Muslims Are Just Like Everyone Else in America: Not That Funny

A group of comedians court laughs and combat Islamophobia in a new tour documentary, and their mediocrity is their biggest asset.
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The Muslims Are Coming!, out this week on video on demand, is a documentary in which Muslim comedians tour the American south and west to combat Islamophobia. Based on that description, I had a lot of ambivalence going in. On the one hand, I think people should not hate Muslims. On the other hand, I think they should hate stand-up comics.

Overall, the film justified my prejudices. The comics are not especially funny. Their stand-up routines never flirt with flights of absurdity or conceptual humor a la Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman—rather, the material all falls resolutely in the "anecdote, anecdote, wry observation about current events/ethnic stereotypes/everyday life, ain't that funny" formula that seems designed to make TV sitcoms seem innovative and weighty. Co-director and co-star Negin Farsad's routine about her Jewish boyfriend is typical, starting with jokes about being drunk, moving into jokes comparing Jewish-Muslim relationships to the Palestine-Israeli peace process, and throwing in a joke or two about the terror induced when the bar lights come on and you have to see what the guy you've been flirting with looks like. It's like watching someone go up on stage and fill out a checklist.

The non-stand-up portions of the film are also mired in familiarity. Various talking heads of show up to provide some combination of expertise and stunt casting (Jon Stewart and Soledad O'Brien both make appearances.) And then much of the rest of the run time is made up of the comedians traveling through the south and west, focusing on wacky road-trip antics that were probably funny for those involved, but which, to a disinterested observer, simply aren't all that wacky. Co-director and co-star Dean Obeidallah can't find the Snapple he likes in various convenience stores; one of the other comedians sees a roach in the light fixture in his room. And, again predictably, we get to see the New York City Muslim comedians participate in a bunch of traditionally southern/small town American pastimes like bowling and hanging out at gun shows. Mild hijinks ensue. (Admittedly, the scene where Farsad fires a pistol at a gun range, gets the shell casing down her cleavage, and completely freaks out is pretty funny.)

In an odd way, though, the very mildness of the hijinks actually advances the filmmakers goals. The whole point of The Muslims Are Coming! is that Muslims aren't fearsome or weird or different; they're just Americans, like everyone else. And what better way to show that than with an entire film devoted to scenes of Muslims being banal? Every trope here—the wacky road trip, the talking heads, the stand-up routines about cute ethnic relations—may not be exclusively American, but they're all certainly things that Americans can recognize as familiar. If the comedians were truly original, or even especially skillful, their talent might distract from the main point.  If they were too extraordinary, they wouldn't be so ordinary.

This is brought home most clearly in the series of self-consciously cute stunts the comedians perform at several locations. In Lawrenceville, Georgia, they set up a sign encouraging folks to ask a Muslim a question; in Salt Lake City, they ask people to give a Muslim a hug; in another venue, they offer prizes to anyone who can correctly identify the source of a passage read from the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Koran. In the hands of, say, Michael Moore, such exercises could become an opportunity for mean-spirited mockery. But this film is too low-key for that. The ordained minister who doesn't know what's in the Old Testament isn't ridiculed for being stupid; instead, she laughs self-deprecatingly along with the comedians. The guy in Georgia who tells Farsad that she shouldn't identify as Iranian-American, but just as American-American—no one puts him in his place with a stinging put-down in the tradition of rapier-witted liberal agitprop documentarians. Instead the stars just sort of nod uncomfortably and wait for him to go away. And the "Hug a Muslim" stunt turns into a schmaltzy feel-good finale, with passersby (including a new bride and groom) lining up for public displays of Muslim affection.

The film has some pro forma talking points about the importance of humor for breaking down barriers and revealing truths and etc. etc. But really it feels like the lack of humor is the real connection here. Anyone can stand up on stage and be unfunny; mediocrity, by definition, connects us all. And if the filmmakers here seem to be pushing that mediocrity to extremes, that fits too. Towards the end of the movie, Farsad talks about how her parents loved the United States before they ever came here; how they, and immigrants like them, give up everything because this is the place they want to raise their children. The idea that immigrants are the most American of Americans isn't new or surprising, but the fact that it isn't new or surprising seems like it's the point. The Muslims are coming, the documentary tells us, and when they get here, it will be utterly unexciting. 

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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