It's not a new phenomenon that comedians have used their unique performance platform to address identity politics and encourage gradual shifts in attitudes through their comedy. More rarely do comedians intentionally travel outside of their comfort zones to perform free shows in unknown parts of the country, facing potential prejudice to make their audiences laugh.
This is precisely the approach taken, however, in the upcoming documentary, The Muslims are Coming!, premiering Friday, Oct. 19 at the Austin Film Fest, from directors and stars Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. The comedian filmmakers will also perform live in a special standup showcase at the New Movement Theater the night prior.
The Muslims Are Coming! is a comedy road movie like Patton Oswald's now-classic The Comedians of Comedy, with a mix of today's freshest standups traveling across the country doing their shows. Standups Preacher Moss, Omar Elba, Maysoon Zayid, Kareem Omary, Aron Kader and Scott Blakeman join Farsad and Obeidallah on the road.
But as most of these performers are also Muslim Americans in addition to being comedians, the film has the added purpose (and sometimes tension) of introducing urban and rural audiences across the country to, in some instances, their first Muslims.
The tour included free shows to welcome a totally new demographic to the show, and the comedians sat at an "Ask a Muslim" table in order to meet their audience members firsthand.
CultureMap spoke with Farsad and Obeidallah prior to their arrival in Austin for the big premiere and standup showcase about the making of the film, their lives prior to standup and what their parents think about them gallivanting around the country doing comedy.
CultureMap: Neither of you started your professional lives in stand-up comedy. How did the stars align that you would decide to do comedy, start doing TV and film, and eventually create a comedy tour road movie?
Negin Farsad: I went to grad school and ended up as a policy advisor for the City of New York. But I was always doing standup, sketch and improv at night. At some point I realized that I really believed in the hard work of policy-making, but I just didn’t want to be the one to do it. Standup was scary and dazzlingly attractive at the same time.
It's a very malleable art form: you can talk about whatever you want. I could talk about policy making, I could talk about international diplomacy, I could talk about ethnic identity AND I could talk about stupid shit like dating. That’s when I began to fuse the social justice stuff into the work. It was just a matter of time before I got into cameras and making stuff.
Dean Obeidallah: Hate has a way of motivating people. I started doing standup comedy at night while I was a lawyer. In fact, my first standup comedy show was the Funniest Lawyer Show sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Association. A few years later I quit being a lawyer and took a job at NBC in the page program. I was hired at Saturday Night Live where I worked for seven years on the production staff. It was like going to comedy graduate school.
CM: How did the two of you meet up and decide to start working on this project together?
DO: I created an Internet series a few year ago for Comedy Central called The Watch List, which featured all Middle Eastern-American comedians. So the tour and documentary were an outgrowth of my using comedy to make people laugh and hopefully change peoples’ perceptions of Muslims and Arabs.
NF: Dean and I started working together a million years ago, first with staged shows but very soon in TV and other media. Our commitment to using comedy to spread the good word of tolerance (among a ton of other progressive values) made us fast friends and awesome work partners. The idea behind this doc was always lurking behind a lot of the work we did for Comedy Central, the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, and other various clients.
CM: So you've both had experience finding emerging talent for standup shows. Was it still difficult to convince the other comedians to join you on the full tour and potentially face some difficult performances?
NF: First off, the list of Muslim-American comics is a short one. There just aren’t that many. So we knew who to go to. It was a tough sell: “Hey, can you come on this tour called The Muslims are Coming!, not get paid very much because we’re not selling tickets, and still put in 110 percent?”
Luckily, a lot of comics feel the way we do and we managed to book most of our comedians without egregious begging. There was some buttering up and almost believable flattery, though.
CM: You head into rural areas of the U.S. during your comedy tour. What were the most nerve-wracking and, conversely, the most surprising places during the tour to do stand-up?
DO: The most nerve-wracking moment for me was standing outside a gun show deep in Georgia talking to people who were openly carrying guns about coming to see a comedy show called The Muslims Are Coming!
NF: I think we were all worried about doing the show in Murfreesboro, Tenn. There had been a lot of protesting in that city against a proposed mosque. The protests gave way to violent acts like arson and vandalism. We didn’t know what to expect. In other cities we were reaching out to average Americans and specifically to non-Muslim audiences. But Murfreesboro was different.
It became clear once we got to town that our role was just to bring some jokes into a beleaguered community of Muslims who had been fighting for their right to worship and they were tired. There were more Muslims in that audience than any other show — most shows didn’t have any Muslims at all. But they just needed a night of comedy. And it was awesome to be able to give them one.
DO: The most surprising parts of the tour, however, were the questions people asked us after the shows or when we set up our “Ask a Muslim” on streets of the South. Plus, I was amazed and overwhelmed at how kind and warm the Mormons were in our leg of the tour that took us to Utah and Idaho.
CM: You'll also be doing standup in Austin while you're here for the Festival. How did the standup show at the New Movement come about?
NF: I’ve come to Austin a million times and I love it! My last film, Nerdcore Rising, premiered at SXSW and I’ve performed standup there a bunch. I’ve met a lot of really great, hilarious people there, including Chris Trew, one of the New Movement Theater founders. He’s one who had the idea of doing a show.
CM: What are the most important things that you've learned about comedy from going on this tour?
DO: I had certain preconceptions about the South before I went on the tour. And while we thought we would be simply trying to change others' perceptions of Muslims, the tour actually caused me to change my view of Southerners. I guess I was a little closed minded myself before heading out to the South. I’m happy to have met so many great people across the country doing this tour.
NF: The most important thing I learned about comedy is that it instantly softens people. Folks came in with serious questions and we were chomping at the bit to answer. The comedy made us seem approachable and after the shows, people who had never really gone to the trouble of actually asking questions (and actually listening to the answers) felt compelled to do so. It’s the power of the belly laugh, and it’s the most powerful tool in the social justice arsenal.
CM: So not going back to law or public policy any time soon?
DO: My mother asks me to this day, "Are you ever going to be a lawyer again?" Short answer: No! They are supportive, though. In the beginning they were shocked, but once I was fortunate to have some success and appear on TV more frequently, they started to come around.
NF: Well, my parents wish I had a normal job, for sure. No parent — immigrant or otherwise — wants their kid to be a comedian. And that makes sense. I would hate for my imaginary kid to be a comic. But on top of worrying about me being an unstable-incomed comedian, my parents are always worried that I’m going to say something in the public square that gets me in trouble, either with general audiences or with, y' know, Islamic regimes abroad. That’s a real concern for them. But for me, I think: Ehn, I look like a Disney character in cute vintage dresses, so how much trouble could I really get into?
The Muslims Are Coming! premieres at the Bob Bullock IMAX Theater on Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. as a part of the Austin Film Festival. A follow-up screening takes place at the Austin Convention Center on Oct. 21 at 3:30 p.m.
Farsad and Obeidallah will be present at both screenings for Q&A and will perform a special standup showcase at The New Movement Theater on Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.