In sunny Los Angeles we have two seasons: early summer and late summer. Early summer is January – April, or what the industry calls “pilot season.”
When I first heard “pilot season,” I imagined a sky filled with planes twirling around awkwardly and crashing into each other as young pilots learn to fly. Turns out that’s exactly what LA’s pilot season is! It’s chaos and clutter, all of us scrambling around unsure of what we’re doing, networks and actors frantically trying to make fledgling scripts fly, and, at some point, almost everyone crashes. Kale smoothie splattered everywhere.
It’s weird how airplane pilots are expected to successfully lead us to our destination, while TV pilots are generally expected to fail. Thousands of new TV show ideas are written each year but only a slim few make it to the screen, and even less will continue to fly the skies of television. The rate of failure in TV is about 99%, and thus pilot season is the time of year when all of LA competes to be the 1%.
And, as an actor, where do I fit into this? That’s right! Playing the token brown guy! Indian, Pakistani, I can even do Guatemalan if you let me practice my accent. “Ver ihs everibodhi??” Wait, that’s Indian. Or Pakistani? I don’t even know anymore. Casting directors sure don’t. One recently asked me if Lebanon was in India. I wanted to reply, “Only when I’m sleeping with an Indian chick, right!?”
But it’s all good, I can also go for the ethnically-ambiguous comic relief role, like Fez from That 70s Show. I wonder if they actually wrote his role as ambiguous or if the casting director just gave up trying to figure out what country Wilmer Valderrama was from. If someone pulls some strings to get me a serious role, I could grow out my beard and play a terrorist on Homeland. Alllahallahalah! [Throws bomb] And scene. The possibilities! By the way, I’m not complaining. I love it! I know I’m not a veteran actor and I don’t have the mainstream buzz to get considered for lead roles like “Jonathan” or “Dave” yet. I have a “look” and a couple of stand-up gigs under my belt; right now, that’s all Hollywood has to work with. Sure… And Hollywood is racist. Systematically and shamelessly racist. But as long as diversity on TV is en vogue, I’ve got a one-way ticket to the promised homeland!
Talk about being in the white place at the white time, am I white? No? Fifty years ago, American TV was FWBW (for whites, by whites), as were most things. Not saying it’s “bad,” just the way it was. Time went on, our nation became more diverse, and we developed movements like affirmative action and not calling people by their racial slurs. As a byproduct, getting people of color on TV became important. Not just to promote the look of equality, but to capture the views of the growing ethnic audience. Because mo’ views = mo’ money. And for networks, mo’ money is not a problem at all!
That said, TV diversity has a long ways to go. America is currently as diverse and colorful as it’s ever been, yet the framework of television evolves slower than the population. First off, consider America’s wealth distribution: In 2011, the median wealth of white households was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. Even though they’re no longer the majority of the population, white folks still hold the majority of the bank. Networks know this, and since they’re driven by advertising, and those ads target the viewers with the money, catering to white audiences needs to be a top priority. Anything else is ratings suicide. Secondly, the CEOs and board members of the networks are still overwhelmingly white. I mean, why wouldn’t they be, it’s consistent with the distribution. Point is, even though there’s diversity at the bottom, there’s not really diversity at the top. Check it out: even the CEO of Univision is white. Univision!! Ayiyiyi! (Guatamalan dialect)
Please don’t mistake this for a piece about why I should be a CEO. (Though that would be really, really awesome and I do check Craigslist daily for openings!) All I’m saying is that when the priority target audience of TV is still white, and so are the top decision-makers, television “diversity” tends to be as ethnically authentic as Taco Bell. Maybe Chili’s on a good day. It’s FWBW diversity, like a diversity training handbook for beginners. Consequently, it’s rich with stereotypes of what we think people of other ethnicities are like, avoiding horrifying stuff like sharing actual culture. God forbid we’d even learn some of their weird languages! Sure it’s funny to be ignorant of other nationalities, but you can only pull the Fez trick once. Early in my comedy career I wrote a joke that didn’t fit my voice, but could be done well by a black comic: “ABC! All ‘Bout Crackas! NBC? Nothin’ But Crackas. CBS? Cracka’ Bull Sh*t. FOX? Focusin’ On Xenophobes, you feel me?”
Sure, there are numerous people of color performing on and writing for TV as well as shows that transcend racial division. “Funny’s funny” (probably first said by a white person). I’m not saying that we need to perfectly balance the diversity on TV so it’s proportional to the population. In fact, I believe that’s a bad way of going about it. If we cast all our shows so that there’s a white, a black, a brown, a gay, etc… It’s going to taste like artificially synthesized rainbow candy. Unfortunately, a lot of the roles I go out for feel like this. Like they just added a brown guy for the sake of adding a brown guy. “Hey, there’s our friend Raj!” Raj: “Hello friends! Just eating some samosas and certainly not cows!” “Oh Raj!” Good shows are about good characters and relationships. When diversity becomes a focal point, our characters and relationships become skewed and unnatural. How many groups of friends have one sole brown guy? Last I checked, brown guys most often come in packs. (“Ver ihs everibodhi?!?!”) Same with Asians, Blacks, Mexicans, and gays; there’s rarely a token anything. Humans roll like birds of a feather, so how real is it to have a cast of three white guys, a token black, and a token brown? Not very real to me. At the same time, I could write a show about five brown guys that would be very true to my life, but would anyone in Kansas watch it? Well, if it has solid characters, relationships, episode ideas, and a killer production value, maybe. Who knows, Five Browns could be the new hit on ABC, and ABC could stand for All Brown Comedy, and I could host all the game shows!
Again, I’m happy with the opportunities that I’m granted because of the need for diversity on TV, it’s just a bit overwhelming to be using my race as an audition VIP pass day after day. We live in a world where politics, race, economic status, education, and skill are inherently intertwined. So, end of the day, this doesn’t have to do with my race as much as it has to do with social structure. There’s no single person to blame, but I will say that showbiz has this tendency to side with ignorance over learning. The moment you inject something educational into a TV show, people start to lose interest because it reminds them of the news, or school. Sure, the problem is society, but we in the TV industry are the gatekeepers and master influencers of society. With the right effort, we have the potential to make learning about other cultures both funny and entertaining without perpetuating the same stereotypes over and over, feeding the masses what they want like they’re animals, incapable of evolving. And I know this because the same principle holds in comedy.
I guess I just forget that a lot of people in this industry aren’t college-educated. And I know I should probably keep my mouth shut until I write an award-winning TV show. But seriously, if I hear one more casting director ask me if there’s a difference between Middle Eastern and Indian, I’ll pull out a map and show them what 3,000 miles looks like: a flight from Hollywood to New York. Which is what I’m hopping on as soon as this godforsaken pilot season ends.
“Ver ihs everibodhi?!?!”