'Outsourced' Producer Bob Borden on Stereotypes and Sensitivities
by Joel Keller, posted Sep 22nd 2010 5:40PM
The producers of NBC's new comedy 'Outsourced' (premiering Thursday, September 23 at 9:30PM ET) have had to deal with criticisms that most sitcom producers haven't had to deal with. When the original pilot went out to critics, for instance, the show was lambasted for its jokes based on easy Indian stereotypes. But another issue came out that even critics couldn't anticipate: how the issue of outsourcing American jobs to foreign lands is still a sensitive one, especially given the continued soft job market.
But executive producers Bob Borden and Ken Kwapis have taken pains to tell anyone who will listen that 'Outsourced' is more a workplace comedy than anything else. "Cultural jokes won't carry the weight they do in the pilot, in terms of possibly offending people, because we'll have well-rounded characters as we learn about everyone," Borden told me earlier this month.
In our conversation, Borden, who previously worked on 'The Drew Carey Show' and 'George Lopez,' addressed both concerns about the show, some of the characters we'll see, how this is different from the 2006 movie the series is based on, and why there's more than one reason why he's hoping for a second season.
Were you kind of surprised at the tenor and tone of the questions at the press tour? Because we did ask you a lot of questions about Indian stereotypes and things like that. Were you kind of surprised at that?
No, you know what it was? It was just I'm not used to public speaking, and the first question threw me. But it shouldn't have because, you know, these are the obvious angles to write about, especially until you're really seen several episodes. So no, I wasn't, I just wasn't as prepared as I should have been for the first question. But after that, I felt OK. So when people ask about it, they're seeing a clip of maybe someone doing a joke or something, and that's what they're reacting to. And I have in my head all 13 episodes, so we're coming to it from different experiences.
Are you thinking that, people who've seen the show and think it's just going to be about Indian jokes have to be patient?
Well, I don't get too much of that, because maybe I don't get out very much right now. But no, I just hope people'll give us a chance, and when they see the episodes... I was just thinking about talking to NBC about putting up a scene online in episode 3, which is when we find out character Manmeet has been, has the lowest sales numbers and his job's in jeopardy. And we find out while his sales numbers are so low, it doesn't make sense, because he's always on the phone. And what Todd finds out is, the reason his sales numbers are so low is because he's flirting with women all over America and he's not making sales. And for him, this is like a fantasy. He said he's flirting with women from Fresno and Chattanooga and Mobile, things that sound exotic to him, but are anything but to us.
So it's just such a wonderful character scene between the two of them that, when people see that, the other question will be moot about stereotypes. It just won't even be on the table anymore, because we're fleshing everyone out. And you know, cultural jokes won't carry the weight they do in the pilot, in terms of possibly offending people, because we'll have well-rounded characters as we learn about everyone.
And some of it was pretty silly, the sensitivities, invariably, of white critics. A white lady came up to me and said "You have a joke about Indian food, are you worried about that being offensive?" And I thought, you know, my college roommate is Indian, and he's a doctor. And when he goes to India, he brings antibiotics with him. No, I'm not worried about making a joke about Indian food. So some of it, I just take with a grain of salt. And the others, I just hope people give us a shot and see a few episodes.
One of my closest friends is Indian. He's first generation American, and when he goes to restaurants, he asks them to "make it like my mom makes it." He says it in Hindi. Because they don't make it spicy enough for him.
Yeah, when I go out with my buddy, the same guy in that story, if we eat together, they make it white guy spice level. And we always try and tell them, "it's OK, go for it."
Do you think it's a matter of us as critics kind of scoping out what might be a problem and looking for it, and trying to anticipate the sensitivities, rather than just sitting back and enjoying it?
I think so. I think so. I mean, it's just, I understand it, it's just natural. This might be a story, this might be offensive to someone, so let's ask about it. We're not really hearing from the people who theoretically would be offended by it. And a lot of those people, obviously, we're all here at work together. So when something comes up, we talk about it. So yeah, I think it is critics anticipating and some critics maybe are actually sensitive to it and are worried about shows in the past that may have been a little stereotypical, not about Indians, but just other shows in the past. So I think it's a natural angle.
