Goodness gracious, Peter Sellers is alive

Here’s a crude parody of Indian TV by Jay Leno’s Tonight Show (air date unknown). This is a purposely lame clip — its sin is its artlessness. Two of the cast members are wearing brownface, and the accents and turbans are all wrong. ‘Sanjay Leno’ isn’t wearing a turban, he’s wearing a helmet from the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María. The white guy with his ears exposed is wearing Smurfette’s cap, not a patka. Wajid, the actor playing the Kevin Eubanks-like sidekick, isn’t bad, but then he doesn’t have to make a cultural stretch. Watch the clip.

You know what’s happening – some people are nostalgic for Peter Sellers. They prefer the crappy approximation of desi culture they grew up with rather than the real thing. The Americana which relies on mocking India badly (calling Apu Nahasapeemapeemapetilon) has, over time, become comfort food. No wonder the original title of Goodness Gracious Me was Peter Sellers is Dead.

Yeah, yeah, we all love The Simpsons. Does anyone remember when it first came out? Heh, heh… hey, wait, that shopkeeper with the long, fake last name, limited social intelligence and shit-eating grin, that wasn’t cool. Like a cancer survivor missing his tumor, like an East German missing the Wall, every poison, once custom, is remembered with fondness.

… producers were initially concerned about making the character Indian. “We were worried he might be considered an offensive stereotype,” producer Al Jean once said. “But then we did the first read-through, and Hank said, ‘Hello, Mr. Homer,’ with his accent, and it got such a huge laugh; we knew it had to stay.” [Backstage]

You see? It’s ok as long as you can mimic Mr. Birdie Num-Num (or as long as it’s funny: hoisted by our own petard?)

Ah, that accent, that accursed Peter Sellers accent. The one that no actual desi actually uses. Oh, there are many desi English accents. I could catalogue half the subcontinent for you. Some are even quite funny. The one used by Sellers, Leno, Hank Azaria? Never heard it in the wild. That’s a Sellers original, a bad simulacrum invented for comic value. What happens when desi actors in Hollywood are asked to stop talking the way they talk and do the fake one, ‘You know, do Apu’? They swallow their pride and do it.

“I walked into the audition, and the casting director said ‘Where’s your turban?’ I said, ‘I don’t wear a turban. I am not a Sikh.’ I started to explain the difference but she got very upset and said, ‘Well, can you go home and put on a bed sheet or something?”

They don’t want India. They want the American conception of India circa the Dark Ages. All the Leno people had to do was ask the desi actor they’d already hired. Andrew Huff has some interesting commentary on the pervasiveness of this stereotyping in America:

Case in point, today’s column by Richard Roeper in the Sun-Times, in which he discusses the heckling of Sikh golfer Vijay Singh:

What cracks me up about this incident is the utterly tame nature of the heckle: “Hey Vijay, I think Annika could have put it in!”… that sounds like something you’d hear if you couldn’t properly load the Slurpee machine…

Properly load the Slurpee machine?!? Comparing a pro golfer with a convenience store owner? WTF?! I know Apu is a dearly loved Simpsons character, but about the only more negative stereotype Roeper could have chosen would probably be donut shop owner. There’s no way Roeper would have approached such an image had the golfer been black — the racial discrimination lines are too well drawn there, and he’d have Jesse Jackson on his ass in a minute. But since Singh is an Indian, and there are so few Indians in America, it seemed he felt this little insult could slide. After all, it’s just what Indians do, right? Run convenience stores and donut shops and drive taxis? Right?

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36 thoughts on “Goodness gracious, Peter Sellers is alive

  1. You know what’s happening — some people are nostalgic for Peter Sellers. They prefer the crappy approximation of desi culture they grew up with rather than the real thing.

    Was this offensive? I certainly didn’t find the clip offensive – just another one of Leno’s typical wry humor routines. I’ll admit that the “hotter than chicken vindaloo” bit gave me a chuckle or two.

    As I see it, this is no different than the way Apu, the classic proxy of Indian culture, is characterized on The Simpsons. Is Apu similarly offensive? Although it helps that The Simpsons is usually much more funnier than The Tonight Show.

  2. Apu Nahasapeemapeemapetilon with the fake last name and the bad Indian accent? Yeah, Apu bugs me.

    Was this offensive?

