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Howard's Fanny

Howard Stern has been poking fun at Indians. He is just not too good at it.

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All one can say about Howard Stern, boring he is not. The unusually long romp into sex, sexuality, gossip, innuendo and downright raw radio has to be one of the most enduring entertaining features of radio. There is good reason to believe that radio is different because of Howard, no matter how one evaluates the content. There is no doubt, and as Howard himself loves to brag (he has made it a shamelessly brilliant art form), he is the originator of a number of ideas.

There is a lot one can credit Howard.

Howard was on the forefront of making fun of things Indian. That is not to say Peter Sellers did not do it before him, but no one brought it to the crass and populist level that Howard has. As he spoke of his own Transcendental Meditation or some self-indulgent rants of Indian Gurus, either with his mocking of accent or the goofy music that plays in the background to invoke everything Indian, his ridiculing was subtle, strong and straightforward, all at the same time.
 
For the past two years, since Sept. 11, 2001, to be precise, Howard has been mocking and ridiculing the Arab population as well. Whether he is imitating Osama or some other terrorist of East Asian origin, he prominently mocks their accent. But in this area, his skills seem limited. Somehow, he has generalized the Indian accent as the accent of all Arabs or anyone who is brown skinned and not of South American origin. In this attempt to shape the trends of popular culture, Howard Stern has been innovative, but limited, effective, but unimaginative.

Now any talk show host, comedian or anyone else who imitates the accent of Arabs, ends up doing what Howard Stern does, but all of them exhibit a tinge of Orientalist bias and an unimaginative laziness.

And that is my complaint. It is not that he or anyone else is insulting Indians by generalizing a mockery of Indian accent onto that of the other's, but he is depriving us of the legitimate privilege of being ridiculed exclusively. The problem is not that we are likened to Arabs, but that the talents of those who can are falling short of figuring out that Arabs are different from Indians. And in the process, we must forgive them the burden of finding out the variety of accents within India, which could all be made fun of. Come on, if you are making fun of others, can't you atleast be good at it!

And that's the other complaint. Apu on The Simpsons opened up a new avenue of exposure of our ethnicity, but the jokes have stopped being funny. And in general, the jokes about Indians have been quite lame. They can't seem to get past making fun of accents. Chris Rock is good damn good at what he does and there is a long line of comedians, from Henny Youngman to Mel Brooks and from Woody Allen to George Carlin who at some time or the other have taken imaginative digs at this or that ethnicity. But really, the jokes about Indians are just not that good. Could it be that you guys just don't know enough about us! Or, is it that you haven't had enough Indian food! Or, that all you have eaten of Indian food has been limited too. Just as Punjabi food passes for Indian food, perhaps Indian accent passes for all things Indian.

This has to get better soon, one hopes. We look to American comedy for its energy and creativity from Charlie Chaplin and Groucho to Chris Rock and Richard Pryer. And we lived through the era of so called Political Correctness. Good humor makes you forgive everything. A good laugh is the best glue that sticks people together. If you have been good at it, you ought to get better at it. We miss Peter Sellers. Sometime it appears as if no one has been that good at making fun of Indians since his film The Party in 1968.

A final note. Don't wait for Indians to poke good fun of Indian ethnicity. They don't seem to be that good at it either. 

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | November 2003

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