For people who've seen the movie version of 'Outsourced,' how would you describe this as different or similar?
It's similar to the movie in that it's a similar story, basic story, about a guy who gets outsourced around the world. But it's different in that I think we're more of a comedy, and the movie, which was quite nice, was more of a romantic film, or a romantic comedy. And we're more of a comedy, and also, I'm not held to, whatever, 90 minutes. We have hopefully a lot of half hours coming, and so we get to know the other characters better. So we get to delve into characters that didn't have much screen time in the movie, or weren't even in the movie.
Name a character that's in the series that we didn't see in the movie.
Gupta. Gupta wasn't in the movie. And he's, we're having so much fun with him in the series, but he wasn't in the movie.
He's the guy you're scared to get stuck in the break room with. And the idea also was to approach how some of the cultural stuff is very different, but an office is an office, and there's still the guy that will talk your ear off, no matter where you are in the world. And so that was the origin of Gupta's character.
And then the actor Parvesh (Cheena), who's so funny, brought so many different colors to it that now we're adding layers to him and maybe giving him an issue of anger management, which will be fun. Because we've all had the encounters where we're upset with customer service all the way around the world. Well, this is a guy who doesn't have much tolerance for some of the people who call for his patience. So it's a nice twist on things. And you know, one of the biggest differences, when you start to make these with the actors, you see what the actors can do and that inspires you, and you write towards that.
How do you guys treat the outsourcing issue differently, couched in the whole economic meltdown kind of way, as opposed to it being just a way for an American company to cut costs?
You know, we're not approaching it differently, because in either case, even if the economy had rebounded, we were using it solely as a point of departure. And people think we're, "are you going to comment about outsourcing, or what are you going to say about that?" And I'm like no, it's a way to get our character into a different world, and then from then on, we're not really dealing with outsourcing, because I don't want you to think about when this guy's going to go home, and how long is he there, and that kind of stuff. We want you to feel like he's with, in any good TV show, he's with his surrogate family, who are the workers at the call center.
When I wrote about the show, some of the comments I saw expressed anger that people were mining comedy from a situation that costs Americans jobs. Is this something you guys have been conscious of, or you're just saying, "Let the audience just get to know these people, and they'll forget all about it?"
Well, I'm saying... I would never phrase it that way, and I would never do it that way. And they're saying they're laughing at Americans out of jobs. No, this is a reality, and it happens, and this is what takes our character to this other world. No one's laughing at Americans losing jobs. And believe me, if the show didn't go, everyone here would be out of work. So no, we're not laughing at that, we're laughing at the cultural contrast and complex once he gets to India.
So what would you say to those folks, in other words? Or is it just a matter of people are just too sensitive about everything these days?
No, I think that's a legitimate thing, especially because most of those viewers, these are not critics that are usually saying this. These are viewers. And they hear the idea, and they might think the show's about outsourcing. Or they might think it's making fun of the predicament when that's not it at all. We wouldn't do that. It's our point of departure. It's our way to get our character into another world. And it is something that's happening. Most comedies don't have any reference point in the real world, quite honestly. Most dating shows don't. So we're taking something that's real, but it's really where we start, and that propels us, but no, it's the last thing on our mind is making fun of Americans out of work.
Talk to me a little bit about some of the other character types that people may recognize in the office, I guess it's taking place in Mumbai?
Yeah, it's set in Mumbai. But some of the other characters, someone who's really interesting is Madhuri, who actually, honestly, I should know this, but I don't remember her from the movie. I think there was a really shy woman. But she's been fun to get to know, because she is shy, almost pathologically shy, but that doesn't mean weak. And she has this inner strength that's surprising to people when they get to know her. But she has, you know, when all eyes are on her, that's when she wilts. So we're having a lot of fun with her.
And we have an episode in which, our Halloween episode, she wants to go to the party, but she doesn't want to draw attention to herself, so she actually dresses as a lamp and stands in the background at the party, and blends in.
