From Mira, Royal Detective to All-American Girl, comedian Aparna Nancherla reflects on TV programs that highlight Asian American and Pacific Islander culture, and also had an impact on her trailblazing career.
Her list recognizes the groundbreaking AAPI comedy pioneers and creators who have paved the way for more representation on television.
Mira, Royal Detective (Disney) - This is an animated show for kids that I am lucky to be a part of. It's the first cartoon featuring an all-South Asian cast with a female lead. The writers and creators have done a meticulous job of making sure the show is culturally respectful and sound. During voiceover sessions, even my pronunciation would be double-checked, just to be safe! It's something I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid, and I'm so glad South Asian kids today are seeing themselves centered on screen more and more, not to mention witnessing their culture depicted as more than just a stereotype. Am I biased because I finally get to play a self-absorbed, vapid teenager? Maybe.
The Mindy Project (Fox/Hulu) - I have been following Mindy Kaling's work since her unforgettable character Kelly Kapoor on The Office, as well as her whip-smart, hilarious writing on the show. She brought the same sharp sensibility to The Mindy Project, a groundbreaking sitcom featuring a South Asian lead who doesn't fit into many of the same old conventional tropes of a Hollywood leading woman in the best way. My favorite part of the show was that Mindy didn't always make the most palatable decisions or say all the right things; it's rare that you get to see a female character be anything but likable. Guess what? Women aren't perfect either!
All-American Girl (ABC) - This was the first sitcom I saw as a kid featuring a Korean-American as a lead (and incidentally the first ever), as well as a majority Asian cast, way back in 1994. I loved that it adapted as much of Margaret Cho's unapologetic act to network television as it could, as she is a comedy pioneer in her own right. It also paved the way, a mere twenty (cough, cough) years later for the hit ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, and the more recent Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens on Comedy Central.
The Night Of (HBO) - The first drama I've ever seen featuring a British Pakistani lead, the incredible Riz Ahmed. Not only was the show gripping but Riz went on to win an Emmy for his work on it. Not too shabby!
Killing Eve (BBC) - A captivating drama featuring a queer relationship between a female serial killer and a female detective, played by the indispensable Emmy-nominated Sandra Oh. Now in its third season, the whole show is a series of destabilizing twists and turns that keep you clutching at your couch. Not to mention I'll watch Sandra Oh in anything, even a screensaver.
Master of None (Netflix) - The first show I've seen of its kind with a South Asian male lead, Aziz Ansari, and co-created by Aziz and Alan Yang to play with tone, genre, and POV. I loved that Aziz's parents play his actual parents, and the show goes in all kinds of directions in exploring themes. I really appreciated an episode in the second season that was from the perspective of various New Yorkers, including a deaf character.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell (FX/FXX) - This was a late-night series I wrote for that aired in the early 2010s featuring a Black progressive host. It was my first writing job and I was lucky to get to be in one of the most diverse rooms in late-night history of its time. The room included two South Asian writer-performers (myself and Hari Kondabolu) as well as a Japanese American writer-performer (Kevin Kataoka). We often got to do first-person segments on air speaking to issues we were passionate about, whether that was the depiction of Apu on The Simpsons or something less overtly political like a story about a Russian man's unexpected but triumphant encounter with a bear...can you tell that the latter was one of mine?
Patriot Act (Netflix) - This groundbreaking late night show featured the first South Asian American host, the effervescent, magnetic Hasan Minhaj. It won a Peabody Award, in no small part due to its tackling of topics that many white hosts wouldn't be able to touch, such as anti-Blackness in the Asian American community, as well as criticism of India's elections. Hasan was able to speak to both a wider audience as well as a more specific one at the same time...something for everyone.
A Little Late with Lilly Singh (NBC) - The first late night show ever featuring a queer South Asian woman host, and a long time coming, though it will be ending after two seasons. Hopefully, the first of many more! Lilly Singh is a charismatic trailblazer, not to mention I love to see a strong statement blazer on my screen.
STAND-UP COMEDY SPECIALS
Ali Wong: Baby Cobra (Netflix) - Ali Wong is a force of nature. This hour-long comedy special blew everyone away, myself very much included, though I've seen Ali doing her thing for years. It was signature Ali: irreverent, fierce, and the fact that she was eight months pregnant when she filmed it? Iconic.
Comedy Central Presents: Sheng Wang (Comedy Central) - Sheng Wang is one of my favorite comics and a peer who I'm lucky to also call a friend. His style may be low-key and unassuming, but then his punchlines hit you upside the head; it's the funniest idea you can imagine off the simplest premise. He may be Chinese American, but his act never relies on tired stereotypes or pandering. The world deserves more Sheng Wang in whatever form possible.
More articles celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.