Rizwan Manji is way nicer than the guy you're about to see him play on Outsourced, the new comedy premiering tomorrow (Thursday, September 23) at 9:30pm on NBC. On screen, he'll star as Rajiv, the back-stabbing Indian branch manager who's in constant competition with Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport). But off screen, he's a doll. I spoke to Manji about his new gig and the many parts he's played on high-profile shows.
TV.com: What attracted you to the show?
Rizwan Manji: During pilot season we get to read a lot of scripts for different shows, and if there’s anything that you’re remotely right for, your agents send you scripts of different things. And I had read Outsourced I think, fairly early on, before they had even sent out a casting notice. But I think it was maybe the fifth or sixth pilot that I had read, and I think I laughed the most at it. It was very funny, but because I’m Indian I related to it on a completely different level as well. So it was exciting for me in that way. If there was a show that I wanted to get on this season, it was that show, right after reading the pilot. It changed a little bit when we shot it, and even in the final cut, but right off the bat, it was definitely one of the funniest pilots I read all season.
What is it about the show that makes it so funny?
Well, there’s that whole relationship, this whole culture clash thing.... There was another pilot that I read for, and some other stuff, where you have that one minority character and the joke’s on that person. You know what I mean? It’s like you’re there to be the butt of the joke, and there was something different in Outsourced where I felt like it was equally placed. [Todd, the American guy who moves to India to run a call center,] was coming into a place where he was the minority, so it was this weird situation where he was putting his foot in his mouth a lot, but it was balanced.
Is the show going for laughs or is it trying to make a political statement?
I think the main thing is it’s entertainment, and it’s a comedy, and we’re there to make you laugh. I think there’s a lot of concern, especially with the "outsourced" thing and whether or not there’s going to be political points made, and that’s really not what this show is about. It is a comedy similar to The Office and the other shows on Thursday night, where you have these office stereotypes ... and you’re going to come in each week hopefully wanting to learn more about these characters and laugh at these characters. That’s the absolute main goal of the show, to have this half an hour where you can meet these characters that you’ve never met before because there’s never been a sitcom that’s been in another country with a primarily South Asian cast. Now, of course, if you learn a little bit about India, that helps as well.
What kind of audience do you think the show is trying to attract?
I’m hoping that it’s going to have a broad audience. I definitely find that the South Asian community has rallied around it. There have been several magazine articles already from the South Asian community that are very supportive of the show. But it’s that audience that loves those shows like The Office and Community and Parks and Recreation, and those single-camera comedies with an ensemble cast—that’s the audience that I think is going to really respond to this.
Do you think the show will run into any problems for portraying or perpetuating Indian stereotypes?
You know, I get that question a lot. It’s hard ... I’m now on Episode 5, and there are five Indian main characters in this show. All five of them have their own stories, their own quirks. It’s hard to see a stereotype because there are five different human beings, and as the stories go along they go in depth and you’re meeting their families and friends. So ... I’m not concerned about the stereotypes, because they’re really going in depth with these characters and you’re laughing at their quirks. It's not like it’s just one episode where you meet this guy and he has a funny accent and you laugh at it. I mean, [if that was the case,] how could any producer or director or network say this is really going to sustain itself for a whole season? They have thought this out. There is thinking behind it of where these characters are going.
That's good to hear, because the whole Indian-accent joke is overdone.
Yeah. And the thing is, at the end of the day, this is a sitcom that takes place in India. These characters live in India, were born in India and have never been out of India. So they are going to have that Indian accent. But I hope you’re not laughing at the accent. I think that you’re laughing at their story. And there is a [character] who won’t stop talking—he's just, you know, in the break room you just want to get away from him. That’s a funny character, and it's not about the accent. And my character is the opportunist who is trying to stab you in the back. That’s really not about the accent. You know what I mean? I hope you’re laughing at the story of Rajiv wanting so desperately to be the manager of this call center and not because I said something in a funny accent.
Can you tell us what to expect in the first season of Outsourced?
I think I can tell you a little bit! The next episode that we’re going to shoot is focused on my character, Rajiv, and it’s called "Jolly Vindaloo Day." You find out a little bit more about why Rajiv is so focused on wanting to become the manager of the call center—he’s engaged to this woman that he’s loved since elementary school, and he cannot marry her until he has a higher income and social status, because father-in-law won’t allow it. So he basically tells Ben that there’s this state holiday called Vindaloo Day.... Everybody goes home and takes a half day so that Rajiv can pretend to be the manager of the call center when his father-in-law comes in ... It truly doesn’t work out the way Rajiv thinks it’s going to work out.
In the past, you've appeared on shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Better Off Ted. Did those comedy experiences help you with Outsourced?
You know, I always felt like I was more of a multi-camera guy. Three’s Company was my favorite show growing up, and I thought, "That’s what I’m going to do." But It’s Always Sunny... and Better Off Ted are both single-camera comedies, so they gave me a feel for how to be funny when there’s nobody in the audience laughing at you. From a theater background, you always feel validated when you have an audience laughing. And single-camera comedy is hard because all the crew and camera have been instructed not to laugh because there can’t be a laugh track.
You also did parts on dramas like 24 and FlashForward and Three Rivers. Do you prefer drama or comedy?
I feel more comfortable in comedy. Even when I started off in theater, it was mainly comedy. With the recent political climate, and because of the way that I look, I get a lot of 24-type stuff coming my way. But I always felt that the reason I got into the business is because of comedy. So maybe the drama stuff was a little bit more of an adjustment.
And I can't help but ask about your small role on Glee. What was it like to be on that set?
It was a lot of fun. Actually, the day that I was on the set—I was only in that one scene, where I tell Lea Michele's character that she has tonsillitis—I was there for like 12 or 13 hours shooting because there’s a song sequence in there and all that stuff. I had a great time, but it was the day that I was waiting to hear whether or not I’d booked Rajiv on Outsourced. I’m glad I had something to do, because it kept my mind off it. As soon as the takes were done I would run to my phone and be like, “Did they call yet? Did I get the job?” I think at 5:00pm, I wasn’t even finished shooting, and I got the call saying that I booked [Outsourced]. And then, of course, the rest of the day was awesome. That’s how I remember Glee.
Outsourced premieres Thursday, September 23 at 9:30pm on NBC.
Follow TV.com writer Stefanie Lee on Twitter: @StefAtTVDotCom