Someone else who's really quite different from the movie is Rajiv, the manager. And again, there, here's an actor, Rizwan (Manji), who's been around, and you may have seen him in things, but he didn't quite have a vehicle, a leading kind of vehicle like this. He has different levels. We start with him trying to get Todd's job. And we don't take that drive away, but we find out that he's engaged to this woman, and that he has to be a manager really to win the parents' approval. And so he's doing everything in his power to get Todd's job. So we have a lot of fun stories with him.
And then also, someone who's a big part of the series is Charlie, played by Diedrich Bader, who a lot of people probably know. And he's just so funny, and he is just, he is the opposite of Todd in many ways, in that he's sentenced to be there. Whereas Todd is trying to make this work, Charlie is just trying to survive. So he's having his food shipped over from home, and he's trying to hermetically seal, try to recreate America there while he's going to be stuck there.
Did you guys get to go to Mumbai and scout out locations?
No. We have someone that can scout them for us, and then, I mean, it's pretty amazing now with Skype now and everything that they can, you can have a video conference and they can show you stuff, and we can steer them one way or the other. If the show succeeds, then we'll be going to India on hiatus. But right now, it's more efficient to have 2nd unit shot there.
When you signed up for the show, did you have a fleeting moment in your mind that you might be taking a scouting trip to India?
Oh I tried to go. I tried to go. But I owed my wife a different trip. So I figured I was about to disappear into production, so I should try and make her happy, and we'll go to India if the show succeeds
So on more than one level, you're rooting for a 2nd season, you know, I guess?
Yes. No, we're excited to go. In fact, we even have our core group of people who are ready to go. But production-wise there was too much to do when you start up, you know, hiring the writers and everything.
You have Indian writers on staff?
Yes, we do. Well, we have American writers who are of Indian descent.
How close were the cast and crew to getting what the culture was like?
Yeah, I think so. I think they've all, all of our actors have been back. Some more than others. Some are more in touch than others. But the majority have family there and have traveled there, and do travel there. And also the writers as well. So we check sometimes. We were using some Hindi, and someone needed to call their mom just to verify we were saying it correctly. So yeah, that's a valuable research for us.
When you're coming up with situations, what has gotten caught by some of your writers where he or she might speak up and say "Hey, that's not how we do it, or this is how we do it?"
Well, someone referred to someone getting something from the fridge in their house, and there was a long discussion about you know, what economic level is this person? Would they have a fridge? We had a discussion about bathtubs. We wrote a joke set in a bathtub, and someone mentioned that this particular character would not have a bathtub. So little details like that have cropped up.
What are your thoughts about being in that Thursday lineup? Does it add pressure to you guys?
Yeah. I feel enough pressure anyway. So I don't feel more pressure because of it. I feel it's an honor to be on there, and you know, we have to hold 'The Office''s audience. That's where the pressure comes in. But it's a pretty amazing chance to get sampled by a lot of people. So that's really all you can ask for, too.
Besides Diedrich, any other familiar names we might see as guest stars or anything coming up in the first season, or at least the ones you've thought of?
Not yet. Not in the first season. We may have some celebrity voices that we never identify as callers to order products, but we're not really doing any stunt casting in the first season. Or the first 13.
So you're not going to be like 'Frasier,' where someone calls and then you put the voice in the credits later on or anything like that?
No, it's just it's more favors from people we know. So they do it but they don't get billing. And then it's kind of a game to see if you can recognize the voice.
Anything else you wanted to tell us about the first season, especially the first few episodes that people are going to be sampling, starting in September?
Yeah, we're excited about the, I might have mentioned this in the panel, that the 2nd episode back is our version of a sexual harassment story where Todd finds out that he has to cover sexual harassment, just to cover the company's butt in case they're sued. So he shows them one of those videos that we've all sat through dozens of times at this point at Warner Bros. and NBC, the sexual harassment video. But he's showing it in a culture where, in most Bollywood movies, the mainstream ones, there's not even kissing allowed. So the video he shows ends up harassing his workers, technically. He sexually harasses all his workers. And so he has to then...and there's a complaint lodged against him, and he has to find out what he's doing. And so it's a very interesting way into a traditional workplace story.