By Adam Brinklow
Parvesh Cheena thought it sounded like a great opportunity: a meeting with producers from the uber-popular comedy site Funny or Die. The 34-year-old actor had just appeared as a regular cast member on the NBC series “Outsourced,” and though it only lasted for a season, it was still a heady experience and he thought it might open doors to better things. “Coming off a mainstream American sitcom we were like, let’s do something different, let’s reach out to Funny or Die.”
So Cheena, his boyfriend Gregory Bonsignore (a screenwriter), and his “Outsourced” costars Guru Singh and Rizwan Manji assembled to speak with the producers, hopeful and brimming with ideas. “We had some pitches that were culturally specific and some that were just funny in general,” Bonsignore recalls. “But they cut us off with, ‘Yeah, okay, but what we really want is, like, what if you guys are Saddam Hussein’s kids?’”
The assembled comedians paused; the entire point of “Outsourced” was that it was the only show on network TV with Indian leads. Did the folks at Funny or Die really not know the difference between India and Iraq?
“They kept going on about stuff like cab drivers and falafel and eventually we wanted to say, all right, are you just listing things you associate with brown people?” Bonsignore says.
Cheena and his collaborators declined to work with Funny or Die on that occasion. Instead they made “…Or Die,” a short film lampooning the events of the meeting itself and the discomfort of being stereotyped for a living. The opening credits bill it as “unfortunately based on real events.” The movie is funny, but it’s also a disquieting examination or how even in open-minded, diversity-loving Hollywood, a gay actor of color has to put up with a lot of crap.
“There’s a little bit of a deal with the devil you make if you want a shot at studio films and network television,” Cheena admits. “In some ways, the movie is a comment on me and how I’m not always brave enough to risk not making rent. Even during the meeting Riz had to kick me a few times under the table.”
“I was pretty shocked when I heard about the whole thing later,” says John Petaja, the film’s editor and co-director. “I mean, we’ve been watching stereotypes all our lives. In some ways this stuff isn’t funny at all, but at the same time it also was too funny not to do movie about.”
The movie has gathered converts on the festival circuit this year, but even promoting it sometimes runs into awkward territory. “It’s gotten into Outfest and into all of the top Asian festivals, but we have trouble getting it into ‘mainstream’ festival,” Bonsignore said earlier this year. “I guess it just resonates better with certain crowds.”
“…Or Die” did eventually manage to break into some more general venues, like HBO’s Bryant Park Film Festival and the upcoming Napa Valley Film Festival in November. “Personally, I want to take [it]to Boise or South Carolina so we can show it to people who have never experienced that kind of thing,” Cheena says.
Nobody at Funny or Die could be reached for comment on the film, but Cheena has appeared in several videos hosted on the site (all produced by outside groups rather than the site itself), so it seems no one’s been permanently blackballed. Yet.