Race + Comedy: Goatface Confronts Expectations in ‘Pilot Season’ [Culturelicious]

Illustration by Caitlin M. Boston

By Guest Contributor Caitlin M. Boston

Have you heard the joke about the time that two Indians, an Afghan, and an Iranian-Greek guy who walked into a bar and hatched a plot to take over the world?

That’s exactly what happened when Asif AliHasan MinhajFahim Anwar, and Aristotle Athiras got together in late 2011 to form Goatface Comedy, an LA-based sketch group working to blow up and out of the stereotypical roles that Hollywood is set on casting them in.

The paucity of opportunities for Brown actors in Hollywood is what ultimately motivated the group to start producing their own comedy shorts. “I’m not even making this up,” said Athiras, who serves as director for the group’s videos. “Fahim got a part on Chuck. His [character’s] name was ‘Manusch,’ then he went out [to a new casting job] for another part called, ‘Manisch,’ and then for another part named ‘Maneesch,’ and these were [all for] different pilots…it was like, come on, some of this is ridiculous.”

Minhaj, who had a recurring role on the ABC Family show State of Georgia, says each of them could tell a similar story on being cast as a stereotype. The four even shared an example of the time they all went out to audition for an Indian character on a “very popular sitcom,” only to find out the character was being rewritten as white.

“They said his name doesn’t need to be ‘VJ,’ let’s make him a ‘normal guy,’” says Minhaj. “But I got cut out because his name’s not ‘VJ,’ his name is ‘Ben.’ Well, why not just make me Ben? You’ll only be a ‘VJ,’ or a ‘Manush,’ if you’re lucky.”

In talking about Goatface’s origins, Athiras is blunt: no matter how hard they work in Hollywood, as Brown comedians and actors they’re going to be marginalized.

“We’re always going to be a character actor,” he says. “We’re going to be playing this stereotypical version of our fathers or our uncles who are not from this country and so I knew that the only way for us to actually cross and to kind of make it into a mainstream audience is to do this on our own. We had to create our own ideas. Ultimately, we know that the group is the only real way to have full control and a way for us to be shown in a way that we can shine.”

At auditions, Minhaj says, any given show’s actors are listed in descending order. So, for example, Steve Carrell would be listed at No. 1 for The Office prior to this season. The group’s members would find themselves decidedly lower in the pecking order.

“We’re always six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he says.  ”So at best we would always be these marginalized characters. And what [Athiras] really brought out of us is that we could be one through five. We can be the leading men, we can be the Steve Carells, we can be the one through five [if we make our own product]; that was the empowering thing.”

With over a decade of experience in stand-up comedy and acting combined, their videos - posted on the Goatface website - have tackled topics ranging from the “darker side” of Domino’s pizza focus groups, to the appalling reality of the NYPD Muslim surveillance initiative. (NSFW – language and threats of gunplay)

The group’s first project together, “Pilot Season,” highlighted the absurdities that tend to underlie Hollywood casting opportunities. In the video, Ali and Anwar star as rival comedians constantly pitted against each other for the same POC-centric parts. It’s a stylized version of what the four have experienced going up for jobs so far, with most of the concept inspired by a conversation that Anwar had with another comedian.

Given how it goes to a rather dark place, it also carries a Trigger Alert.

The idea of two POC comedians vying for the same POC-oriented role is nothing new though.

“[Dave] Chappelle would talk about how with Black comics, when he was on his way up, they just wanted him to be a version of Chris Rock and oftentimes they actually pitted them both against each other,” Minhaj says. “And that’s why he has some level of resentment towards the greater machine because he’s like, ‘We’re two Black comics trying to make it, we’re both from the same blood the same mud, and yet you’re pitting us both against each other.’”

Unfortunately, stereotypical expectations aren’t just coming from “mainstream” casting agents either; all four say they see the same expectations for stereotype-oriented work coming from within our own community.

“You know, we’re doing a certain type of comedy that we hope our community responds to,” Anwar says.  ”And yet I almost feel like, they haven’t caught up to …”

“There are some people in our community who still want us to do culture show skits,” interrupts Minhaj, “where we dress up as our mom and dads [and put on heavy accents]” he finishes dryly.

Even with the difficulties that come with being cast for paying work at all, the members of Goatface say they have limits. Minhaj says he was asked to do a voice over on “a very popular cartoon,” but turned it down because it would have required him to play a terrorist.

“The reason why I chose not to do it is because there’s already these negative stereotypes about Muslims, that we’re terrorists, that we oppress our women, and that Islam is bad,” explains Minhaj. “These are already put upon us, these demonized characters. The only things that I will say no to are things that make me ask, ‘What am I adding to the discussion?”

Taking those limits into consideration, the group acknowledged the difficulty of breaking in to the mainstream at all.

“We look at what we’re doing here, what anyone who gets the gumption to come out here to think they’re going to try and make it in LA,” Ali says. “[The market] is so oversaturated that everyone’s trying to find their little piece of the pie and notice them. So if any Brown guy, or any person of ethnicity, anytime any of us moves up a little bit, it makes everyone else’s life a little easier.”

Only three months since their inception, Athiras take on why the group will succeed is simple: their audience is out there, they just have to penetrate their consciousness.

“I know definitely there’s a group of people out there,” said Athiras, with conviction. “A large contingency, a group of people in the United States that are just like us and they’re just waiting for somebody to be funny that looks like them. And we will reach them and when we do reach them, we’ll get those metrics, we’ll get those numbers and those subscribers, and … yeah.”

To listen to Caitlin’s interview with the members of Goatface, click on the player below. (Note: two instances of NSFW language)