    ~rewind~

    … its sin is its artlessness.
  3. Manish, I understand what you are saying but I think too many people on this site are getting wayy too uptight about cultural comedy. I’m cool with stuff like this– I don’t like stuff like what the Jersey Guys did. Yet, I still believe they have the right to say whatever the hell they want on the air. I just wouldn’t listen to it. I dont live in Jersey anyway. I’m a west coaster!

  4. Yep, I’m very uptight about crappy pop culture. It’s a total waste of time. Guilty as charged.

    West Coast stereotypes of desis are vastly different from East Coast ones.

    By the way, the radio stations are given a channel-specific monopoly on the airwaves by the government. Because the FCC then blocks your use of that spectrum, the stations in turn are required to adhere to certain minimum standards.

  5. Manish, I understand what you are saying but I think too many people on this site are getting wayy too uptight about cultural comedy. I’m cool with stuff like this– I don’t like stuff like what the Jersey Guys did. Yet, I still believe they have the right to say whatever the hell they want on the air. I just wouldn’t listen to it. I dont live in Jersey anyway.

    Pornogarphy is defined by its lack of redeeming merit (artistic, political, or otherwise). I find straight-up cultural stereotypes like this Leno bit more offensive than some of what the Jersey Guys said–the parts which actually had a political point about identity politics, voting blocks, elections, representation of White working class people, etc., amidst the racist claptrap–because the Leno bit really had no redeeming features (except, like Manish points out, if you’re a fan/student of racist camp).

    But that’s a little elitist of me and perhaps even obtuse–even when the items in quesiton aren’t obscene, the more artistic or sophisticated they are, the more they’re able to mask racism or other forms of discrimination under a veneer of sophistication (e.g. a lot of “States Rights” rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s). Even in the cultural realm, it’s a lot easier to attack the Jersey Guys or Jay Leno or even Anne Coulter than, say, critique the racism in some of what comes from someone like Dennis Miller or Dave Chappelle (who I hope is okay).

  6. Some people intellectualise too much. A simple test in all these situations: Replace the said offending sketch with similar crass stereotypes of African-Americans or Jews, playing up their language, accent, speech, grammar, clothes, names, and see if they would survive it. Bring on the fried chicken eating stupid southern ‘Negro’ or the crooked nose money grasping yiddish speaking New York Jew, and think on what reaction those sketches would get, and ask yourself why they would get those reactions. Simple really.

    Now bring on the cringing saps who say ‘dont upset whitey’ be grateful for our Green Card, oooh yeah, dont be puerile, blah blah blah.

  7. Some people intellectualise too much. A simple test in all these situations: Replace the said offending sketch with similar crass stereotypes of African-Americans or Jews, playing up their language, accent, speech, grammar, clothes, names, and see if they would survive it. Bring on the fried chicken eating stupid southern ‘Negro’ or the crooked nose money grasping yiddish speaking New York Jew, and think on what reaction those sketches would get, and ask yourself why they would get those reactions. Simple really.

    Well, yeah, it’s offensive–that’s the obvious part. “But what does it mean?” is the more interesting question.

  8. Well, Goodness Gracious Me. Hmmmm, just one more reason not to watch Jay Leno. Seriously, why do people watch that show anyway? Never understood it. His chin kind of freaks me out, to be honest. And he’s so smarmy nice. Yucky.

    I so much preferred Johnny Carson.

  9. Oh, and totally I get the part about thinking that desis can ‘only’ be taxi drivers and convenience shop owners, but what’s so ‘only’ about that? I’m not talking about the stereotypes or abuse of such stereotypes, here. I’m talking about issues of class within the Indian community. Sometimes I think that the more educated desis are somehow embarrassed by this and I don’t get it. What’s wrong with being a taxi drive or convenience shop owner?

    (I’m not saying that’s the point Huff is trying to make – he is making a completely different point, one I agree with) I’m trying to make a different point and maybe Saurav, good lefty, can help this poor deluded righty here! And I have had my coffee this morning, thank you very much. mr. manish :)

  10. I’m trying to make a different point and maybe Saurav, good lefty, can help this poor deluded righty here!

    hmmm…”good lefty”…interesting. i like to think of myself as more of a long-winded, neurotic, deeply flawed human being. But that’s close enough, i guess.

    now who am i supposed to fix, md? i wasn’t clear.

