Are Americans Ready for The Infidel Sitcom?

· Joanthan Poritsky

Josef Adalian reports for New York Magazine’s [Vulture]( /entertainment/2011/10/nbc_will_try_to_bridge_the_dif.html):

Are American TV viewers ready to flock to a network sitcom that explores questions of faith and ethnic identity, not to mention the often tense relationship between Muslims and Jews? …Vulture hears the Peacock is working with Avalon Television to develop a small-screen adaptation of last year’s British comedy film The Infidel, which had its U.S. debut at Tribeca and then played here largely via cable video on demand platforms.

I got to see the comedy when it came to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. Here’s what I had to [say at Heeb]( film-the-infidel/5496):

Comedy should be confrontational, and The Infidel crosses the line more than a few times. Still, the light style somehow keeps even touchy political and religious conflicts breezy. Like Bend it Like Beckham, the moral is “Be yourself, hey, but blend just a tad.” That wrap-up might be a little too simple for some, but without it the film would devolve into the same old arguments that both peoples have been warring over for millennia.

The question as to whether or not American audiences are ready for a comedy about religious strife on television is a valid one. After all, The Infidel played in New York on the eve of the furor that was the Park51/Cordoba House project in lower Manhattan, one of the most volatile issues during the summer of 2010. During the festival, I had sit-down interviews with director Josh Appignanesi, writer David Baddiel and stars Omid Djalili and Richard Schiff.1 You can [listen to the full interview]( -conversation-with-the-infidel-team/), but I think some of the excerpts below shed some light on their approach to perceived controversy.

I suggested to both Appignanesi and Baddiel that the film goes too far in terms of controversial imagery, specifically one scene in which Djalili appears in a concentration camp uniform. They had this to say:

David Baddiel: If you actually deconstruct that particular gag, it’s not a guy who just appears in a concentration camp outfit and the audience laughs because he’s in a concentration camp outfit. It’s a Muslim who’s having a nightmare about the idea that he is Jewish. His subconscious, comically, is projecting himself as various Jewish monstrosities. To me, the one you’re going to end on there is that one.

Josh Appignanesi: What’s particularly funny about that is that the monstrous things that you might imagine Jews to be involve them being the worst victims of the twentieth century. There’s kind of quite an inverted joke if you look at it closely and it’s quite a subversive joke.

DB: It’s also about an anxiety. When he goes to the computer and puts the word Jew [in a search engine] and gets a lod of hate back at him, that is real. Google had to change it because there was so much anti-semitism that came off the web. The point is with Mahmud it’s something that hasn’t really occurred to him. First he finds out that he’s Jewish and that’s a problem for his identity, then he has to deal with the fact that, if you’re Jewish, you will have anti-semitism to deal with.

JA: And you’ll have the Holocaust as part of your history.

DB: For me, with any joke, it’s not just like “Okay, you can’t make jokes about that thing.” I never think that. What I think is that you have to look at the individual joke and the context of that individual joke and say, “Okay; or not.” There’s still going to be people that think it’s not okay because they think some subjects are untouchable. All subjects are touchable within contextual grounds.

I asked whether or not it had met much resistance in the UK.

JA: People keep saying, “It’s controversial,” but then, actually, it’s not really clear where the controversy is. They sort of think it will be somewhere else but not for them. They might feel, “A bit edgy. That was maybe a bit close to the bone, but I don’t find it really problematic. I liked it.” Then who do they think will find it problematic? It usually ends up [they think] Muslims will find it problematic because they might kill you, because of Salman Rushdie, because of whatever. Because of South Park now2, because there are reactive parts of 1.1 billion people. There are a lot of Muslims out there, some of them are bound to be nutters.

In the UK we had some worries because [neither myself nor David] are Muslim. We had some Muslim people helping out on the film…producers, consultants for the script and stuff, but we didn’t know for sure and we were a little worried. They’ve embraced it more than anyone. That’s our big immigrant population is essentially Muslim or if not Muslim then “brown” people who get stopped at airports because of what’s been happening in the world and so identify with this character.

What became clear instantly is how seriously the creative team took this material. The reason the film feels “breezy” is because they didn’t just run with the same joke for the film’s duration. The idea of a Muslim man waking up to find he is a Jew could easily be both offensive and funny, but they didn’t create the film to push people’s buttons.

But will it play on American television, especially after the film hardly played in the US? I think it can work, and Baddiel’s involvement in the project is certainly reassuring. However, it’s tough to forget how divided we are in this country on issues of religion. The Park51 incidents of 2010 and this year’s [Koran burning]( hanistan.html?pagewanted=all) by Florida pastor Terry Jones don’t bode well for an American public primed to comically approach its differences.

I’ll bet that Jews and Muslims would be the least offended by the actual material if they saw it. More likely, as Appignanesi mentioned, it will be condemned on the grounds that the Muslims will blow us up for it. Thankfully, these guys realize that a powder-keg that big must be confronted. Why not in sitcom form?

  1. Right now, it appears [Baddiel and Djalili are involved]( version-of-british-film-the-infidel-starring-omid-djalili/) in the development of the NBC project. ↩︎

  2. Shortly before the film played in New York the [creators of South Park had received a death threat]( radio/2010/apr/22/south-park-censored-fatwa-muhammad) from an extremist Muslim Web site based out of New York. ↩︎