In 2010, protests erupted in New York City over plans to build an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan two blocks away from the World Trade Center site.
In response to this news, journalist Katie Couric remarked, “The bigotry expressed against Muslims in this country has been one of the most disturbing stories to surface… Maybe we need a Muslim version of The Cosby Show. I know that sounds crazy, but The Cosby Show did so much to change attitudes about African-Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
Now, five years later, that show finally exists—though, maybe not quite as Couric imagined it.
Following Couric’s comments back in 2010, The Daily Show eagerly took her challenge, with Aasif Mandvi, the show’s “Senior Muslim Correspondent,”creating a spoof segment called “The Qu’osby Show,” featuring a Muslim family set in that “after school special”style.
“We took that literally to a sort of hilarious extreme,”says Mandvi, “Really a Muslim Cosby Show, sweater and all.”
The popular segment attracted the attention of advocacy organizations and non-profits dedicated to equal rights for Muslim Americans, and over the next few years, Mandvi says he started seeing interest in turning the project into a series itself. After a successful Indiegogo campaign, Mandvi and a team including Daily Show producer and director Miles Kahn turned that idea into a reality, by creating Halal in the Family, which launched April 9th on Funny or Die.
“We took all the tropes from this type of comedy,”says Mandvi. “It’s the clueless dad, the smart mom, and the precocious kids. We used those character types as landmarks for people to understand that this a family you can relate with, but they’re also talking about issues that we don’t get to talk about this much.”
The show discusses everyday issues, from government surveillance to cyberbullying.
“We were working with a number of advocacy organizations and Arab-American groups, and so we asked them, ‘What are the issues you are working on? What are the issues that come up for Muslim Americans?’”explains Mandvi. “And they told us surveillance, protesting at mosques, cyberbullying, and media bias, so we took those issues and said, ‘How can we show these in that familiar format of an American family sitcom?’”
The resulting segments show Mandvi’s bumbling dad character (still rocking a Cosby-style sweater, which he swears is “from Urban Outfitters!”) act skeptical upon meeting a white Muslim, whom he assumes must be an undercover spy, and coach a teen bully targeting his daughter on how to be a “better bully,” pulling examples from one politician’s real-life discriminatory tweet about Muslims.
“We wanted to say something into the culture about issues that people are hearing about or have questions about,” says Mandvi. “The goal was always that it had to be funny and entertaining first and foremost. I think we actually managed to do that: to create a show that’s very funny, while talking about all the issues that are going on out there.”
In what has been a banner year for entertainment that breaks down racial barriers, Halal in the Family’s web layout may offer the most comprehensive approach yet towards tackling discrimination. Below each episode on the show’s website are additional facts about the issues at hand, broken up by sections as “The Issue,” “Numbers You Should Know,”and “Learn More & Get Involved.” This allows viewers to fully engage with the content, even offering them the option to start creating change with just one click.
Currently, there are only four episodes of the series, each clocking in under 10 minutes long. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself binge-watching the entire show in one sitting, left eager for more.
Luckily, Mandvi says he is up for the challenge of making more episodes, but to make that happen, the show needs to continue getting clicks and generating buzz, as a way to let industry executives know that audiences want to see diverse families like the Qu’osbys on screen. Mandvi also wants to prove that a show about Muslim Americans isn’t just for, well, Muslim Americans.
“The audience is just the average American. The obvious audience is Muslim Americans, that’s its obvious demographic, but I wanted to reach sort of heartland of America,” he says. “It’s not just focused on Muslims, but on the greater issues of racism and bigotry, because we are dealing with issues that don’t just affect Muslims. You know, everybody understands that these are things we should be talking about more, and comedy provides an access point.”
So, the next time you’re looking for a laugh, give Halal in the Family a try—it’s officially “Funny or Die”approved, with each episode sliding favorably on the “funny” scale—and support this innovative attempt to raise awareness about Muslim American issues.
Watch the series here, or check out their Indiegogo teaser video below:
Colleen Hagerty is a freelance multimedia journalist. She has spanned the globe with her camera in hand to share unknown, interesting, and inspiring stories. Some of her recent segments have taken her from Thailand, where she spent a night on an uninhabited island, to Australia, where she covered a rare disease affecting Tasmanian Devils. She started her career at NY1, reporting on major stories including Hurricane Sandy and local elections. You can follow her on Twitter @colleenhagerty.