The music, peppy and synthetic, is pleasantly familiar. The living room — front door on the right, staircase going up to the left, couch dead center in front of the camera — is a place we’ve been a thousand times before. The clueless father sports a perfectly hideous multicolored sweater.
The family inside this typical American sitcom house, however, is not your typical American sitcom family. When the daughter comes home upset because a classmate has made fun of her on Facebook, she shows her parents a Photoshopped picture of herself wearing a turban and driving a taxi.
“That is terrible!” the father exclaims. “We are not Sikhs!” He continues: “If you’re going to stereotype us, at least get it right. We don’t wear turbans.”
This all-American clan is the Qu’osbys (pronounced like Cosby with a slight hitch) — Aasif, Fatima, Whitney and Bobby — and it’s that rarest of things in popular entertainment, a sympathetic Muslim family at the center of its own show.
They’re the heroes of “Halal in the Family,” a Web series that went live last week at Funny or Die.
A broad parody of the classic family sitcom, it’s the brainchild of the actor and writer Aasif Mandvi and his writing partner from “The Daily Show,” Miles Kahn. The four short episodes (so far) of “Halal” may not represent a lot of screen time, they average about five minutes each, but in terms of depictions of American Muslims as something other than terrorist suspects, they’re significant. The only comparison that comes to mind is the Canadian comedy “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” which ran for six seasons beginning in 2007.
“We haven’t had it in America,” Mandvi said last week during an interview at a diner in New York. “Americans haven’t been ready to see an American Muslim family in a sitcom.
“Someone said to me, why didn’t you put this on television?” he continued. “Because when you’re pitching a sitcom about American Muslims, you don’t want to wait for TV executives to get on board with that. We wanted to just do it, we wanted to put it out there and have people find the funny.”
In “Halal,” Mandvi plays a blustering but well-meaning sitcom dad who’s full of harebrained schemes, to the consternation of his ever-forgiving wife, Fatima (played by Sakina Jaffrey, best known as the Hispanic chief of staff Linda Vasquez on “House of Cards”).
Offended that his daughter’s tormentor doesn’t know her Muslims from her Sikhs, he brings the girl to the house for a lecture on stereotypes, complete with offensive visual aids.
“Aasif Habib Qu’osby, this might be your worst idea ever,” Fatima declares, but of course it works, the lesson is learned and the two girls head off to the mall.
Mandvi described his character as “kind of a combination of Archie Bunker, Al Bundy and Bill Cosby,” at the head of a family that is “trying to be as non-Muslim as they could possibly be.”
“As much as they are a Muslim family, they’re constantly trying to downplay their Muslim-ness,” he added. “They’re trying to make white people not afraid of them, and their over-efforts to accommodate the fear of the culture — to be like, ‘We’re not scary!’ — of course in some cases makes people afraid and in other cases bring out their own bigotry.”
“Halal” had its origins five years ago as a sketch Mandvi and Kahn wrote for “The Daily Show,” where Mandvi has been a correspondent since 2006. The idea was revived when a Muslim nonprofit group approached Mandvi’s manager, Lillian LaSalle, with the idea of sponsoring some sort of entertainment project that would bring attention to issues of anti-Muslim bias. With contributions from a number of other nonprofit groups, not all of them connected to Muslim issues, and a successful Indiegogo campaign, the four initial episodes were shot in a single day.
“We’re not trying to be PC and we’re not trying to create a public service announcement for Islamophobia,” LaSalle said. “Hopefully these pieces will reach an audience that’s not just the usual players, and fans of ‘The Daily Show’ and Aasif.”
With “The Daily Show” about to undergo a change of anchors from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah, Mandvi said his status there was uncertain, but he has plenty of other things going on. In addition to “Halal,” he is the author of the recently published and well-reviewed comic memoir “No Land’s Man,” which recounts his youth in industrial northern England and his life and career in the United States, where he moved when he was 16.
And he is both an actor and a writer on a new HBO series, “The Brink,” scheduled for this summer, where he again plays a member of a sympathetic Muslim family, this time in Pakistan. The show is a geopolitical satire with elements of “Dr. Strangelove” and “Wag the Dog,” and Mandvi’s character, Rafiq, is the driver for a low-level U.S. attache played by Jack Black. When war threatens to break out in the subcontinent, the American functionary’s life is threatened, and Rafiq sets out to rescue him.
“If ‘Homeland’ or ‘24’ was a comedy, it would be ‘The Brink,’ ” Mandvi said.
A renewal of “The Brink” had not been announced, but Mandvi was getting ready to go to Los Angeles to join the other writers in preparing for a second season, just in case. And with “Halal” online, he’s hoping that there will be interest in producing more episodes, possibly for television.
Asked what he hoped non-Muslim audiences would take away from the show, he said: “First of all, I want them to be entertained. And I want them to laugh. And then maybe it will make people think about the absurdity of fear and prejudice, and say, ‘Oh that’s interesting, I never thought about it that way.’
“I don’t think about the FBI going into mosques and spying on Americans, but now that you bring it up, how do I feel about that? As an American, how do I feel about that? Is this the America that I want to live in?”