Interview: Negin Farsad & Dean Obeidallah Lead with Laughs in “The Muslims Are Coming”

On countering fear with laughs....Read More
Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad in "The Muslims Are Coming"

Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah are not the type to take the easy route. Having settled into careers in public policy and the law, respectively, they each found themselves entering one of the only fields that can be more potentially thorny: standup comedy.

“Going into comedy makes you feel sad in that this is such a self-serving, narcissistic field, what am I doing?” says Farsad. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it professionally, but when I realized I could still do my dick and fart jokes and it could still have social impact, I felt a little bit better about going into it.”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that Farsad and Obeidallah have set out to make things better for everyone with “The Muslims Are Coming,” a laugh-a-minute documentary about their cross-country tour of America where the two are joined by other comedians of Middle Eastern descent such as Preacher Moss, Kareem Omary, Aron Kader and Maysoon Zayid to tear down Islamophobia with the greatest weapon at their disposal – jokes. Mixing clips from each of the comedians’ acts with interviews that cut just as deep, surveying the likes of Soledad O’ Brian, David Cross, Lewis Black and Jon Stewart, among others, the film aims to show the futility of hate by exposing its ridiculous ironies and sends out its stand-ups to conquer Southern inhospitality by promoting understanding through such activities as gun practice with the locals and setting up a booth in the middle of town where it’s encouraged to “Hug a Muslim.”

Shortly before Farsad and Obedaillah are set to hit the road again, this time in support of the film’s theatrical tour and release on VOD, the two took the time to talk about their unusual path towards the stage, how their time in red state America changed their own perceptions and why Farsad, who previously made the equally funny doc “Nerdcore Rising,” found it easy to leave herself on the cutting room floor.

Dean Obedaillah and Negin Farsad in "The Muslims Are Coming"Was the film was inspired by the tour or vice versa – how did this come about?

Negin Farsad: We always knew that we were going to make a movie about it because early on, it was clear to us that if we were going to do some kind of tour, we would have some impact, but limited to real time. If we were to document it and then try and get it out to a broader audience, then we would really be able to potentially move the needle even the slightest bit on this issue.

Let me go back a little bit further and ask how did you each get into comedy? You both come from seriously strong educational backgrounds.

Dean Obedaillah: Well, I think that it has to do with not having enough love from my parents, which is usually the big issue for most comedians. [laughs] But I was a lawyer. When I was younger, I was always active in theater, but not as an actor, always in the production crew and I was always intrigued by the art going on, but I didn’t have the confidence frankly to try and go on stage myself. At some point when I was in law school, there was in this [variety] show [on campus], they had some follies and I helped write some of it. Then while I was a lawyer, I sneaking out of my law firm to do standup comedy at night because I really enjoyed it. The first show I ever did was for the New Jersey Bar Association and it just took off from there. I didn’t realize how creative a person I was when I was in law school, so it really came out later and I just wanted to take a chance. I could always go back to being a lawyer. Thankfully, I haven’t had to.

NF: I had always been doing theater and writing sketches as a kid and in college, I was a double major in government and theater because even though I’d always been doing theater, my real goal since I was 11 was to be President of the United States. I’m not saying it’s still not a goal. It might still happen, guys, but…

So all of the studies that I went into were with that in mind. Then I ended up going to grad school for a dual masters in race relations and public policy and I got a job as a policy adviser for the city. As I was doing all of this stuff, I was always doing comedy at night, so I would do sketch groups, then I started doing standup around town and then it became shows around the country and then my kind of hobby sort of took over. My friends had an intervention and said, “You want to be a standup comedian?!?” And I was like, “No, I don’t!” And there was crying and ridiculousness until I had to admit to myself that was in fact what I wanted to do, but that I could somehow still marry the goal of public policy, which for me was always social justice with comedy.

One of the goals of the film is to open up a dialogue and during the course of your interviews, could you actually feel people were relaxed in discussing these issues because of this tone you strike by mixing the silly and the serious?

NF: That’s was huge for us, making people feel comfortable in an interview. Barbara Walters makes people cry or whatever, like what is it about her that does that? We said, “Look, guys, you can say anything. This is a comedic movie, so be as bold as you want. And in some cases, with people like Jon Stewart and Lewis Black and David Cross, it makes sense that they’re comfortable because they’re talking to comedians and we’re comedians and so it was like we spoke the same language.

DO: Also, to be totally honest, the fact that we’re not famous and we’re interviewing people that are famous, they’re comfortable with us. Jon Stewart is enormously famous, but he knows what it’s like to be onstage and be yelled at two in the morning by drunk people and have to break the tension, so we feel a camaraderie where it’s like a band of brothers and sisters of comedians. And I don’t think that ever leaves anyone who’s ever been a standup comic, so there is that connection and that kind of comfort level.

The film has a lot of fun with the fixed ideas that many Americans have of Muslims. But did this tour change the preconceptions you might’ve had about these Red State parts of America?

