The Qu’osby Show?

Cover of America's Muslim Family

A recent episode of the satirical news program The Daily Show placed a humorous spin on the idea of having a “Muslim” Cosby Show. As we mentioned in January, Katie Couric and others see the Cosby show as an important step towards mainstream white-American acceptance and respect for African-Americans and believe a comedy show about a Muslim-American family could bring about a similar shift in opinion.

In Canada, the popular CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie highlights a diverse Muslim community in small-town Saskatchewan. The show explores issues of gender, faith, and family, and has been popular with both non-Muslim and Muslim audiences. An American version has yet to be produced, but some American networks are apparently talking about it.

The Daily Show often places people with racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise narrow-minded worldviews in situations to make them look ridiculous. In a recent show, correspondent Aasif Mandvi–an Indian-born, British raised Muslim-American–stars as the father character in a short trailer for a mock television show he names The Qu’osby Show. In front of a small audience purposefully chosen by The Daily Show to be made up of Islamophobes, Mandvi plays Mr. Qu’osby and his “normal looking” Muslim-American family dance to country music in their middle-class Oklahoma living room.

When the Islamophobic test audience is asked whether the The Qu’osby Show clip changes their attitudes towards Muslims, no one seems convinced that the show represents “real” Muslims. One New York area woman says, “It’s not anything I would ever watch or believe or think for two seconds that this is like a regular, you know, Muslim family.” To make the show more realistic, one man suggests that The Qu’osby Show “could have like an uncle, you know, uncle Rahib or somethin’, who came over, and he’s, you know, a Bedouin and he lives in the basement . . . with a goat.” I’m not making this up.

While the Islamophobic test audience is certainly not a perfectly accurate representation of American attitudes towards Muslim-Americans, The Daily Show clip does bring up interesting issues to consider. If a major American television network were to make a “Muslim Cosby Show,” what should the characters look like? Depending upon the cultural background of the family, the show is likely to take on a very different character. Should the show feature a South Asian-American family from Houston, Texas, as the largest “cultural grouping” of Muslims in the U.S. is of Pakistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi origin? Or maybe a traditional, conservative Yemeni family from Dearborn, Michigan, would be perceived as being more representative of Muslim-Americans?

If the family isn’t perceived as being “Muslim” enough by an American audience, viewers may not be convinced that this is a realistic depiction of Muslims living in the U.S. On the other hand, if a large, “traditional” family where all of the women are wearing head scarves is presented on television, does that not reinforce stereotypes? Pilot shows are currently being explored by HBO, and other major networks, and it’s my hope that they avoid both of these traps.

Is the U.S. ready for a show on a Muslim-American family? What “type” of family should the show be about? What issues should the show explore?

3 thoughts on “The Qu’osby Show?

  1. How are we going to get the American public to understand or maybe they really don’t want to understand. I think that it is necessary to dispel the myth that Muslim equals terrorism. Closed minds are dangerous. Personally, I would enjoy watching a television show that depicts a Muslim family in an accurate manner. I don’t know whether a family from Dearborn or one in New York City would be preferable, but bestowing some truth on our society can either create truth or confirm and harden misguided beliefs.

  2. Regarding the Canadian sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie”: I remember that when I first chanced upon it, I watched it with bated breath, assessing the entire time whether or not each witty comment made was appropriate or would be funny for a white audience. I was on edge: tense, unsure, and simultaneously alarmed at the fact that I was holding the success of this show to a white standard. I remember thinking about white converts and their struggle because, according to my reaction, “white” and “Muslim” were binary oppositions in that moment. I remember feeling uncomfortable, though I wore a headscarf, about the fact that every single female Muslim in the show wore a headscarf (many, many practicing — as well as non-practicing — Muslim women do not wear headscarves and it is not a statement about an individual’s religiosity though it has arguably become a political tool). I remember trying to figure out if the actors in the sitcom were, in fact, truly Muslim. It made me think about the Muslim identity in varied contexts. The show also made me question, “Where the hell are all the American Muslims!?” It made me want to go out and become an actor out of fury.

    It also made me think about the sitcom “Aliens in America” — about a Muslim foreign exchange student who comes to live with a host family in Wisconsin. I remember Raja, the foreign exchange student aka the “alien”, being my favorite because he upheld his beliefs despite being a nerdy high schooler who faced constant bullying. The actor who played his role isn’t Muslim, by the way, and neither is his accent accurate in the show, but it was close enough for me because for the first time in an American sitcom, a character had spoken about prayer, fasting, not dating, and Allah. But, it ran for one season, so I guess I was one of Raja’s few fans.

    If American Muslims are to be depicted in the media, they need to be present and actively participating in the process. We can’t just grab Kal Penn and ask him to be a pseudo Muslim on screen. After all, we couldn’t have asked an American Indian to come out and play Bill Cosby’s role in The Cosby Show. It wouldn’t have been authentic. Leaving out the obvious appearance that would’ve posed an issue, the struggles of those two nations are distinct and only an African American male could’ve brought out the joys and struggles of that particular community through that role.

    So, to the Muslim actresses/actors out there: get busy, get out there, represent. Because I can’t act.

  3. I just don’t see there being any real difficulty between “accessible” and “realistic.” Stereotypes are by definition hollow, right? You get beyond them by good character development, and compassionate exploration of personal motivations. If you look at long running tv shows, they are bound to resort to trite characters and plot devices sooner or later– but when shows write them deeply and carefully, trite ideas can still fully avoid being stereotypical in their presentation.

    The UK had a long running show called The Vicar of Dibley- a Dawn French vehicle- but extremely well done. I’ve never seen Little Mosque on the Prairie, and maybe it covers some of this ground, but Dibley worked because it was well put together, and while playing on archetypes (because it was, at heart, comedy), I never saw it fail to get above them- to fall from archetype to stereotype. French made for a charismatic, caring, and ultimately relatable central character, and the episodes often dealt with a clash of liberal and conservative values within the community and the religion– and dealt with both sides with grace and respect.

    That’s how a Muslim series could appeal to a large spectrum of conservative and liberal viewers both inside and outside of the faith. I would hope the writers would be primarily children of immigrants, both first (so called 1.5) generation and second generation, as they are so versed in the tension between old and new, and adept at finding the humor and heart in the struggle. And the show should not try to push any agenda aside from compassion and understanding– while carefully confronting aggressive and passive bigotry.

    I would also hope it would incorporate as many variations of the faith and cultures that share the faith as is realistically possible. This could be done sporadically in subplots even. There is so much ground that could be covered, especially since there is no one in the U.S. currently doing it– I’m amazed the idea hasn’t been jumped on long before now.