Ather's black hipster shirt is sticking to his back from nervous sweat. Frantically sprinting down a quiet suburban street, he bursts into a convenience store, nearly toppling over a beef jerky stand. He collapses against the counter and looks up at the nonchalant clerk with wide, terror-filled eyes.
"You gotta help me, man," the young Pakistani man gasps. "You gotta help me!"
The director's voice slices through Ather's frenzied shriek. "Okay, Ather, I need a Twilight Zone scream. You know, put your hands on your head and make it guttural. And the clerk -- you gotta ham it up, man. Remember, this is Bollywood."
The camera's rolling again. The clerk, a young, bespectacled white man in a blue oxford shirt, suddenly breaks out in Bollywood song. "I Don't Know What You Say," he chirps in an Indian accent. Ather staggers backward: "No...no... nooooooooooo!"
"Okay, great," says the director. The scene, about a man who's surrounded by Bollywood, everywhere, is wrapped. It's supposed to be a quick-hit gag, a real laugher -- especially for Indians, Muslims or anyone familiar with the Bollywood phenomenon.
I'm watching the scene unfold at a northwest Houston convenience store. As an Indian familiar with Bollywood, I'm wondering if I'm missing something because I'm not quite getting the laugh.
And I'm wondering if that will be a problem for a couple of Houston guys who're trying to create the next great sketch comedy show.
Here around the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Shiraz Jafri and Ather Ali turn on their TVs and see militant Muslims calling for jihad. They see the talking heads on Fox News who haughtily call for racial profiling for Arabs and Muslims. And the only Muslim-themed comedy they see is Carlos Mencia's "muck-a-lucka" sheik on Mind of Mencia.
So the duo, who've known each other since they were kids in northwest Houston hanging out at Muslim gatherings, have set out to create a Muslim/Indian/Pakistani sketch comedy program called That Banned Show. Ather, 29, who attends law school in Cleveland, and Shiraz, 31, a director based in Austin, have worked together on three other film projects. Shiraz most recently directed the feature film The Arrangement, a piece that cost more than half a million to make and has been picked up for distribution by Lions Gate Films. As far as they're concerned, they're ready for prime time.
Unfortunately, their ambitions are far greater than their budget. But they have a horde of free talent, thanks to local Muslim, Indian, black, Latino and white actors, extras (such as Press writer Keith Plocek, the convenience store clerk) and dancers -- lined up by Houston producer Anu Srivastav.
Since late July, Ather and Shiraz have been in Houston filming what they call an "edgy" comedy show that's "never been done." Their sketches deal with terrorism in slapstick pieces such as "Another Day at Gitmo," a take on prisoner abuse. Other pieces address Muslim tyrants. Some cover the "aunties and uncles" -- a staple of Indo/Pak family comedy. A few -- including the convenience store shoot -- riff on Bollywood. The one-sentence pitch is that this is basically a Muslim Mind of Mencia or Chappelle's Show.
In a matter of weeks, That Banned Show will be packaged and shopped to Shiraz's connections at Viacom (which owns MTV and Comedy Central) and to HBO and Showtime. Seems like perfect timing, given the success of Chappelle's and Mencia's hits. But Ather scoffs at the mention of the Comedy Central staples. "We're doing two different things here," he says after the convenience store shoot. "That other stuff is very elementary." Unlike his partner, Shiraz has no problem with the comparison. "If they say it's an Indian/Pakistani version of Chappelle's Show or Mind of Mencia, and that's what gets us six episodes, great. If industry people can't relate it to something they haven't seen before, they won't touch it." He's more concerned with how people label his culture than how they label his show.
"All I hear from the Internet, TV, media," Shiraz says, "is 'Where are the moderate Muslims?' I'm so sick of Bill O'Reilly saying, 'Where are they? Why don't they respond?' To me, that's what this show is: a response. It's all of us who feel like the religion and spirituality that we hold so dear is being corrupted by people. We're gonna give you a TV show, and you're gonna laugh your ass off, and you're gonna understand that 99 percent of Muslims don't agree with what's going on. I'll be damned if I'm going to let some religious zealot define what I hold so dear. I'll be damned."
