It’s not every day that a mainstream American TV show has four popular South Asian actors on screen at the same time. Friday’s episode of The Soup did just that, causing a momentary double — make that quadruple — take for some of us. Kunal Nayyar (Big Bang Theory), Danny Pudi (Community), Maulik Pancholy (Weeds, 30 Rock) and Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar, House) showed up on the E! channel’s pop culture TV series to take part in a comic sketch with host Joel McHale (Community).
Watch it for yourself in a clip from the episode:
The sketch has Pudi, Penn, and Pancholy playing a prank on McHale, fooling him into thinking that each one of them is Kunal Nayyar. At one point, all four show up on screen at the same time to confound him. Nayyar admonishes McHale with mock severity: “It’s not right to get us all confused just because we’re all brown.” The four actors then confuse McHale with various white actors, including his co-star on Community, Chevy Chase. It looks like the actors enjoyed appearing together on The Soup and shooting the sketch.
— Maulik Pancholy (@MaulikPancholy) September 26, 2015
I wonder if the sketch strikes some of us as funny because it just seems ridiculous? McHale isn’t difficult to distinguish from Chase and it’s likewise hard for some of us to imagine that someone would mistake Kal Penn for Danny Pudi. But, is it also funny at some level because the sketch has an element of truth to it? After all, people do confuse these and other brown actors with each other on occasion.
Proof that we are actually different humans. Fun shoot. Enjoy! https://t.co/ZhpeD2aodU
— Kal Penn (@kalpenn) September 26, 2015
Maybe it’s because Hollywood film and TV screenwriters overuse the name Raj, or because South Asian actors get cast in similar kinds of roles (like foreign exchange student, for example) at some point in their careers. Another reason for white audiences confusing brown actors could have to do with cross-race identification and facial recognition. Confusion of popular African American and Asian American actors happens too and difficulty with cross-race identification appears to have a scientific basis, as recently discussed in a New York Times article “The Science Behind ‘They All Look Alike to Me'”.
It is not bias or bigotry, the researchers say, that makes it difficult for people to distinguish between people of another race. It is the lack of early and meaningful exposure to other groups that often makes it easier for us to quickly identify and remember people of our own ethnicity or race while we often struggle to do the same for others.
The article also shares information from a psychology professor that “minorities tend to be better at cross-race identification than whites” because “they have more extensive and meaningful exposure to whites than the other way around.” Those insights from research on cross-race identification don’t mean that South Asian viewers can’t fail and misidentify South Asian actors too. In a real-life incident from earlier this year that could have inspired Friday’s sketch on The Soup, Salon TV critic Sonia Saraiya confused Kunal Nayyar and Kumail Nanjiani in her review of HBO’s Silicon Valley. (Salon later included a note of correction near the top of the article.)