  11. Should we be overly sensitive and uptight about people peddling stereotypes? More often than not stereotypes have a grain of truth in them and they do not lead to generalizations.

    Stereotyping humans is just an example of our brain’s capacity to cluster information and put labels on it. Remembering every exemplar of a category (which in this case happens to be person of indian origin) is not very useful.

    Take Ben Stiller’s role in “meet the parents”. It was considered by some jews to be an offensive stereotype of an impotent jew! (http://www.newyorker.com/critics/cinema/?050124crci_cinema)

    Why cry foul about stereotypes when we can attack them with our very own viciously stereotypcial white caricatures? incestual, inbred trailer trash hulking red neck with a golf ball sized head I sure would love to see those in a movie or cartoon strip done by an indian

    Some people have done more serious research on stereotypes and they don’t find them horrible

    http://members.optusnet.com.au/~jonjayray/stereo.html

    from the abstract…

    Stereotyping is seen as a strategy of successive approximations towards valuable generalizations in an environment of restricted information. Stereotyping does not cause racism.

  12. Saurav – I was just being silly, didn’t mean anything by it.

    No, I’ve read a lot of your stuff with interest. What I meant was, don’t you think a lot of class prejudice exists within our desi community? That material wealth and success is sort of the way we judge ourselves and others?

  13. Okay, I’m not desi but I always think that Apu is the nicest person on The Simpsons. Also, aside from Lisa, he’s probably the smartest as well. It’s just that he’s also long-suffering.

  14. In that stupid clip notice the bit about Calcutta and reference to “lepers” ??

    See the damage that has been done to the image of Calcutta… Everything about Calcutta and India is about poor people and lepers and in general a hell on earth.

    The loss of tourism revenue, business revenue (due to people not willing to go to Calcutta) is in the untold millions.

    But than the western “artists” (effing posers if you ask me) have to always make a documentary about the suffering of the people in Calcutta and how the horrible moral-less people of India cant do anything about it. Sad is that such phonies get Oscar award and people clap.

    Its SICK !!!

  15. Okay, I’m not desi but I always think that Apu is the nicest person on The Simpsons. Also, aside from Lisa, he’s probably the smartest as well. It’s just that he’s also long-suffering.

    He does have his positive aspects but overall he’s a caricature (the name, the accent, the job) and that’s irritating

    It’s understandable, given that many of the characters in the Simpsons are exagerrated portrayals (Wiggums, Flanders, Burns etc). The problem with Apu is, as pathetic as this is, he’s the most prominent South Asian on television

    Not to take his role too seriously, i’m sure people take him for what he is, but its just annoying that he represents us to the masses rather than someone better

  16. Jay Leno has no respect for anyone different from himself. He was just as rude and flippant when the Fab Five from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were on a year or so ago.

    He’s no Johnny Carson, that’s for sure!

  17. its sin is its artlessness.

    Although you wrote it, I don’t believe you. I mean no offense, but from the context of the article, I get the impression that you’d be offended even if this was funny

  18. Conan O’Brian did a really funny bit about India a while back. Like everything else on his show (and unlike Jay Leno), there’s no pompousness, and no condescending attitude.

  19. Should we be overly sensitive and uptight about people peddling stereotypes? More often than not stereotypes have a grain of truth in them and they do not lead to generalizations.

    Hmm so I guess Black people really do disproportionately sit on porches a whole lot and eat a lot of fried chicken and watermelons? Can we go on air and make fun of them for that? Excellent point by PB. Replace the brown with the black or jew and its taboo. Just because desis make money in this country (US), we want to cater to the man and front like racism doesn’t hurt us or our identity politics. It is that attitude that inhibits true progress. (And all the class stuff…cue Saurav…:) )

    Conan O’Brian did a really funny bit about India a while back. Like everything else on his show (and unlike Jay Leno), there’s no pompousness, and no condescending attitude.

    GREAT example. Conan’s bit was a LOT funnier, and not offensive in the least. Honestly, Leno’s bit didn’t even draw a smirk from me, it was stupid, and derived 100% of its “comedic” value from stereotype. Conan’s bit was ingenious by comparison (riding around in the cart, doing the bharat natyam dance, hitting on the outsourced telephone operator…wow).

