Will the future of primetime television include the next Cosby Show – this time, Muslim-themed? A current project in development could bring the idea to life.
Here Come the Muhammads centers around Elliot “Trane” Bethel, a U.S. Army soldier who comes home from the war in the Middle East to his family — his father, the Reverend of the local church, his brother and the church community with one battle behind him and another potential one ahead — his conversion to Islam.
The show concept was developed by comedian Preacher Moss, producer and writer of Here Come the Muhammads, and founder and executive of the Allah Made Me Funny comedy tour.
Moss, born Bryant Reginald Moss, said the inspiration for the show came from wanting to reframe the American Muslim narrative to tell the story of those integrated into the American lifestyle.
He earned the nickname Preacher Moss based on his impersonations of his church minister as a youth.
The professional comedian refers to himself as an undercover Muslim, which he said shows people that the Muslims many think they have to fear are actually just people they’ve known for years.
“I thought I could take something from my experience … and show it at the family level,” he said. “I’ve seen all the shows about [Muslims in] sleeper cells — I wanted to be able to do something that’s funny and meaningful."
The show takes place in Philadelphia, a place where Muslim culture is so dominant that those outside the faith take on the traits of long beards, rolled-up pants and miswaks – twigs from the Salvadora persica tree used for teeth-cleaning.
“The funny part is Here Come the Muhammads shows that Muslims can be cool, we can be funny, and it also shows that Christians can be cool, there’s no wrong in that situation,” he said. “They can be rational but funny. Good comedy comes when the balance is out of whack so you see, who is not being rational now -- that's when we get a smile.”
The concept of the show has been compared to the Cosby show, which Moss said is based on the similarity of the two shows using the family unit as its focal point.
“When the Cosby Show came out, there was a crisis in the African-American community with high murder rates, gangster rap and all that,” he said. “Cosby was the anti-gangster rap, the anti-NWA. What Cosby did was effectively frame the narrative of what African-American families look like and what families period look like – I’m attempting to take a stab at that.”
Moss said currently no one is effectively telling the narrative of the Muslim community in a way that is functional, valuable and presents a perspective that is different.
“Across all these different sects, different groups of people, and different cultures, family is important,” he said. “Sometimes I think we’re not seeing this holistic, common theme.”
Unlike the defensive approach of arguing against what other people say about Muslims, the comedian sees this as an opportunity to proactively argue for what Muslims are, he said.
“Humor is a compelling argument,” he said. “I ‘ve been trying to make that argument for the last 25 years.”
Moss started out doing sketch comedy when he was 17, and by his early 20s, he began to make his way to comedy clubs, where he built a reputation for his stand-up routine. He moved on to perform at mainstream comedy venues and earn writing jobs for comedians like George Lopez, Darrell Hammond and Damon Wayans, among others.
Currently, Moss is in the process of securing funds to develop a pilot – a process that he said is taking a very different approach from previous shows depicting Muslims.
“We’re treating it totally as a start-up, so the idea is that we want to develop a pilot that’s the result of community work, not just one guy,” he said.
Modeled after the Allah Made Me Funny project, a comedy tour founded by Moss that aims to portray the underrepresented peaceful Muslims, Moss plans to raise $50,000 in funding in the same way money is raised for building masjids, schools or hospitals – one that allows community ownership and, consequently, community pride.
The low-budget pilot will also require less repayment later, he said.
“However we distribute, there’s community ownership,” he said. “A lot of these shows they put out – Aliens in America, Little Mosque on the Prairie and All-American Muslims – they had literally no connection to the community.”
With the organic ties to the community through financing and his credibility in the mainstream comedy industry, Moss is optimistic in the success of the show.
“I don’t think it’s a challenge – you present a project that’s funny and people are going to make it a part of their lifestyle,” he said. “When people go, ‘Hey, my Wednesday night consists of X, Y and Z,’ that should include Here Come the Muhammads.”
The goal of the show?
“You want to keep them talking about it when the television goes off,” Moss said.
The show revolves not just around differences of religion, but philosophical differences between a father and son about responsibility and accountability — themes in every religion, he said.
Moss said he has had experience dealing with tough subject matter, like his End of Racism comedy and lecture tour, which aims to promote understanding of diversity and multiculturalism at school and college campuses.
