'Outsourced' creator defends Indians' portrayal
Ken Kwapis responds to stereotype accusationsKen Kwapis understands that the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to India isn't particularly funny. But the executive producer of NBC's "Outsourced" is betting that Americans will see the humor of what it's really like inside an overseas call center. The half-hour comedy, which premieres Thursday in NBC's plum post-"The Office" time slot, is the latest for Kwapis, a rare TV and film double threat.
The Hollywood Reporter: Having directed the pilots for "The Larry Sanders Show," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "The Office," among others, you have launched some pretty big comedies. How did "Outsourced" come to you?
Ken Kwapis: I fell in love with the 2006 feature film "Outsourced" and asked the writers and director if they'd be interested in adapting it for television. They loved the idea. I pitched it to every network, but NBC really wanted it. My pitch was very simple: Whether it's a paper company in Scranton, Pa., or a call center in Mumbai, the petty foibles of office life are universal.
THR: Did you have a particularly nightmarish call-center experience that inspired you?
Kwapis: I remember traveling through Canada once and my luggage was lost, and when I called Air Canada, they transferred me to India. So I was talking to an Indian trying to track down my luggage in Calgary. I completely forgot about my luggage and just wanted to harangue the poor call-center worker. I think that there's a grand American tradition of being angry at customer service reps, and that intrigued me.
THR: Americans' interest in Indian culture has spiked since "Slumdog Millionaire" swept through the Oscars in 2008. How key was that film to getting "Outsourced" off the ground?
Kwapis: Well, two key things helped the show. One was the regime changed at NBC. Angela Bromstad came aboard and loved the project. The second was "Slumdog." It helped assure the network that mainstream audiences could be interested in a story set in India.
THR: The show has already been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and making light of the loss of American jobs. How do you respond?
Kwapis: A lot of people ask me, "Why would Americans want to watch a show about something they're angry about?" Well, first of all, networks don't program shows on a whim, especially one set in India and populated almost entirely by Indian actors. The pilot was subjected to pretty grueling test-market research screenings.
THR: Have you taken any other specific steps to ensure cultural sensitivity?
Kwapis: Well, for one, a third of the writing staff is of Indian descent. But any story about a culture clash is going to deal with stereotypes on some level. The real question is: Are we trying to perpetuate stereotypes? Absolutely not, we're trying to explore them. We're trying to humanize these characters. This is all about putting a human face on the voice at the other end of the phone line. What frustrates me most is when I hear people who are angry about outsourcing and they hang the problem on the call-center workers themselves. As if the Indian call-center worker has the power to decide to bring jobs there! My hope is that for an audience, the show will allow you to basically go around the world and meet someone who, lo and behold, is fundamentally no different from yourself.
THR: And has the feedback from Indian-American test audiences been positive so far?
Kwapis: It's not only been positive, but people are thrilled at the thought that so many actors of South Asian descent are appearing on a network television show. I have a friend in San Francisco who told me he's already heard of people are planning viewing parties there.
Kwapis: (Laughs) When I did "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," a lot of my friends were like, "Uh, you're making a film about four girls who share a pair of magical blue jeans?" But the emotional content (in that movie) was so powerful and so relatable. The challenges of that film were basically doubled when I got to "He's Just Not That Into You." I know it was marketed as a chick flick, but I never thought of it that way. A lot of my male friends came up to me after seeing the movie and said, "I'm surprised at how much I liked it."
THR: What's the biggest difference between directing for TV and film?
Kwapis: The stakes are high in both. One of the beautiful things about working in television, though, is that things are not as precious. If you try an idea and it falls on its face, you pick up and try something different next week.