    I used to dislike Apu on the Simpsons but I’ve seen over half the episodes now and realized that Italians, redneck, Scots, Brits,Hispanics, lawyers, real estate salespeople, TV execs, all get made fun of too, sometimes a lot worse than Apu. IF only they would make fun of African Americans to the same extent I would have absolutely no problem with Apu. (Equal opportunity)

  20. Saurav – I was just being silly, didn’t mean anything by it.

    no worries, then. I’m oversensitive.

    What I meant was, don’t you think a lot of class prejudice exists within our desi community? That material wealth and success is sort of the way we judge ourselves and others?

    Yup. Also status and carryovers from caste and other prejudices from desistan (at least in the desi community i grew up in). I think a lot of upper class professional desis from that community had their status lowered and had to do a lot of things they never expected (like living a middle class or working class life and being subjected a lot of racism) and now they take it out on other desis who are suffering to try and separate themselves out from them in the eyes of the imaginary White person or their parents or whoever’s standards they’re judging themselves by. The good ones understand that they shouldn’t pass it on, but all human beings don’t deal with abuse very well, and it’s understandable (to me, at least), that they’re not rational about it. Just something to work on.

  21. … I get the impression that you’d be offended even if this was funny…

    Great humor is an incredibly valuable gift. It puts you in a forgiving mood. It’s why Russell Peters mostly skates by.

  22. I really think the heart of the hurtfulness is that there is so little else out there. If we got to represent ourselves more, it wouldn’t matter as much if other people made fun of us. But we usually don’t.

    Context also matters. I think the reason the blackface-substitution analysis doesn’t completely work is because it’s not about desiAmericans–it’s about India*. The real subsitution is–could they have made a version of The Tonight Show in Japan? A sushi joke, a geisha girl, a samurai sword? I’m thinking they could have. I probably wouldn’t have thught it any funnier, but whatever the Japanese equivalent of Sepia Mutiny is might not have cared much. My guess is that young Japanese Americans wouldn’t feel as hurt as we do. But I also think this country is overwhelmingly better informed and more respectful of Japanese culture, and while there’s plenty of cultural appropriation, there’s also plenty of buying-your-stuff-from-the-source and sincere, respectful attention. It probably helped that after the war there was a concerted effort during the occupation to create extremely friendly relations. But somehow the intense amount of racism that was generated during the war seems to have gotten diluted over the last 50 years. There is so much other stuff–good stuff–in the relations that cheap jokes and stereotypes lose their power, it seems to me. I think they’ve had marginally better luck at getting American screen time, and Japanese films certainly get more play and respect even thought they’re often as delightfully unAmerican as Bollywood stuff.

    Perhaps that’s all wishful thinking on my part since I relate to Japanese culture as just another American, not particularly Indian at all, and I don’t want to be seen as a cultural appropriator or exoticizer. But I do think if we put ourselves out there in a positive way we will eventually reap the benefits. Sadly, irritating as all this is, I don’t think complaining about it will help much.

    *Is it just me or are desi-Americans particularly more attached to their various homelands than a lot of other similarly successful, post 1965 Asian groups? Why is that?

  23. Check out this article in the NYT about Calcutta.

    A couple of interesting paragraphs : “But the tradition of freestyle intellectual conversation lives on in Calcutta. The city (officially renamed Kolkata in 2001) has an oral culture as lively and cerebral as that of 1950′s New York or Paris. “

    Another One “Tell a Calcuttan you went to his or her city looking for good talk, and there is a moment of incomprehension, followed by relief. The fear is that you will bring up Mother Teresa, who did a lot for the poor, according to the consensus, but dealt a body blow to the city’s reputation, engendering an entire industry of squalor”

  24. A couple of interesting paragraphs : “But the tradition of freestyle intellectual conversation lives on in Calcutta. The city (officially renamed Kolkata in 2001) has an oral culture as lively and cerebral as that of 1950′s New York or Paris. ” Another One “Tell a Calcuttan you went to his or her city looking for good talk, and there is a moment of incomprehension, followed by relief. The fear is that you will bring up Mother Teresa, who did a lot for the poor, according to the consensus, but dealt a body blow to the city’s reputation, engendering an entire industry of squalor”

    Honestly, what Westerners think of Calcutta is a minor problem compared to the fact that the Lefist government evicted poor people to make way for a fancy new mall downtown that sells overpriced cds and clothes and contains a pizza hut (which is delicious). I sat in the foreign-passport ticket office for Indian railways in calcutta last year and it made me Thank God (or whoever i pray to on a given day) that Calcutta isn’t overrun with Western tourists.

