportive. My mom shows her friends every little clip of me she can find.”
Like other minorities trying to navigate film and TV, they’ve all auditioned for stereotypical parts and experienced typecasting.
“I don’t go out for any terrorist roles,” Shaikh says. “When I first started acting, for the first three years, that’s all there was. Even when you’re looking for representation, agents or managers say to you, ‘We already have someone like you on our roster.’ One brown person on a roster is enough for them.”
“Usually there’s like one role you’re vying for,” Lang says. “For me, it’s usually a nerdy girl who doesn’t have game or it’s the exotic beauty with the long, Bollywood hair. Even more specific for me, it’s, ‘Do we want a light-skinned Indian girl or dark-skinned Indian girl?’ And they usually don’t want the dark-skinned Indian girl.”
The actors found more freedom and edge performing live comedy, including Baig and Dudheker, who first dabbled in stand-up. “Stand-up is the quickest way to get up onstage and you can do as much of it as you want,” Baig says. “But it’s a lonely grind for those three to five minutes you’re onstage.”
So they and the rest of the members decided to collaborate and write sketches together. They created The Get Brown, directed by fellow UCB actor Pam Murphy, just a few months ago. Their first two gigs were a hit, and while the show satirizes the South Asian community, the topics and characters — prejudice, Bollywood, parents’ obsession with marriage — can be familiar to anyone.
“We’re trying to talk about our point of view and experiences growing up in the community and find something that any audience can watch and laugh at,” Lang says. “We’ve gotten a lot of people outside the community who love the show — they get it and they can relate.”
Like the father who tries stand-up at his son’s wedding but keeps calling him lazy. Or the matchmaker who’s so powerful she thinks she’s the Indian Don Corleone — cue the sitar version of the theme to The Godfather. She even strokes a toy cat while talking.
The comedians also screen videos that teach us how to “get brown” and “be a little less ignorant,” whether it’s learning how to avoid racial profiling (shave your beard, change your name) or eating with your hands (because silverware is a product of European colonization, like genocide and slavery).
“People wanna learn about another person’s humor,” Shaikh says. “It might be jokey, but we do teach a lot.”
“We do the accents, but we do it on our own terms,” Dudheker adds.
In addition to performing, Halim has a long list of screenwriting credits, including writing for the revival of Murphy Brown, which will feature a role played by Indian-American actor Nik Dodani.
“There’s been a real push for diversity behind the camera in the industry recently,” Halim says. But thanks to the internet, social media and streaming services, comedians of color are no longer confined to traditional comedy. Some members of The Get Brown have made videos for Buzzfeed. Shaikh and Baig host a podcast called Bollywood Boys. And Shaikh and Mohammed have starred in their own web series, Unfair & Ugly.
“There’s a hunger for digital content with South Asians,” Mohammed says. “We can make our own stuff now.” Mohammed will be appearing in another digital show, the upcoming East of La Brea, produced by director Paul Feig, about two Muslim-American women.
“Personally, I’m sick of laughing at white people’s shit,” Shaikh says. “Dick jokes are old. They’re not funny anymore. People wanna laugh at shit they can relate to.”
The Get Brown at Upright Citizens Brigade, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood; Tue., Aug. 14, 9:30 p.m.; $7. (323) 908-8702, franklin.ucbtheatre.com.