I was at dinner the other night with a friend who used to work a big-time website that shall remain nameless. We were discussing a scene from the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley by Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butthead fame). In the series premiere, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the CEO of a fictitious Google-esque entity called Hooli is observing his employees and says: “It’s weird—they always travel in groups of five, these programmers. There’s always a tall skinny white guy, a short skinny Asian guy, a fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.” My aforementioned friend says it’s pretty true, with him being the skinny Asian guy.
Set in Palo Alto, the show focuses on a Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch) and his departure from a huge internet corporation to be the CEO of his own start-up that’s on the verge of being the next big thing. Each show has been funnier than the next, providing crude and clever humor that only Judge can create with a cast of brilliant comedians and comedic actors, including Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani (more on him later), Martin Starr, and Zach Woods.
In terms of racial demographics, let’s take a look at the ethnic makeup of the real Silicon Valley. In 2013, CNN Money did an investigation on diversity in Silicon Valley and found that the largest tech companies mostly have white and Asian males in the ranks. In one company, Asians made up almost 43 percent of the professional workforce. However, of the 20 companies investigated, only a few of them were willing to divulge their workplace diversity.
The show fulfills the South Asian quota in the form of Dinesh, a programmer at a start-up played by Kumail Nanjiani—a comedian who deserves your attention. Besides a couple of other background characters peppered throughout the show, Nanjiani is the only Asian actor in the forefront.
A little bit about the Nanjiani: he was born in Karachi, Pakistan and was raised as a Shi’ite Muslim. He moved to the United States where he attended Grinnell College in Iowa. It was there that he slowly became an atheist and he explored this in his one-man show, “Unpronounceable,” where he talked very openly about growing up in a strict Muslim family in Pakistan and then moving to America at 18. It was here that he developed a knack for comedic storytelling and his own irreverent style.
Comedy nerds will be very familiar with Nanjiani. He’s been performing stand-up comedy for years and has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Conan. He most recently had his first stand-up special, Beta Male, on Comedy Central. In addition to co-hosting his own video game podcast The Indoor Kids with his wife Emily Gordon, he has been on numerous podcasts such as Girl on Guy hosted by Aisha Tyler (from Archer) and Harmontown hosted by Community creator Dan Harmon. On the show, he shares even more stories about his life as a hardcore Muslim turned atheist.
Some may recognize Nanjiani in bit parts from TV shows like The Colbert Report, Veep, Portlandia and the hilarious Bachelorette web series spoof, Burning Love. Silicon Valley is the second TV show where Nanjiani is a series regular (the first being TNT’s Franklin and Bash). The first couple of episodes, we see him in a couple of scenes where he cracks some of the funniest jokes with such a strong, hilarious cast. In one episode, he encounters a stripper and nervously avoids getting a lap dance by acting like he doesn’t know how to speak English. In the same episode he talks about how he never shook a woman’s hand until he was 18 years old (which is actually based on his own real-life experiences as a test engineer in the ’80s) so getting a lap dance would just be too much for him to handle. In another, he constantly berates his Canadian co-worker for being in America illegally. Nanjiani is proving to be a talented comedic actor and it’s about time we saw him in a role like this. That said, we could always afford to see a bit more of him in future episodes—and I am sure we will.
Dino-Ray Ramos is guest blogger from the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media. This is also crossposted at Comcast’s XFinity Asia.
Main image: Actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars in HBO’s Silicon Valley.