One of the most-repeated criticisms of NBC’s freshman comedy Outsourced is that it features a narrow-minded portrayal of Indian culture. Nearly every episode features Todd Dempsy, the likable, naïve American who runs a call center located in Mumbai, complaining about how bad the food smells, how outlandish the traditions and holidays seem, or how Puritan the women act when it comes to matters of sexuality and courtship. And despite the reports that Indian test audiences weren’t offended by the show’s cultural humor, for some reason many of the jokes feel like watered down versions of it’s-not-a-stereotype-if-it’s-true observations typical of Mind of Mencia or Birth of a Nation.
For the most part, the show has treated the cultural divide less as a punchline and more as a vehicle for story and character development. (Outsourced is certainly more than just Mike & Molly with Indian people.) Yet I still cringe a little whenever Todd giggles as names like “Harsheet” and “Sukdeep,” or when his American confidant Charlie calls the tradition of arranged marriage “ass-backwards.”
While we’re on the subject of cultural stereotypes in primetime comedies, a friend of mine, a Latino, recently mentioned that it’s difficult for him to warm up to Modern Family because of what he described as a shallow depiction of Latino women. He cited specifically Sofia Vergara’s Gloria, who, on the surface at least, projects the stereotype of the shrill, strong-willed Latino woman who uses her sexuality to control rich, white men. Is that a stereotype, I wondered, and if it is, why isn’t anyone talking about it? Is the Gloria character really that one-dimensional?
Are those who criticize Outsourced for being culturally insensitive guilty of a double standard for not also criticizing the more adored Modern Family of essentially the same crime?
Below are some questionable moments from both shows over the past season:
When Todd and Charlie see Indian men dancing together in a nightclub (a common thing in India), they immediately assume they are in a gay club and refuse to dance (until later, when they’re drunk).
When Charlie hears that Indian couples in arranged marriages wait until after marriage to explore intimacy, he says, “That’s ass backwards. Well, it is.”
Todd’s employees trick him into leaving early from work by telling him it’s a holiday called “Vindaloo Day,” which doesn’t actually exist. Charlie later says that all Indian holidays sound made-up to him.
Manmeet, Gupta and Madhuri tell Charlie, “We need your help,” preparing to ask for his assistance in pranking the snobby call center employees. Before he hears their actual request, Charlie simply responds, “I’m not surprised.” This is after he makes a dismissive comment about “slumdog amputees.”
Todd’s casual shoulder-pats bring up a complaint of sexual harassment. Charlie comments: “Who knows what offends these people? They can’t kiss in public, but they invented the Karma Sutra.”
Todd plays with the statue of a multi-armed Hindu deity as if it was a toy, to the horror of his employees.
When Todd sees Manmeet’s “chick magnet” Halloween costume (a giant magnet with rubber chickens stuck to it), he describes it as an “Indian slaughterhouse.”
Charlie shines a laser sight (presumably removed from one of his hunting rifles) at Gupta’s forehead, exactly where the traditional bindi would be.
When Gloria talks about her sentimental Quinceañera from her childhood in Columbia, she says, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the cartel.”
When the neighbor’s barking dog keeps them up at night, Jay says to Gloria, “I don’t know how one dog keeps you awake when you grew up sleeping through cockfights and revolutions.”
Jay’s neighbor mistakes Gloria’s shouting for the squawking of a parrot.
Jay and Manny fear that Gloria, who Jay tells us grew up mercilessly killing animals, murdered the neighbor’s dog. Describing how she killed a rat: “She left the rat’s head out there to send a message to the other rats.” Gloria responds, “[You think] in Colombia we trip over goats and kill people in the street. You know how offensive that is? Like we’re Peruvian!”
Privately, Gloria admits that in her final two weeks in her Colombian village, she ran over two goats with her car, one of which she finished off with a shovel.
Jay and the family confess to Gloria that they have trouble getting through her thick accent, and that she frequently confuses American expressions. Instead of “dog-eat-dog world,” she says “doggy-dog world”; instead of “blessings in disguise” she says “blessings in the skies”; and instead of “ultimatum” she says “old tomato.”
Jay and Manny compare Gloria’s shrillness to an ambulance siren. Jay: “Honey, people were pulling over.”
When Jay mentions that he “took care of” a reckless employee, Gloria asks, “You kill him?” Jay responds, “You can’t kill people here.”
A quick look suggests that the humor of Outsourced depicts Indians as having strange-sounding names, bizarre religious traditions, and impractical courtship behaviors, while the humor of Modern Family depicts Colombian women as shrill, unable to grasp American expressions, and prone to violence. Certainly the shows are more than that, but if you’re building an argument that either show uses stereotypes, you have enough evidence.
One interesting note: The bulk of the insensitivities in Outsourced are committed by characters who are obviously ignorant, and their ignorance is swiftly called out and punished. When Charlie advises Todd to check the turbans of any suspected “kleptos” while they’re sitting at the lunch table, Todd responds, “Now I know why this seat is always empty.” Meanwhile, in Modern Family, Jay openly (albeit affectionately) mocks his wife, and much of the humor targeted at Gloria comes from her own absurd words and behavior: “He scared the baby Jesus out of me!” The show depicts Jay and Gloria as nice, moral characters, people we’re meant to relate to. Ignorance isn’t punished in the world of Modern Family; it’s laughed off.
Maybe that’s the key. Viewers are willing to let the racy moments of Modern Family slide because the show is very funny. The writers have found a way to bring up potentially controversial cultural perceptions in a way that makes us laugh more than it makes us think and reflect. Its message isn’t cultural tolerance; it’s the unconditional love of family. And, “Aren’t families funny?”
Outsourced, meanwhile, addresses stereotypes as bluntly as an after-school special. “Our people may seem different on the surface, but we’re the same where it counts!” When it tries to joke about that, it just feels a little dirty. That’s not to say Outsourced isn’t funny –- its satire of American culture grows more and more sophisticated with each episode. It’s just that America gets nervous whenever preachers play with generalities, whether they’re politicians using words like “colored” and “Negro,” pundits claiming that Jews control the media, religious leaders crying out against the white man, and yes, comedy programs with overt social agendas making jokes about Indian culture.
It’s unfair to pigeonhole either of these shows as mere bundles of cheap shots at the expense of a particular culture. Modern Family is one of the smartest comedies on television right now, and Outsourced, while still perhaps the weak link of the NBC comedy lineup, is gradually proving itself capable of sharp wit and smart, engaging storytelling.
If we’re going to scrutinize the political correctness of the jokes made in one comedy program, we really ought to consider similar jokes made in all comedy programs. Or, better yet, we can just sit back and enjoy.
And for all the Outsourced-haters: You shouldn’t call the show racist, but you can still hate it because it’s no Parks and Recreation. There’s really no argument against that.
Erik Voss enjoys thinking about comedy.