Keeping It ‘Halal in the Family’ with Aasif Mandvi and Miles Kahn

Funny or Die premiered a brand new web series today called Halal in the Family, a retro sitcom parody co-created and written by Aasif Mandvi and Daily Show producer Miles Kahn that reimagines the typical multi-cam family show through the eyes of an all-American Muslim family and all the stereotypes, misinformation, and prejudice they face on a day-to-day basis. Mandvi also stars with House of Cards’ Sakina Jeffrey playing his wife, and Jordan Klepper, Samantha Bee, and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter from The Roots make special appearances throughout the four-episode series. Ahead of Halal in the Family’s premiere, I spoke with Mandvi and Kahn about the series’ origins, why bigotry and racism are worth satirizing, and what they’ve learned from years of filming Daily Show field pieces on some of America’s most hopelessly ignorant people.

How did your new web series Halal in the Family come about? It started on The Daily Show, right?

Aasif: It started as a segment that Miles and I did on the show back in 2010 or 2011, and it came out of this thing where Katie Couric said about how African Americans have The Cosby Show, which “solved” racism for African Americans.

Miles: I think the phrase was “what the Muslims need is their own Cosby Show” or something like that.

Aasif: Their own Cosby Show – that’s right. So we created this parody sitcom called The Qu’osby Show and shot it and showed it to a bunch of Islamophobes on a panel and got their honest reactions to it. It was really funny – it aired on The Daily Show, and then cut to five years later and [my manager] Lillian LaSalle came to me and said “Hey, I’ve been talking with some people and they’re interested if you have anything you want to work on in terms of an issue-based sort of thing, since you’ve spent so many years on The Daily Show talking to people who were saying crazy shit about Muslims,” you know? So I was like “Well why don’t we do something in the space of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bias?” I contacted Miles and said “Hey, why don’t we resurrect that thing that we did?” So we did. We wrote it and changed the name to Halal in the Family, which I think is much more accessible and a better title and also, you know… [laughs]

Miles: We’ve removed any association with certain people we don’t want to be associated with.

Aasif: [laughs] Right! So yeah, we did that and made a fun whole title sequence to it. Each episode deals with certain issues that Muslims deal with – surveillance, protesting a mosque, bullying, media bias, stuff like that. So we took all these issues and wrapped it inside this parody sitcom, which allows accessibility to this family and this world.

You launched an Indiegogo campaign to turn Halal in the Family into a reality. How was that experience? Have you used it before?

Aasif: I had never used Indiegogo before. The producers have used that before for other things that they had done, so we put it on Indiegogo, and I have to say, we raised the money we wanted to, and more, within a couple of weeks.

Miles: It was really exciting to see it actually happen that way. There seemed to be a real hunger within – especially just looking at the names of the people who were donating – just average everyday people giving $20, $30. And there’s a hunger from the American Muslim community who just don’t see anything like this on TV – that seemed to be what I got out of it. It was all small donations for the most part.

Aasif: And also, there were many donations from people who had nothing to do with being Muslim. They just felt like we were doing something that was a great cause and a fun thing and they just wanted to be part of it. In fact, our largest donor is not even a Muslim guy. He’s an Australian tech guy down in Florida, and he gave us $5,000, which was amazing.

Miles: And none of us even knew him.

Aasif: Nobody knew him. He just follows me on Twitter and he was just like “You know, I like what you’re doing.” I met him and I asked him, like, “Why did you give money to this?” And he said “Because I have friends who are Muslim, and I see what they deal with and what they go through and I felt like it was a good cause and you guys are funny and it just seemed like a good thing to get involved with.” That showed me that there was an appetite and an audience out there for this kind of stuff and for using satire and comedy to take on these kinds of issues.

I’ve seen some entertainment websites refer to the recent diversity on some major network shows as a “trend,” which is weird because I don’t see that going away. There also seems to be an assumption behind that where if you aren’t the same gender/race/religion as the characters on a certain TV show, you won’t be interested in watching it.

Aasif: Yeah. And look, they can call it a trend, but this trend is going in only one direction. And that is that by 2042 there’s gonna be less Caucasian people in America than anybody else, so at some point, Hollywood is going to have to get onboard with diversity. It is America, you know? I know that up until now television has been so mostly full of white people, and inevitably that’s gonna have to change.

Miles: I think the goal is “Oh, it’s a new TV comedy,” not “It’s a new Muslim-centric TV comedy” or “Asian-centric TV comedy” or whatever it is. It’s just a comedy, that’s what it is. That’s not too far away, hopefully.

