Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Giggling at the Fatwa

Let's face it, American popular culture can be cruel. Ever since Lenny Bruce our best comics and humorists have recognized very few bounderies for their satire and derision. Richard Pryor opened up Race and a long list of comics followed his lead all the way up to Dave Chappelle. Carlin and other 70s era comics jumped head first into Politics and a generation later Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Dennis Miller regularly display political humor so detailed and knowledgable that it blurs the line between jokes and news. Woody Allen and others pioneered psychological humor that gave rise to the "confessional" comedy of Margret Cho and Julia Sweeney.

American humor is a world without rules, or more precisely with only one rule: Be Funny. Outside of the standup comics, late night imports of Monty Python's Flying Circus and the original SNL made the comic sketch a barometer of our times. The Simpsons and South Park proved that a cartoon could be a kind of high-density humor, elaborate and silly and brilliant all at once and at a speed most people could only appreciate through multiple viewings.

I remember laughing at Monty Python and the original SNL as a kid. Steve Martin was the first true standup comic I fell in love with (remember the little ditty "Grandpa bought a rubber"?). Looking back over the course of my life as a comedy fan, I see a trail of once sacred topics reduced to sketches and punch lines: the presidential election as a choice between two alien siblings who would enslave the human race ("Don't blame me. I voted for Kodos."); Jesus as a small town talk-show host; Satan as the gay lover of Saddam Hussein; a blind racist who doesn't know he's black; nuns line dancing during an Inquisition song; and of course the crucifix scene from Life of Brian.

One particular topic has escaped the attention of all these comics: Islam. Sure bin Laden and Hussein have been mocked on SNL and South Park but Islam has never faced anything compared to the mockery and silliness and satire directed at Christianity and Judaism. With good reason. A generation ago Islam in American was the religion of a small number of immigrants and a tiny number of converts. Now however it is the fastest growing religion in America and the world. We are frequently reminded by media types, politicians of both parties, prominent figures in other religions, academics, authors, and celebrities that Islam is part of the American mosaic.

Islam in America is wider, deeper and more diverse than ever in its history, and Muslims are poised to bring their faith, politics and culture into the mainstream of national life ... Mosques [are] the platform for full participation in American life ... Muslims believe that by involvement with the larger society, they can do service to America. ... Look for new voices in schools, workplaces and voting booths. ... Increasingly, they are going to be claiming a place in the public square.

Well, the public square, the mainstream, the larger society includes the fast paced, quick-witted, irony-soaked relm of American humor. The thin-skinned should enter at their own risk.

Questions: Can American muslims tolerate being subjected to parody and laughter? Will they laugh along in the spirit of good humor or will they cry and whine and bitch and moan? Can foreign muslims let Americans laugh without issuing death threats? Can American comics get past their inhibitions and see muslims as just one more target for jokes? Will an American comic have the balls to dress up like a Sheikh or an Imam and prance around like the Church Lady or James Woods as the perverted priest in Scary Movie 2? Will there ever be a muslim who treats Islam like Woody Allen treated Judaism in his early films? Or as Denis Leary riduculed Catholics? Will there ever be an Arab comic who mock his heritage as mercilessly as John Cleese mocked the British?

We'll see.


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