Review: The Chicago Humanities Festival Presents Aasif Mandvi at Northwestern Law School’s Thorne Auditorium (October 30, 2015)

When asked where he’s “from,” Aasif Mandvi might have a hard time answering. He was born in Mumbai and raised from early childhood to his teenage years in Bradford, England. His family then moved to Tampa, Florida, where he graduated high school and attended college as a theater major. After a stint working as a performer at Disney World in Orlando, he moved to New York City to develop his acting chops. There, he landed the job that would make him famous: correspondent for the Daily Show.

From that geographically diverse background comes the title of Mandvi’s new book, No Land’s Man. On Friday, he spoke at Northwestern Law School’s Thorne Auditorium in a conversation with comedian Brian Babylon as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Although Mandvi insisted he’s an actor, not a comedian, his comedic talents were on display from the start, as he had a little fun messing with the lightning-quick stenographer providing subtitles on the screen behind him for his every word. “Woa woa woah! Zip-ity-do-da!”

He then shared two funny stories from No Land’s Man. The first, a recounting of the lead-up to his performance as Michael Jackson at his high school talent show, was revealed to be an only-in-America kind of story in which imitating the King of Pop served as a proxy for his desire for an American identity. His commitment to nailing every detail of the performance proved to be unsettling for certain members of his Indian, Muslim family but a hilarious part of Mandvi’s storytelling.

In the second story, Mandvi gave us an idea where some of his comedy genes came from. After describing his parents’ journey from India to England to America and showing his appreciation for the sacrifices they made, he revealed their practical-joker side in an anecdote involving their sharing a glass of yellow liquid with Aasif’s sister that may or may not have been urine.

In a conversation with Brian Babylon and subsequent Q & A with the audience, Mandvi delved into some serious issues, although infusing his thoughts with plenty of humor along the way. He discussed problems of diversity – or lack thereof – in Hollywood, the challenges of being typecast as the “brown” guy, and his ambivalence about being dubbed the Daily Show’s Senior Muslim Correspondent. It was also during this discussion that Mandvi showed a clip from his own current comedic project, a sitcom-parody web series called Halal in the Family. The show centers around a Muslim father who just wants his family to be as all-American as possible, while facing absurdly, darkly funny bits of Islamophobia along the way.

Aasif Mandvi made clear that his main passion is acting, both dramatic and comedic. But on this night he showed that his talents are wide-ranging, from funny, detail-rich storytelling to captivating a live audience with his intellect. His book, No Land’s Man is currently available everywhere, and his web series, Halal in the Family, can be seen on Funny or Die. The Chicago Humanities Festival continues through November 8.

John Palys

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