Aasif, you’ve mentioned in interviews before that you never wanted or intended to be a “spokesman” for all Muslims before you got on The Daily Show. Have your feelings changed over the years?

Aasif: Now I’m totally comfortable with representing a billion people. [laughs] Totally comfortable. But no, when I first got on The Daily Show I was an actor, a brown actor. I got on the show, and suddenly there was a moment where people who were not your typical Daily Show viewer – you know, not your hipster down by NYU or your Upper West Side Jew…

Miles: Hey hey, that was a pretty hard “J.”

Aasif: [laughs] I was just saying, Miles would come up to me on the street and hug me, that’s what happened.

Miles: The Mileses of the world, man.

Aasif: And there were so many Muslims coming up to me on the street and hugging me and saying like “Oh my God! What you do on The Daily Show…we are so excited that’s happening!”

Miles: Because all you played up until that point were doctors and terrorists.

Aasif: Yeah, people were like “Oh you were the guy who played the terrorist in that movie,” and now to somebody I was the friendly Muslim on TV. And on one hand it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable because I’m the worst Muslim in the world, right? I don’t pray or anything like that. But then on the other hand, I realized it’s not my fault. There’s such an underrepresentation of this voice and point of view in the media that yes, they’re going to gravitate to what we’re doing on The Daily Show because it’s making an impact and it’s important to them. So that did change the way I look at it and the way I perceived it. And it’s not that I seek it out in any way, but I started to recognize the fact that it was representing something that was larger than me, you know?

Miles: I think also, in a weird way, it was important that more than half of your stories had nothing to do with your own personal identity – you were just a reporter on the show who happened to be Muslim.

Aasif: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, the majority of the stuff I’ve done on The Daily Show has had nothing to do with being Muslim or South Asian, however, the stories where I am focused on that – definitely within that demographic of South Asian and Muslim – have gotten the most attention. I’ll go to a party with Indian people and they’ll still come up to me and go like “I loved when you did that piece with Sanjay Gupta!” and it’s as if it was yesterday to them.

Both of you have done plenty of Daily Show segments where you confront some pretty crazy people – racists, homophobes, bigots. What have you learned from that, and more importantly, how do you stay sane? How can you do that without letting bitterness or cynicism overtake you?

Aasif: You’re assuming that cynicism and bitterness doesn’t overtake us.

Miles: [laughs]

I’m sorry.

Aasif: That’s a lovely assumption to make.

Miles: We don’t have a ton of those people anymore. It’s hard to find people like that who will talk on camera, but we’ve certainly dealt with a lot of them.

Aasif: I’ve found that the crazy thing is…people say to us all the time, “How do you get those people to talk to you?” First of all, I think we talk to people who no one else is really talking to sometimes, and also, I think when people are passionate about something – even if they are on the wrong side of the issue – they want to find an avenue to talk about it.

Miles: Yeah, the people who are on our show want to be on the show – they want to talk about it. They know the risk they’re taking. We never misrepresent who we are, we always say we’re The Daily Show, we never take people out of context, we edit for time, but we let people speak their mind and we show it on the air and we make a joke about it, and more often than not, even when we kind of poke fun at someone or take them down for something stupid that they say, a lot of times they’ll write to us and say “Hey, I really liked the segment.” They got their thing out there, so we didn’t even change their minds. They’re so idealistic about what they believe that they’re blind to the fact that we’ve just taken them down a couple of notches. The rest of the world might see it, and then they’re like “Great! Have me on the show again!” They like having their stuff aired. Once in a while there are people who don’t like it – they don’t like that in an hourlong interview we chose the bits that we felt were the truth of their argument, and that’s the part they didn’t like hearing back.

Aasif: One thing I will say is, when I started on The Daily Show, I met with Stephen Colbert and he said three things to me about doing field pieces. He said “When you put a camera in someone’s face, they get a lobotomy. Remember that.” He said “Find three things that are funny about what you care about and also find three things that are funny in the piece.” And then also, “Use the silence. Always use the silence, because when you use the silence, people will fill that silence with whatever it is that they or their lawyers wish they never said.” And those techniques have helped keep me in good status.

Miles: But as far as us becoming cynical, I think I may be less liberal than I used to be, because we go to lengths to expose everybody, and I’ve talked to people who are so wacky on the right and so wacky on the left and I’m just like “Man, I’m just stuck in the middle with the rest of most of America.” [laughs]

So no hope for the future then?

Miles: No, we’re doomed.

Watch the rest of Halal in the Family over at Funny or Die.

Keeping It ‘Halal in the Family’ with Aasif Mandvi and […]