FROM AT&T COMMERCIALS TO COMEDY FAME?
It’s not exactly the sexiest big break you could get. “We’re fine-tuning these small cells that improve coverage, capacity and quality of the network,” says a bespectacled Indian guy to a questioning woman. She’s just seen him climb down a ladder where he and a buddy are fiddling with some wires. The cheap laugh: “Did it hurt?” he asks the woman. “When you fell from heaven?” Eep.
The brown guy in question is Karan Soni, he improv’d that line, and his future is brighter than you’d think.
At 26, the New Delhi-born Los Angeles transplant is on the up and up. Soni played a classic sidekick-geek role in 2012’s Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. Now he’s earned the lead role in a new TV show directed by Paul Feig, the brain behind Bridesmaids and Freaks and Geeks, and landed a recurring role on an upcoming Starz comedy.
The Paul Feig show launches on Yahoo, in a time when — thanks to Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards and Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning Transparent — new online television ventures stand a chance of being the Next Big Thing. At a Los Angeles restaurant, Soni doesn’t present as a tech geek, but he does exude enthusiasm about the future of Web-driven TV: “It’s cool to be, like, in the first wave of it,” he reflects. Watching Soni’s career might be one of many clues about the future of comedy in the YouTube era. As Saturday Night Live’s viewership tanks, might starring in an online show be enough to launch a career?
It could be, suggests seasoned Academy Award-winning producer Tom Nunan, who says newbies are now “bursting in through every crack and window available,” in what was once a “pretty closed community.”
If Soni makes it, he’d join a cohort of increasingly prominent Indian-Americans on television. Take Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar fame, who had a stint on House M.D., where he was cast “color-blind” and played a character named Lawrence Kutner. Or Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation (character name: Tom Haverford). Or Kunal Nayyar, who transforms from scruffy and handsome to geek extraordinaire as Raj Koothrappali on the The Big Bang Theory. Not to mention actress-producer-writer Mindy Kaling of Fox’s The Mindy Project.
Maybe it’s because Indian-Americans seem to be everywhere, from tech to medicine. It’d be difficult to represent Silicon Valley, for instance, without a brown guy. Or a hospital without an Indian doctor. Argue the same for an AT&T job. “Hollywood needs to catch up,” says Josh Stoddard, the co-creator of Betas, an Amazon show Soni worked on.
Soni’s start in acting goes back before his popular commercials (popular enough that he had fans dressing up as his character for Halloween). His first role was Orgon in Molière’s Tartuffe. It didn’t begin well. Thinking acting simply meant memorizing lines, Soni initially played a flat, weak character, agitating his teacher so much that she called him out in front of the drama class. He got better, though, and moved to L.A. to attend the University of Southern California to study business. But, whoops, he accidentally took so many theater classes that he ditched the biz plan. He’s been blessed with many such accidents, like when he was trying to land a role in Safety Not Guaranteed and walked into the audition with embarrassingly windswept hair. The director loved it.
Every Hollywood story is laden with setbacks. “Learning to audition properly was just failing and learning,” he says. Soni got a part as a programmer (sigh, obviously) hoping for his dating app to blow up on Betas, one of Amazon’s first original shows. But it was canceled after 11 episodes. And Soni’s Yahoo role is by no means a happily-ever-after. Besides the obvious troubles of a competitive comedy world, the perpetual threat of cancellation and questions of race, a more democratic shot to the top has created “that much more competition,” says Nunan, who previously led UPN (now the CW) and NBC. Actors have to be more multitalented than ever.
Soni’s new Yahoo show, Other Space, is a sci-fi comedy set 100 years in the future. He stars as the captain of a lost spaceship looking for alien life, where he gets to sport a space suit and say lines like “increase the shields.” He says the show, which premieres April 14, might have the flavor of workplace comedy hit The Office. He’ll also have a recurring role on Starz’s upcoming comedy show Blunt Talk, where he’ll play a newsroom staffer on a fictional cable show. Blunt Talk is expected to air this summer and stars Patrick Stewart.
For now, Soni’s got something to trade on and aspirations of producing. The popularity of the AT&T commercials land him free drinks from fans. And he’s appearing in the movie adaptation of Goosebumps, releasing later this year. Two recent projects are in post-production: B-Roll and Chee and T (where he plays a “very douchey guy” who runs for mayor of Palo Alto). No more techie roles are on the horizon, though. Fitting. He doesn’t even know how to code.