CBS anchor Katie Couric startled some listeners when she suggested a Muslim “Cosby Show,” but the idea has merit. It’s hard for us to be afraid of the people we see on TV sitcoms every week.
Such are the recent news items that led Couric in a recent year-in-review discussion to suggest a TV sitcom response to the “seething hatred” against Muslims.
“Maybe we need a Muslim version of ‘The Cosby Show,’” she said. “I know that sounds crazy. But ‘The Cosby Show’ did so much to change attitudes about African-Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of things they don’t understand.”
She’s right. A black TV family like Bill Cosby’s Huxtables — or a Hispanic-American family like, say, George Lopez’s show — might not seem like such a big deal anymore, now that a real-life black family occupies the White House. But back in the 1980s, they were the decade’s biggest TV hit in ways that even changed the way a lot of us black Americans viewed ourselves and our perceptions of opportunity in America’s mainstream.
Some critics still complain that the “The Cosby Show” was too good, that it’s well-off family headed by a doctor and a lawyer was too far removed from the lives that most black people lived. But, more important in my view was the larger message: The American Dream is not for whites only.
But could that heartwarming success work today, when many of us actually find ourselves debating the value of civility? No way, say some cynics, “Earth to Katie,” wrote columnist Andrea Peyser in the New York Post: “African-Americans, Eskimos, or imbecilic white ladies didn’t fly planes into the World Trade Center. Try again, genius.”
OK, let’s clear the air on that one: A group of Muslim SOBs did kill Americans on 9/11. They have allies who are out to kill more of us. They are our enemy. But that does not make all Muslim Americans our enemies. Our diversity needs to be an asset to our national security, not a nuisance.
Unfortunately, Couric’s comment expresses something my own cynical side has noticed ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: Muslims have become the new “Negroes,” the new occupants of the bottom-rung scary-minority status long occupied by us African Americans.
That’s what occurs to me when I hear geniuses like one conservative talk-show host who wanted to block a proposed “Ground Zero mosque,” which isn’t a mosque or located at Ground Zero. “To protect our religious freedoms,” he said, sadly tone-deaf to the contradiction in that doublethink.
“Islamophobia breaks my heart,” said Iranian-American author-essayist Porochista Khakpour, who fled with her family from Iran’s revolution in 1980 when she was 3 years old.
She used to bristle at requests to write essays with “an Iranian-American take” on pop culture, she told me during a chat after a reading in Washington of her witty and poignant novel, “Sons and Other Flammable Objects.” But no more.
“Now I’ll do anything to break through the stereotypes,” she said. That means she’s willing to play the role of reporter, translator and tour guide for major mainstream media, if it helps mainstream Americans to learn more about real Muslim life in America.
When I mentioned the idea of a Muslim “Cosby Show,” she was excited by the idea, but dismayed that it hasn’t already happened here. Canadians have had “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a successful sitcom about a Muslim family and their interactions with non-Muslims, since January 2007.
Similar efforts here have yet to leave the launchpad. “Funny in Farsi,” an ABC pilot starring comedian Maz Jobrani and based on a memoir by Firoozeh Dumas, was not picked up, Dumas reported on her blog in May. The Iraq War reportedly derailed a similar NBC project starring British Iranian comic Omid Djalili in 2002. Djalili went on to co-star with Whoopi Goldberg on her NBC sitcom, “Whoopi.”
That’s too bad. It certainly would be asking too much to expect a Muslim family sitcom to do nearly as well for comedy — or our national comity — as “The Cosby Show” did, but I’d like to see somebody try it.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.