For the vast majority of comedians working in New York City, success is best measured by how loudly the audience laughs. But for performers like Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad — two Muslim-American comics known for combatting Islamophobia with their sharp, disarming brand of observational humor — success is often more accurately gauged by the grinding of teeth and popping of blood vessels on the conservative right.
“As I’ve gotten older, and become very political both in my comedic writing and my serious writing, there are people who are going to be angry,” Obeidallah tells the Voice. “And I’m actually happy they’re angry. That means you’re taunting the bigots.”
Earlier this month, Obeidallah and Farsad made headlines after a federal judge ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to allow advertisements for the duo’s documentary The Muslims Are Coming! in the New York City subway. First released in 2013, the film follows the comedians as they perform stand-up, answer questions, and give out free hugs in states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. The documentary features interviews with politically-minded comics like Jon Stewart and Lewis Black, and seeks to challenge many of the pernicious, xenophobic stereotypes that took hold in this country following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Though the recent ad campaign was designed to promote the film’s new home on Netflix, Obeidallah and Farsad created the posters partially as a rebuttal to the anti-Muslim subway ads paid for by Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative. After five months of back and forth with MTA officials, the agency ultimately sought to block the film’s campaign under a new regulation barring all ads of a controversial political, social or religious nature.
“[The ads are] so innocuous it makes you wonder why they spent so much time and money and energy fighting this,” says Farsad, whose company Vaguely Qualified Productions was named plaintiff in the lawsuit. The posters in question, which are now displayed in over 100 subway stations throughout the city, contain laughably inoffensive slogans such as “The Muslims are coming! And they shall strike with hugs so fierce, you’ll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her.”
But the victory over the MTA is only the most recent instance in which Obeidallah and Farsad have managed to use comedy as a catalyst for spreading real political awareness around issues of Islamophobia. Over the past several years, the pair has not only succeeded in angering bigots on the right — as Obeidallah had hoped — but also taken great strides in educating their community’s more casual detractors on what it means to be Muslim in America in the 21st century.
“I’m an Iranian American Muslim female and my lens on the world is just different,” Farsad says. This Thanksgiving she plans to launch a Twitter account called the Daily Denouncer, which would routinely rebuke Islamic terrorism and perhaps diminish the popular conservative talking point along the way. “[But] the other thing that comedy does is it universalizes the human experience. If I’m talking about my overbearing mother, or awkward conversations about sex with my parents, that stuff is embarrassing across cultures. What you’re trying to do is create a cultural bridge. And that’s not necessarily done by just making a joke about what Donald Trump said on stage last night.”
Farsad and Obeidallah are anything but typical stand-up comedians — and not simply because they are Muslim. Before becoming a comic, Obeidallah worked as a lawyer in New Jersey and was planning to one day run for public office. Today he writes a column for the Daily Beast, hosts his own SiriusXM radio show, and appears regularly as a political commentator on CNN and MSNBC. Farsad earned a dual master’s degree in public policy and African-American studies from Columbia University and interned for both Hillary Clinton and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). After graduating she worked as a policy analyst for the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Lampooning the absurdity of American politics is nothing new — and with gaffe-prone presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson the material surely writes itself — but Farsad and Obeidallah see themselves more as “social justice comedians” than topical comics just riffing on the day’s news. It’s comedy with an agenda, and the idea is to achieve for Muslims what comics have been able to do in the past for the Jewish, African-American and LGBT communities.
“We didn’t invent this, we’re just the latest group to use it,” Obeidallah explains, crediting comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Ellen Degeneres for paving the way. This summer he organized the Muslim Funny Fest in Manhattan, billing the event as the first-ever Muslim comedy festival in the U.S. “When we made [The Muslims Are Coming!] there was no such thing as ISIS and al-Qaeda was completely in remission. This is the most challenging time ever to be a Muslim in America. Right now, this is it.”
Since 9/11, New York City has had its own spats with Islamophobia. When plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero were announced in 2010, New Yorkers picketed in the streets. And just last month a mural of an Iranian woman covered in a headscarf was defaced in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Still, Obeidallah and Farsad — who have both lived in Manhattan for over a decade — maintain that New York City is generally accepting of its Muslim residents. Tensions between the Muslim community and the city have largely stemmed from the NYPD’s controversial surveillance and stop and frisk programs. On a more personal level, New York is a microcosm of what the pair hopes to one day see on a national scale — a true cultural melting pot where it’s almost impossible not to have made a few Muslim friends.
“The beauty of it, and the reason for it, is the diversity of our city,” Obeidallah explains. “When we meet people of other backgrounds, that ends the boogieman concept. We’re no long some faceless creature that you see on TV who’s scaring people. It’s a person you know.”
“Only about 25 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Islam, and that’s the lowest it’s ever been. It’s horrific,” he continues. “But the bright side is that about 25 percent of Americans have a Muslim friend. To me that’s not a coincidence.”
Until a day comes when those percentages drastically rise, Obeidallah and Farsad see comedy as one of the best ways of getting through to their fellow Americans and shifting public opinion.
“Obviously gay people can be as charming and lovable as anybody, but it’s not obvious to those who might be harboring homophobic feelings. It’s not obvious to people who might be harboring anti-Muslim feelings,” Farsad says. “Okay, it’s not obvious to you. I’m going to bring it to you. I’m going to be bring it to you on stage. I’m going to bring it to you in films. I’m going to bring it to you on television. That’s how we’re going to win this cultural war.”