    Anyone who’s have ever been to Calcutta or talked to people from there in other places knows exactly how lively, entertaining, and funny the adda is. While it’s nice for the city to be recognized, I don’t need the New York Times’s approval.

    Now if only they could bring some mughal ruins in from delhi to make it just perfect:)

  25. I was more pointing towards the “Mother Teresa” effect on Calcutta. I should confess that I havent been to Calcutta, but have some Calcuttan freinds who have very strong opinions about the bad image of Calcutta. I dont think Calcutta needs approval of NYT or book on Mother Teresa by Christopher Hitchens (Whom I dont agree with anything else) it would be good if Calcutta ‘d been left alone from judgement.

  26. The real subsitution is–could they have made a version of The Tonight Show in Japan?

    Well here’s an interesting take on Good Morning (Japan).

    As Manish said,

    Great humor is an incredibly valuable gift. It puts you in a forgiving mood.

    The clip isn’t just funny but it contains an interesting clash of cultures

  27. That infamous Peter Sellers accent is not entirely his creation. I mean, the guy was a force of nature and wildly original, but the accent was a learned one.

    I heard Pandit Ravi Shankar speak on NPR the other day. I am telling you, it was Apu and Hrundy V. Bakshi, right there, channelled through the maestro’s voice.

  28. it would be good if Calcutta ‘d been left alone from judgement.

    I think that could be said for most places that have been “studied” or defined by the West. I’m sure Bangkok residents aren’t thrilled with being identified with sexual tourism.

    Anyway, I don’t fundamentally disagree with you; I just think there are other things that are more important. To each his/her own, I guess.

  29. Manish, you seem to be missing the point completely about accents. An accent is what the other person hears. What sounds “subdued” to you sounds “Apu-esque” to others.

    So maybe Apu’s and Bakshi’s accents came from an Indian celebrity or maybe they did not. But that’s how it sounds to the creators of those accents. Big farking deal.

  30. An accent is what the *other* person hears. What sounds “subdued” to you sounds “Apu-esque” to others.

    Dude, you’re comparing a clown voice to Louis Armstrong, and it’s insulting. Maybe you can’t tell the difference, but most people can. That’s why native Indian English speakers are asked by Hollywood directors and drunken friends to change their accents and ‘do Apu.’

  31. About a year or so back, Conan O’Brian also did a bit where he claimed to be trying out new opening bits for his show.

    One of them was a hilarious bit tailored after many of the cliched Bollywood movie themes. It only lasted about ten seconds, but I was on the floor laughing! It was quite true to the Bollywood tradition of maybe 10 years ago. I would have to believe that Conan, or someone on his staff is an afficianado of Bollywood.

  32. Hi

    What about stereotypes in bollywood movies? I am a Sikh and it becomes irritating sometimes when the only sikh characters i see are loud, boisterous and downright insulting. Their turbans are perched like hats and half their beards are in their mouths. I dont find it funny but my friends assure me they do, and they are suprised when i feel angry. But on the other side i see positive images about my community shown too, as harworking, brave people but its very rare.All i say is dont overdo things in order to make others laugh, you shouldn’t make some cry or hide in shame.

    Manmeet

  33. well… it’s possible to make “ethnic” jokes without malice.
    There’s a show here Comedy Inc that parodies Indians a fair bit – they were doing Deepak Chopra’s yoga self-defence the other day, and an earlier episode did a hindi song sequence with sock puppets. These werent ignorant caricatures. I am pretty certain some of the writers are very much in tune with indian pop culture through their friends in their off-screen lives – hardly the closet bigots. Then I remember Tom Green punishing some elderly Indian gentleman in one of his guerilla interviews. But it was silly, not vicious, and Tom was just being an ass. Another example. Then in the song by the Bare Naked Ladies, the singer sings some gibberish in a high falsetto to (apparently) mock Yoko Ono. The point I am making is that sensitivity to this humor depends in part on the intent of the comic, and in part on how the recipient feels in relation to the comic.