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A Middle Eastern coup

The part of an Iranian on network TV is a timely breakthrough worth taking a risk for, 'Whoopi' creators say.

September 09, 2003|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Nation-building in Afghanistan, guerrilla warfare in Iraq, threats of Islamic terrorism around the globe. The timing couldn't be better for a Middle Eastern character in an American sitcom.

In "Whoopi," premiering tonight at 8 on NBC, actor-comedian Omid Djalili plays the co-starring role of Nasim, an Iranian handyman who works in a New York-based boutique hotel run by Whoopi Goldberg. The part is something of a breakthrough for network TV: It's the first Middle Eastern character to be a principal on a sitcom and may be the first ongoing Middle Eastern character ever seen on TV.

(Lebanese American Danny Thomas, born Amos Jahoob, was almost completely de-ethnicized in his 1950s TV series "Make Room for Daddy").

Moreover, Nasim is, as Djalili describes him, "wacky, wild and surreal," but if the first few episodes are any indication, he is also something of a sounding board for jokes involving terrorism, ethnic violence and Middle Eastern stereotyping.

When, for example, Nasim responds to a negative comment about Middle Eastern language by sarcastically replying "you can look it up in the towelhead dictionary," you know "Whoopi's" producers have taken a leap into the void.

"It's the risk you take when you try something different," "Whoopi" producer Larry Wilmore says about the show's forays into topical humor. "We're trying to be as truthful to the times as we can and still entertain."

"All we're trying to do," Djalili adds, "is reflect the mood of New York."

The part was originally supposed to be Russian, based on a cameraman executive producer Terry Turner had worked with at CNN. But then NBC showed Turner a tape of Djalili performing a stand-up routine about Sept. 11 at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal.

Turner was so impressed with the 38-year-old British Iranian's humanistic take on the subject matter, he signed him up right away. "It's more interesting that the immigrant guy in the show is from the Middle East," Turner says. "It made it so much richer, but there's that layer of unease about it, which gives it comedy potential."

Djalili had a lot to say when it came to fine-tuning the character. Born in Britain to Iranian parents, he is a member of the Bahai faith, a persecuted minority in the government of the ayatollahs. As an actor he has appeared in stereotypical roles in "The Mummy," "Gladiator" and other films, but he has earned his greatest acclaim for stand-up shows with titles like "Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son."

This background determined the direction the character would take. Originally intended to be an Arab, Djalili persuaded the producers to make Nasim a non-Arab Iranian because, he says, "I told them I am an Iranian, and if you want to get authentic references, let's go for him being an Iranian."

The upshot is that in the first few episodes, Djalili's character rails about how he is always mistaken for an Arab, when it's "obvious" that he is Persian, which he considers a much superior culture.

The joke may be a bit obscure for many Americans, who tend to lump Middle Easterners together, but even the producers admit they didn't know the difference at first (Iranians, for example, don't speak Arabic but Farsi), and Turner says the experience of working with Djalili has been "an education to all of us."

The same learning curve can be applied to what jokes make it into the final mix. Everyone involved with "Whoopi" recognizes they're dealing with sensitive material, but sometimes the line between what is and is not acceptable is unclear. In the early draft of one episode, for example, Nasim mentions that he has relatives living all over the country. "Let me know if they're flying here," was Goldberg's response.

But the joke was dropped. "We realized that joke went too far," says Turner, who created the show with his wife, Bonnie (they're also responsible for " 3rd Rock From the Sun" and "That '70s Show"). "Sometimes comedy writers have to go all the way to the edge, so they can pull back."

There are areas where the show won't go. Jokes about the World Trade Center disaster or planes flying into buildings are definitely out. But, Wilmore says, "we can certainly make jokes about our fear of Arabs and Muslims, whether they're rational or irrational fears."

Adds Djalili: "What I do not want to do is put my people in a bad light. To me, lines that are off-limits are anything that puts my people and my culture in a bad light. I'm very conscious that the character should not be painted in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes."

Djalili says one way to accomplish this is to have his character "say the odd absurd thing," which tends to play against stereotypes. Take the episode in which Wren T. Brown, playing Goldberg's very straight-laced brother, who is dating a white woman, mentions that black women just don't seem to go for him. Nasim's response is that "nappy hair is an acquired taste." "You get into uncharted territory where you can alleviate stereotypes" with comments like that, Djalili says.

So far, the producers believe that they're on the right track. Wilmore, an Emmy winner last year for his writing on "The Bernie Mac Show," says audiences have adored the show's ethnic humor and that critics who have seen the pilot haven't objected, either. In fact, Turner says, the most objections have come from people who are turned off by Goldberg's nicotine-addicted lead character. "It's funny," he says, "we have this inter-racial couple, this Middle Eastern handyman, and everyone's most upset about the smoking."

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