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‘Halal in the Family’: Aasif Mandvi’s Comedy Jihad

First, The Daily Show’s house Muslim scripted The Qu’osby Show, but...oops! So Aasif Mandvi’s new series evokes an even more classic sitcom.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central

The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi has done many things in his career. He’s The Daily Show’s Senior Muslim correspondent, he recently wrote a book, “No Land’s Man,” and, of course, he has played a range of brown characters in movies, from doctors to terrorist number two (and number three.)

But now Mandvi is doing something far different. And frankly it’s not something he had to do; nor is it something that will likely help his career. He has co-created and co-starred in a new web series that’s intended to use comedy to counter anti-Muslim bigotry. The four-episode series, “Halal in the Family,” was launched this week and raises issues about Muslims that we rarely see addressed through comedy.

The series was co-created along with Daily Show producer Miles Kahn and co-stars Sakina Jaffrey (Linda Vasquez, President Walker’s chief of staff on House of Cards) and features cameos from The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee and the lead MC of the hip-hop group The Roots, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, who actually is Muslim. (That’s right, Muslims are little by little taking over the entertainment field.)

I chatted with my longtime friend Mandvi about the issues raised in the series from President Obama being a Muslim to scaring white people to why the Bill Cosby sex scandal matters to this series.

Dean Obeidallah: This entire project was inspired by an unlikely source: Katie Couric. Is Katie Couric possibly a stealth Muslim?

Aasif Mandvi: Katie Couric was actually the inspiration for the concept of a Muslim sitcom. A few years ago she commented that Muslims needed their own version of The Cosby Show in order to break down stereotypes about Muslims. On The Daily Show we thought, why not create an episode of a Muslim Cosby show? So I worked with producer Miles Kahn to shoot a parody of The Cosby show called The Qu’osby Show that featured a Muslim family. We then showed this pilot to a group of conservative Americans, but many didn’t find it believable. Not because the family wasn’t Muslim enough, but because there were no terrorists in the family. It was funny to hear that but also made it clear that for some, Muslim and terrorism are synonymous.

DO: So flash-forward a few years later, and you decide to turn the one-episode Cosby show parody into a series. You raise money, write the scripts and shoot the episodes. But only a few months before its release, the Bill Cosby sex scandal broke. I can only imagine how much that caused a headache for the project.

AM: Well, we were literally a few days from launching a crowd-funding campaign to raise $40,000 we needed to finish editing the project. We had all this material written up about The Qu’osby Show being a parody of The Cosby show to entice people to donate. And then all of sudden there was like over 30 women stating Cosby sexually assaulted them, so we knew that if used the Cosby parody idea it would give out the wrong impression of what the show was about. So that was what led us to change the name to Halal in the Family, which is inspired by the famous 1970s sitcom All in the Family.

DO: Are you worried that one of the actors from All in the Family might get involved in a scandal causing you more problems– maybe Rob Reiner? Actually my bet would be Sally Struthers.

AM: We are not really that worried about that scenario. Although when the Cosby scandal was first breaking, since we had put so much money and work into this, I almost felt like we were rooting for Cosby – not because we didn’t believe the women, just because we were like, our Qu’osby show idea is screwed!

DO: You recently spoke to the man who created All in the Family, Norman Lear. He also created such iconic TV shows as Maude and The Jeffersons. What did he think of the web series?

AM: He liked it so much he actually donated some money to help us produce it. To him, this was exactly the right way to raise hot button issues because that is what he did with his shows in the 1970s and ’80s.

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DO: In the series, you mention that President Obama is a Muslim. Can you tell us definitively is Obama a Muslim?

AM: He absolutely is. We Muslims know it. It’s in our Muslim newsletter. Actually in the series we make a joke about Obama being a Muslim to poke fun at those who love to say Obama is a Muslim.

DO: I know you are kidding, but some on the right will, of course, claim you just revealed a Muslim secret. By the way how Muslim are you on a range of say from secular to ISIS?

AM: Well, I wear lamb-scented cologne, so what does that tell you? Actually I’m more culturally Muslim than religiously but being Muslim is an important part of my identity. I wanted to make this project because as Muslim, I feel it’s important to counter any form of bigotry, be it anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, etc. These forms of hate share a common denominator of misinformation and intentional fear mongering.

DO: In this series you raise some serious issues that I have not seen discussed in a comedic way before. I’m talking actually explaining what the term “sharia law” means to even the idea that the FBI is planting informants in our community and causing distrust among American Muslims because we don’t know if the new Muslim who just joined the community is actually a Muslim or an FBI informant. How important was it to address these issues?

AM: The episodes are short but the hope is that by raising those issues, as well as online bullying of Muslims, it will start a conversation about the issue. It’s not that these episodes will end anti-Muslim bigotry or resolve these issues, but comedy can reach many more people than, say, a serious lecture on the topic. And comedy might just be the access point to reach people who want to be entertained and also learn something.

DO: I know you had to struggle to raise money to produce this. Ironically if you were demonizing Muslims, you could likely raise money easier. In New York City one of the big Muslim haters raised $100,000 for ads on subways and buses to demonize Muslims. Do you think you will have the funds to make more episodes of this series?

AM: What’s great is that people are more excited about this web series than we ever expected. So we now have more people interested in funding additional episodes. Maybe we will see longer format, possibly even a TV show. If people invited Muslims into their home every week by way of a TV show would go a long way to making people feel comfortable with Muslims and countering misconceptions about who we are. Plus, of course, that will make it easier for us to impose sharia law across America.