There's no question that Shiraz and Ather are confident about their "incendiary" comedy (one skit on www.thatbannedshow.com boasts "sand nigger" in the title), meant to "educate" viewers on Muslim culture. But just how incendiary and educational is a white guy singing Bollywood tunes? Maybe people who work to get the Muslim message out there will have some insight.
"These guys are very talented people, but I'm very skeptical of Muslim comedy," says Bassam Tariq, a PR/advertising student at the University of Texas who helped publicize the "Allah Made Me Funny" comedy tour that just hit town. "In the Muslim community, everybody knows everybody," he says; he's known of Ather since high school and is a fan. But he's not quite sure how "edgy" comedy educates the masses, especially since he's trying to educate the masses himself. Bassam and a friend started a Web site called AskOsama.net as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign. As they hand out flyers to kids, they say, "Ask Osama and you'll feel better." Curious, confused and offended visitors have been visiting the site, where Osama, a real student at UT, answers any goofy questions they throw at him. The idea is that the name Osama becomes less associated with a bastardly terrorist and more linked to an emo-looking Muslim kid in Austin. Bassam hopes That Banned Show is similarly educational. "If they're doing 'edgy' Muslim comedy, they need to make sure there's a message behind it," he says.
There's also the question as to whether TV audiences -- and TV execs -- will buy in to a Muslim show. Muslim comic/writer Preacher Moss, the brains behind "Allah Made Me Funny," has some advice for Shiraz and Ather.
"I don't care what the content is -- Muslim or not -- it better be funny," says Moss, who started writing for comedian George Lopez in 1997, when the comic's show had just been greenlit. "[Lopez] pretty much had the first Latino sitcom since Freddie Prinze in the '70s. And yet he's asking a black Muslim guy to write for him. He didn't need Latino funny. He just needed funny."
But surely a comic/writer who's producing a Muslim stand-up show can see the value in a Muslim sketch TV show, right? He listens carefully to descriptions of That Banned Show's convenience store scene and the skit involving Guant#&135;namo.
"Are you laughing?" he asks.
"That's what I'm talking about. Sketch comedy has to have you laughing out loud."
So what's an example of a Muslim-themed sketch that would work? Moss dreams one up on the spot: "Okay, let's say you got two Arab guys and a black guy standing on a corner. The cops roll up; they've been watching them. They round up the two Arab guys for being suspected terrorists, because they're Muslim. The black guy's like, 'Hey, man, I'm Muslim, too.' The cops are like, 'Yeah, and what are you doing here?' and he's like 'Well, uh...actually I'm selling crack to kids, man.' And the cops are like, 'Oh. Well, carry on. We were looking for people who're dangerous.' See?"
Okay, yeah, that's pretty good. Point taken.
"I'm not here to diss anybody," says Moss. "I wish these guys the best. But if it ain't funny, they ain't working. That's how it is."
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The scene opens on a basketball court, where two Muslim guys -- Ather and Shiraz -- are shooting hoops. Enter two white guys and a black guy who spot the pair and decide to screw with the "terrorists." Shiraz and Ather's characters talk some shit of their own but eventually turn on each other, fighting over who's the real "sand nigger." Meanwhile, "the two white dudes and black guy are like, 'What the hell is going on?' " says Shiraz.
Better, but LOL-worthy? Shiraz knows it's a delicate art. "Yeah, I may think it's funny. I may laugh my ass off at it all day, but there's a chance no one else will. That's the reality of it."
Of course, the perfect ending to this hometown story is that Shiraz and Ather bring crazy laughs with That Banned Show, and TV execs -- realizing that their version of Indo/Pak/Muslim funny can be mainstream funny -- eat it up.
And if they don't bring it? It'll be the basketball scene come to life: American guys watching Shiraz and Ather, and wondering just what the hell is going on.