David Baddiel: I’d like to teach the world to laugh

"Finding laughter in the relationship of Muslims and Jews is a tough call"

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Like any concerned, right-thinking person, I’m hooked to the 24-hour news channels at the moment, doing my best to absorb the troubling news about the Middle East. OK, that isn’t completely true. I have a particular reason for watching the news about the Middle East.

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In 2010, a film what I wrote (not sure why I went all Ernie Wise there: must be working for Radio Times) called The Infidel came out. This October, The Infidel – the Musical, for which I’ve written the script and Erran Baron-Cohen has composed the music, opens at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. For anyone who doesn’t know, The Infidel is a story about a Muslim who discovers he was actually born a Jew.

Now do you see why I’m watching the Middle East news somewhat obsessively? Thinking, “Hmmm. What rhymes with Isis? Apart from crisis…”

Obviously I’m watching as a genuinely concerned individual. But the musical, like the film, will be trying to find laughter in the relationship between Muslims and Jews. Which, in what commentators discreetly call “the current climate”, can be an, um, tough call.

Having said that: it’s my opinion that The Infidel would never have been born without the perceived antipathy between those two cultures. It’s basically a body-swap story (although the swap happens within only one body). And the basis of body-swap stories – Trading Places, Big, Freaky Friday etc – is that polar opposites swap places.

These days, Muslims and Jews are also seen as opposites – like old/young or rich/poor: certainly polarised. But when I was growing up, that wasn’t the case – it’s happened over the past 20 years, with increasing radicalisation on both sides. That’s obviously a bad thing. But it also creates an opportunity, because if two cultures come to be perceived as oppositional, then you have the grounds for a culture-clash story.

I’m not saying, yes, the enmity between some Muslims and Jews is bad, but it least it sets the grounds for my film/musical. All right, maybe I am. But The Infidel is a body-swap story in another way. As in all such stories, to begin with, everyone reacts with horror, and the oppositeness (is that a word?) is exploited for all its worth. But eventually, what they come to recognise is that Muslims and Jews – just like rich and poor, old and young – aren’t so different after all. 

This may sound a touch glib, but it’s really important: in actuality, both cultures have for centuries lived, as the New Seekers would have it, in perfect harmony. And theologically, these two Abrahamic religions have far more similarities than differences. So the best way to subvert that idea of difference is through laughter. At the premiere of the movie, I saw Muslims and Jews – and Christians and Hindus and Baha’is and atheists and Scientologists (probably) – all laughing as one (except at the bits that weren’t that funny). We saved the world that night.

Well. Watching the 24-hour news channels as I have been, we – it turns out – didn’t. But now we’re going to have another go. This time in song. Because music, of course, is the other great big bonding force in humanity’s armoury. I promise you, this time, we’ll sort it out once and for all. 

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The Infidel – the Musical runs from 4 October to 2 November. Sarah Millican is away