DO: For me, yes. If there was an arc to my character in this movie, it would be that I went down south a little bit more closedminded than I thought and I came back really happily surprised that people were overwhelmingly open-minded and tolerant. Even the people that clearly had issues with Muslims, they’d say things to us like “I’ve gotta give you credit for coming down here.” Overwhelmingly, people had questions and we were happy to answer them. Many of them had literally never met someone who was Muslim before in their entire life, so the hope with this movie is that it introduces people to Muslims with the questions which they have on their mind that are being asked by these other people [onscreen] and they’re answered.

Hopefully, when people download it on iTunes when it comes out or watch it on cable, they’re also inviting Muslims into their home, which might be the first time Muslims are in their living room. People talk about how “The Cosby Show was the first time a black person was in their living room — it was on television, but it meant something. So this really made me optimistic and it may sound corny, but I’m proud of being American. That’s really how I felt.

NF: Yeah, nationally, there’s a perception that some of these states are more closed-minded and some of the statistics actually support that. I think the statistic was in Alabama [where] more people think Barack Obama’s a Muslim than don’t. So there are reasons to be wary when you go to places like Mississippi with a show called “The Muslims Are Coming.” [laughs]

That being said, the people that might think Barack Obama is a Muslim think that because they just don’t get good information. They don’t get good information because lots of the mainstream news and places like Fox News will perpetuate these things like Barack Obama’s a Muslim — not that it matters, even if he was — and it’s not that [these people] just want to hate Muslims. They just don’t have enough information. So when you say to them, “Hey, I’m a Muslim, let’s talk this out,” they’re willing to listen.

It was interesting to balance some of these statistics that we knew about with the reality, which is that it’s not ignorance born out of hatred. As Jon Stewart says this in the movie, “It’s ignorance born out of ignorance,” so when there’s more exposure available to them, they tend to then go towards a moderate opinion, which is oh yeah, Muslims are fine, what’s the big deal?

If I had one minor complaint about the film, it was that I would’ve loved to have seen more of the other comedians. Was it tricky because they were only on certain parts of the tour?

DO: DVD bonus features!

NF: Well, there’s so much bonus material. There’s online material that we’re going to start distributing — videos of stuff that we weren’t able to put in the film. It’s funny because people notice some [comedians] were there some days and other days, other people were there. We did the tour in two different legs and comedians would come in and out, so the unfortunate thing is we didn’t have [a reliable schedule] every night, we’re going to see these jokes and these bits. That made it hard for us in post-production to be able to cut [it together] like in this city, it would be nice if we had a joke about this.

The only constants were me and Dean, so that’s why you see us at every stop because we were a reliable presence and we knew content-wise what we wanted to get out to the audience. The rest of the comedians were all a wild card. Hopefully for all of them, we left the audience wanting more because these guys so great and they totally deserve more attention.

Negin, after directing other films like “Nerdcore Rising,” what was it like putting yourself on camera at the center of the film?

NF: It’s funny because “Nerdcore Rising” and then also the movie I did before that were also road documentaries. It’s what I specialize inadvertently. And it’s exhausting not being on camera. But I actually think it’s more difficult to be in something and shoot at the same time because there’s always this double consciousness of trying to be in the moment and trying to interact with people and not worry about what the cameras are doing, then also worrying about what the cameras are doing because it’s your job and you’re the director.

In post-production, it was funny because then you can turn off your dual consciousness and you just look at these people on screen and they’re not you [even when you’re watching yourself]. You’re just like “This stupid bitch needs to shut up at the end of this clip” – and that’s me talking about myself, so that was funny to look at myself objectively and be like this is not interesting, this is not poignant and silence, you. I was surprised how easy it was for me to completely cut myself down and the great thing about the whole [filmmaking] process is that it so collaborative, so we had editors and cinematographers that were really on our side. Everyone was always making sure that the mission and the goals and the aesthetic of the movie were being upheld, so it made that process of being in it a little easier.

In another interview, Negin said it wasn’t until the end of shooting that you knew you had a movie. What was that moment?

NF: I never felt like there was a movie while I was in it. I was like, “This is garbage. Who’s going to watch this?” The fear is that we’re shooting nothing and we shoot and overshoot. But it was probably on our last tour stop when we were actually doing the “Hug a Muslim” [routine in Utah] and the craziest thing was we were standing there, there were all these Mormons there trying to hug us. They’re standing in line and it was really, really touching, but what was more touching was that our associate producer Leo De La Cruz was standing on the sideline getting release forms and he was crying. He was crying because the scene was just too much for him to handle. And that moment, I think for a lot of us, it felt like, okay, we at least feel something here, so that might mean we have something on our hands.

“The Muslims Are Coming” opens on September 13th in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent and in Seattle at the Grand Illusion Cinema before opening at the Quad Cinema in New York on September 20th. A full list of cities and dates can be found here. It will also be available on iTunes, Amazon and Cable VOD on Sept. 24th.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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