It’s hard to imagine today what the television landscape looked like before All in the Family exploded into living rooms in early 1971. Its protagonist, Archie Bunker, was a bigoted, sexist patriarch from Queens, whose confrontations with those around him made viewers laugh, and think. The groundbreaking sitcom from legendary producer Norman Lear spent eight years challenging audiences to face change. It pushed the envelope with episodes about racism, civil rights, feminism, Vietnam, Watergate, cancer, rape, abortion—even impotence and menopause.
Amazingly, Archie Bunker’s ignorant proclamations worked. They touched a nerve in American viewers of all stripes, moving them to laughter and to new understandings. To this day, the sitcom is still one of only three shows that have ranked number one in Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years or more (The Cosby Show and American Idol are the other two). Now, in that same tradition of sitcom-as-social change comes Halal in the Family, a four-episode web series starring Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) that pokes fun at anti-Muslim attitudes.
The best thing about Mandvi’s sitcom parody, which originated as a Daily Show skit and launched on Funny or Die last week, is that it’s actually funny.
Wearing a version of Cosby’s signature multicolored sweaters in each episode, Mandvi stars as Aasif Qu’osby, a Muslim version of Archie Bunker whose only goal in life is for his family to be embraced as a non-threatening addition to the all-American ideal. The opening credit sequence shows him barbecuing ribs in his back yard and drinking “pork juice” from the bottle. His apron says “Kiss Me I’m Irish.” His wife (played by Sakina Jaffrey, who, interestingly, portrays a Latina in her more famous House of Cards role) laughingly hangs items on a clothing line: boxer shorts, socks—all identically patterned like the American flag.
But their forced sitcom smiles are wiped away even before the credits end, as a team of FBI agents in full riot gear rounds up the family. “We’re not that kind of Muslim!” Mandvi’s character is heard shouting as he’s dragged off screen.
A bit harsh, maybe, for a sitcom—but not so far off from the realities of Muslim surveillance in our post-9/11 state. The series goes on to challenge not only the assumptions of anti-terrorist policing, but also the everyday prejudices of non-Muslim American citizens.
In a 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of Islam, while 38 percent had an unfavorable view and the rest were neutral. Interestingly, the vast majority of respondents in this same survey also said they knew little to nothing about “Muslim religion.” More recently, Pew also found in 2014 that 67 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of Democrats said that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.