“We’re making it relevant by making it funny,” he said. “By making it funny you make it accessible – people can say, ‘You mean I can actually laugh at that?’”
When it came to the decision of how to represent the characters, Moss said he tried to keep their personalities realistic.
“The language is pretty straightforward, and there’s no birds singing in the sky, there’s no sunlight shining on the Muslim character – we’re human beings,” he said. “This Muslim character has a certain level of awareness of, ‘You know what, I’m flawed, my father’s flawed, we’re both flawed, but we still want understanding and peace.’”
Moss said after writing the script, he found that it dealt with deeper issues than he had originally intended.
“A lot of people who read the script were like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think it was going to be like that,’ – they thought it was going to be cheesy,” he said. “Like ‘Brother, I can’t talk to you right now, I have to go pray, or fast – that’s too much information. We don’t talk like that — when it’s time to pray, we pray.”
The writer also brings his experience as a convert, a perspective he feels is unique.
“At one point half my life was non-Muslim, and the other half was Muslim, so I’ve had those conversations with Muslims when I didn’t know anything about them – [Conversations like] so-and-so’s a Muslim?”
But at certain levels of the relationship between the characters in Here Comes the Muhammads, there is awareness, clarity and appreciation of religious beliefs.
“The father and son aren’t having ideological battles over religion – it’s their ideological understanding of religion that shows whether or not they’re going to be able to deal with the issues between them.”
The character Reverend Earl was inspired in part by Moss’ uncle – though a softer version, Moss quipped.
“The things [my uncle] would say, I can’t say that and I can’t get a Muslim to read that,” he said with a laugh. “But he’s a beautiful guy, a pragmatic, hard-lined, really an old-school guy.”
Characters like that in today’s sitcoms – ones who aren’t over the top – are hard to find nowadays, he said.
“Sometimes, everything is not a crisis. I think that was the issue with some of the stuff that's out there now,” he said. “I talked to one of the people involved with All American Muslim. That thing is based on, every week, there’s got to be a crisis, that’s the foundation and understanding of a lot of reality television. The truth of the matter is, their reality is not my reality.”
Moss, who wrote the script himself and completed it nearly two years ago, aims to distribute the show in both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
“Nobody knows what a Muslim sitcom looks like. Like with Allah Made Me Funny, we had to figure out, what does Muslim comedy look like? What do Muslim comedians look like?,” he said. “I don’t know what it looks like – when I see it, I’ll know what it is. I think that’s the approach here, going to try it out try to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah and give it out as a gift.”
Potentially teetering on something groundbreaking, Moss said there’s always the possibility of producing the sitcom to distribute via the Internet and podcasts.
“I’m totally of the idea that I don't need to wait for Hollywood to distribute this thing,” he said.
A Muslim comedy project is easier to come out with now than in 2003, Moss said, when Allah Made Me Funny was starting out.
“The push then was that [people thought] Muslims didn't have a sense of humor,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job showing now that Muslims have a sense of humor. Now … people want something, we’re just feeding that interest.”
Media Portrayal and Stereotypes
In a 2010 CBS News panel discussing major issues of the year, Katie Couric discussed the potential benefit of a “Muslim Cosby Show” to battle bigotry against Muslims in the U.S., a “seething hatred” following the attacks on the World Trade Center and, in recent years, the Ground Zero mosque proposal.
In response, Bill Cosby voiced his support, saying the show should start off by “tiptoeing around people’s prejudices by keeping things comfortable and familiar.”
Despite the stereotypes of Muslims in the film and television, recent advances in the studies of neuroscience and social psychology support the idea that positive representations through media can change people’s stereotypes, according to Daniel Tutt, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Tutt, who also serves as the Outreach Director at Unity Productions Foundation, a non-profit production company that aims to combat stereotypes of Muslims in the media, has a master’s degree in philosophy from American University and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Philosophy and Media Communications at the European Graduate School in Switzerland.
Through his research, Tutt found that many of the assumptions of how stereotypes are formed had to do with socialization theory – the process of learning and acting on norms and customs.
These came from The Nature of Prejudice, an influential book written by Greg Allport in the 1950s that presented the idea that the way to analyze prejudice is not to analyze the way that the prejudice affects the person receiving it – the traditional means of sociological analysis – but to look at the character traits of the person who holds the prejudice.
