Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Muslim sitcom off to a big start in Canada

Published: January 15, 2007
TORONTO: When it comes to producing a funny television show or movie in Canada, producers here have a reliable stable of topics — French-English relations, urban-rural dynamics and anything that involves a bumbling politician or the United States.

But Islam — something of a third rail of comedy throughout the Western world — did not make the list, which is one reason the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's new situation comedy, "Little Mosque on the Prairie," is attracting such attention here.

"It is a risk doing a sitcom about what can be considered a very touchy subject," said Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming at the CBC.

But the series premiere last Tuesday attracted 2.1 million viewers, impressive in a country where an audience of one million is a runaway hit. The CBC has not had a show draw an audience of that size in a decade, according to the network.

The show follows a small group of Muslims in, of all places, a prairie town in Saskatchewan where, in the first epsiode, the group was trying to establish a mosque in the parish hall of a town church. A passerby, seeing the group praying, rushes to call a "terrorist hot line," to report Muslims praying "just like on CNN," which touches off a local firestorm.

"I want the broader society to look at us as normal, with the same issues and concerns as anyone else," said Nawaz, who based the series loosely on her own experiences as a Muslim woman who moved from Toronto to the prairie. "We're just as much a part of the Canadian fabric as anyone else."

The CBC has committed to eight episodes of the program, and is negotiating with the show's producers for 13 more in the spring. But despite the initial success of "Little Mosque on the Prairie" the network is still proceeding with caution, having hired a consultant to flag anything in the scripts that could offend audiences.

The show has generally been well received by Muslim leaders, who welcome the light touch it brings to issues that are normally debated in numbing seriousness.

"Muslims are a bit late in laughing at themselves, but we have to use humor to remedy these divisions just like any community," said Mohamed Elmasry, an imam and president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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