Want to get audiences to think? Get them to laugh first.
Veteran standup comics (and Muslim Americans) Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah put that axiom to work when they co-directed The Muslims are Coming!, their documentary premiering at the Grand Illusion on Friday. The movie chronicles a free, all-Muslim comedy tour the duo organized through America’s heartland, intended to raise awareness of Islamophobia across the Deep South and the Bible Belt.
Like any comedy showcase worth its schtick, The Muslims are Coming! generates laughs aplenty. The styles employed by the featured standups range from the universal (Maysoon Zayid describing her cerebral palsy-induced shaking as “a little bit Shakira [and] a little Tickle Me Elmo”) to the blunt (“Oh, yeah, there are big plans to get into the clit-chopping business,” Farsad quips when she hears about the far right media’s paranoia over Sharia law). Meanwhile, insights from media celebs like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow bracket the routines and on-the-street stunts. The end result manages to have its socially aware cake and eat it too, with copious comedic frosting and a twist of genuine open-heartedness no less.
We caught up with Farsad and Obeidallah to chat about their movie, about staying funny while staying on-point, and about Dean’s search for Lemon Iced Tea Snapple in America’s Bible Belt.
Islamophobia’s been an issue in America for a while now. What spurred this particular comedy tour and movie?
Negin: When Obama was accused of being a Muslim, I was like, “Holy crap! This is an issue.” Why is it so horrible to be a Muslim? When did it turn into an accusation? After 9/11, okay, you’re going to have a spike in Islamophobia. Even though it’s never right at all, ever, I at least understood it. But 2008 and 2010 seemed like high-water [marks] for Islamophobia: there was an ongoing war, and Islamophobia was being used as a political wedge tool to galvanize voters. At that point we were like, “We’ve got to do something.” And that also corresponded with the Obama thing and the Park51 controversy.
You’ve gathered an impressive lineup of figures in the comedic and the socio-political worlds to provide commentary and perspective on the issue.
Dean: We were really thankful, frankly, that this diverse group of really well-known people took the time to participate. And most of them aren’t even Muslim. The point is that it’s not really about Islam, it’s really about America and the idea of freedom of religion.
Negin: We could’ve made this movie without any of the celebrities, but it wouldn’t legitimize what we were doing as much. We sort of needed these heavyweights to come onscreen and be like, “Yeah, it totally sucks to hate on Muslims for no reason.” Just having the voice of Jon Stewart, and having these respected broadcasters like Rachel Maddow or Soledad O’Brien talking about it, really takes the message to another level.
Residents of progressive cities like Seattle will definitely have their stereotypes about people living in the South upended, in a good way, by your movie. Were you surprised at all about how accepting folks were in that part of the country?
Dean: Yeah. I went to the South with preconceptions about them, that it would be much more negative—that people would be more in our faces and saying horrible things to us, and I’m happy I learned that people are really open-minded. This is really a live-and-let-live nation.
Dean’s search for Snapple Lemon Iced Tea recurs a lot in the film’s narrative. Have you approached Snapple for a sponsorship or endorsement at any point?
Negin: [laughs] We really should. If they actually saw the movie, they’d think it was a great endorsement of Snapple. Who knew Muslims were so into it? That could be a whole new market for them. Honestly, we made the entire movie so Dean could get free Snapple. We say that it’s social justice, but really...
Dean: ...It’s a clever infomercial.
The movie strikes a pretty happy medium between humor and social awareness. Was that difficult to achieve?
Dean: I think our biggest discussions were over that. Negin reminded me all the time to not forget that this was a comedy, because sometimes I was pushing for more substance. In the end, I feel really good about the balance we found, but it was a struggle. We had hours and hours of footage that we had to get down to a 80-minute feature. And it couldn’t just be an 80-minute speech combatting Islamophobia point by point.
Negin: We tried to remember that if this was gonna be a comedy, someone can make a good point, but it needs to be sandwiched between two jokes. Otherwise, the audience completely turns off, it turns into a lecture, and everyone wants to kill themselves.
Between the comedy and the issues you present, there’s definitely fuel for another documentary feature. Have you thought about exploring some sort of follow-up?
Dean: The Muslims Take Manhattan would be my dream sequel, but Miss Piggy couldn’t be in it, for obvious reasons [laughs].