“[Allport] argued that the people who held prejudices were responding to an inner anxiety, and releasing the prejudice served as a catharsis,” he said. “It put them at ease from their built-up tension.”
The 1990s invention of the fMRI scan allowed researchers to measure the physiological response by monitoring the amygdala – the center of fear in the brain, Tutt said.
“What they would do is show individuals set up to fMRI scans a series of images, then they would measure the amygdala response rates,” he said.
Researchers conducted a number of different case studies to analyze how the introduction of positive images and even positive story lines transformed some of the innate basis of their prejudice.
“What they discovered was, the way the mind works, you can sort of condition in people, if you have a buildup of prejudice about a certain group, there a number of complex variables that lead to that, but in terms of the mind you can lessen the prejudice by filling the environment with positive images,” he said.
The positive images led to lower levels of fear according to the fMRI.
Tutt applied the case studies of racial relations between black representation in the media to prejudice levels among whites to current Muslim portrayal and prejudice levels.
“If you can flood an environment with a number of positive images about a particular group, you can lower the overall barometer of fear developed over time,” he said.
While about 60 percent of depictions of Muslims in the television and film is still very negative and submissive, according to Tutt, the industry is shifting its approach.
“Hollywood is starting to see, in the interest of the profit line of creating compelling stories, to portray authentic Muslim characters,” he said. “With the growing interaction of the Muslim world and the West, a lot of these producers, writers and directors are finding that the old frames are not interesting, they’re not realistic – that’s why you’re seeing the emergence of a lot of Muslim characters in small roles, on television in particular.”
One contributing factor to a shifted view of Muslims could also be accomplished through the Huxtable Effect – derived from Bill Cosby’s character, Mr. Huxtable, on the popular mid-1980s show.
“We saw this play out in the 2008 presidential election – the basic idea that the Cosby show represented a paradigm shift in the overarching integration of African-Americans into mainstream culture,” Tutt said. “It represented a sort of ending for the potential for White mainstream culture to say racist things in a normative way in their public discourse, on one level.”
Politically, the Huxtable Effect represents a blurring of the significance of race as a category, he said.
While seemingly positive, Tutt said that while a likeable Muslim character that becomes a household name is a good thing, it also leads to the assimilation versus integration debate.
“[The Huxtable Effect] created a lot of turmoil because on the one hand, people say we’re sacrificing a lot of our original values and markers of identity that made us distinct from the mainstream,” he said. “On the other end, there’s many African-Americans who welcomed the Cosby show as sort of a positive step in the larger realm.
“The Muslim community is waiting for the next Huxtable effect,” he said.
In terms of what it would take for a “Muslim Cosby Show” to be a success, Tutt cited a number of lessons to be learned from All-American Muslim, a reality show plagued by controversy for both issues of portrayal, and the pulling-out of sponsors based on its subject matter.
“I think we learned from All American Muslim that, first of all, whether it’s reality or sitcom it would have to represent the ethnic and racial diversity of Muslims,” he said.
“Currently the image people have is a brown-skinned Arabic-speaking individual and that myth would have to be challenged.”
While no individual might fully encapsulate what it means to be a Muslim, an African-American representation would be powerful due to the unique narrative and involvement of the African-American community since the founding of the U.S. till today – something the Muslim community might have a hard time embracing, he said.
A second factor in the show’s success would require it to be an authentic voice from the Muslim community in terms of writing, direction and production.
“The Muslim is community is still young in terms of trying to find its way -- where it’s going and who it is in terms of a collective body,” he said. “It would really have to have a lot of buy-in from Muslims to be successful and representative.”
The show would also have to take on issues that Muslims might not be prepared to raise, Tutt said.
“A perfect example is when All American Muslim came out, there were less fans on Facebook but more people talking about it critically because it was Shia, it was all Arab, and the people lived lifestyles not really ‘Islamic,’” he said. “But that's the reality, Muslims do lead those kinds of lifestyles but they also lead religious lifestyles and it would have to show a broad picture.”
Tutt said that while All American Muslim was clouded with controversy, a Muslim television show does not have to be.
“I think in the future it’s going to be more authentic for these conversations to happen outside of politics and civil rights,” he said. “I think that that conversation has not really happened with the mainstream public, and I think people are hungry to have that conversation.”