The MTA does NOT want riders to laugh. No joviality on the 6 train platform, no smirking on that long connection from the F to the 7, no guffaws, chuckling, chortling, or even wide-mouthed smiling. And we learned that the hard way, because we tried to put up funny posters about a marginalized group throughout the New York City subway system, and the MTA took out a large hook and pulled us off stage.
The Fighting-Bigotry-with-Delightful-Posters Campaign was an outgrowth of our 2013 comedy documentary, The Muslims are Coming!, which used comedy to counter the nation’s Muz-haters. Part of the reason we launched this poster campaign was in hopes of getting more people to check out our film, which stars luminaries like The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black, David Cross, Russell Simmons, Janeane Garafalo and oh-my-God could this name drop be any longer!? (If you haven't seen the film on Netflix, then stop reading this now and go watch it—we’ll wait. Or download the film for $4.99 on iTunes. We’ll still wait.)
Six months ago we approached the MTA to put up funny ads about Muslims in subway stops. At the time a certain anti-Muslim bigot—whom we won’t mention because why add to this person’s Internet fame?—was going to put up a second series of anti-Muslim ads throughout the NYC transit system, or maybe it was the fourth series, who can keep track?
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, coupled with the sheer power of groveling, we raised $19,000 for an MTA ad buy and printing costs. We were relieved. Finally we could get our posters up! Posters like, “The Ugly Truth About Muslims: They have great frittata recipes.” Or a poster declaring: “Beware! The Muslims Are Coming! And they shall strike with hugs so fierce that you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her!”
But raising the money wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was dealing with the MTA. They red-lined the pants out of our ads. For example, we had small print along the bottom of the posters that said “Draw your penis here________,”—you know, because subway posters are like a penis-drawing invitational so we figured we would get ahead of it by satirizing the practice. “Nuh-uh,” said the MTA. Not only that, they made us change fonts! Over 25 percent of our ad was a disclaimer! We couldn’t even use the word “poop”!
The MTA’s editing torture went on for months. At the third month, we reached out to the New York City Public Advocate, Letitia James, for help. Thankfully, James and her staff did just that, and finally our ads were approved in early April. We were told that come April 28, 2015, funny Muslim ads would be gracing 140 subway stations. New Yorkers would really know about our thing with frittatas. The MTA even gave us a list of each and every station where our posters could be seen.
We gleefully printed 144 posters and delivered them to the MTA at a cost of $4,000. We also paid their $15,000 ad space fee. (We stifled vomiting because that’s like several months rent and an untold number of Mister Softee cones.) There we were the night before the posters were scheduled to go up, excited like a coupla kids about to go trick-or-treating. The media was even covering the rollout, there was so much anticipation.
But on April 28, the posters were nowhere to be found. The next day, still no posters. Then, we did what any comedian would do, we began freaking out. Was the MTA reneging on its promise? Did the legal department just realize they had approved ads that might make straphangers actually laugh?
Then on April 29, the MTA changed its regulations about acceptable posters. The new policy restricted “disputed political content”—maybe the MTA considers Muslims who like frittatas “disputed political content.” Our freakout escalated. How could these new rules apply to a decision made a month before? Had the MTA developed time travel? Is any of this fair?
But the words "fair" and “MTA” don’t go together (unless you are talking about “fare,” since the MTA is raising it again). On May 7, more than a month after the ads were approved, after we had entered into a contract and spent over $19,000, we were officially told by the MTA lawyers: Sorry, no funny Muslims ads for you.
We tried to reason with the MTA. We tried appealing to their sense of fairness. We even tried groveling. But to no avail. MTA lawyers made it clear that our ads, ads intended to show that Muslims are ordinary people with a sense of humor (and a sense of hummus), had no place in their New York City subway system.
What’s a comedian to do? A) Forget about the project; B) sneak into the subway at night and put the posters up using Elmer’s glue; C) use the posters as giant coasters; or D) file a lawsuit against the MTA. We chose D.
The Fighting-Bigotry-With-Delightful-Posters Campaign has morphed into the Fighting-the-MTA-with-a-Delightful-Lawsuit Campaign. So on Thursday, June 25, 2015, with the good people at Muslim Advocates and the law firm of Latham & Watkins, we filed a lawsuit against the MTA.
What do we want from them? We want to ride the subway for free forever. But that’s not part of our lawsuit. We are asking that the MTA live up to its promise and put up our posters.
We’re not anti-MTA. The MTA gets us to work on time (almost) every day. It’s a sorely needed public service for millions of New Yorkers. You can eavesdrop on some of the best conversations on a subway platform! The subway is GREAT. But on this score, the MTA is wrong.
Our lawsuit will travel through the legal system slower than the G train. But at least it’s moving. The hope is that in the near future you will see funny posters about Muslims in the New York City subway system. In the meantime, why not check out our film, The Muslims are Coming! It’s a fun popcorn muncher of a flick, and for now at least, the MTA can’t block it.