Just imagine: two women dressed in traditional Muslim burqas sitting on a Brooklyn park bench, catcalling men as they pass by. What would your reaction be? Horror, confusion, or side-splitting laughter?
That’s exactly what Radhika Vaz and Nadia P. Manzoor are trying to find out with their comedy web series, Shugs & Fats. The first episode debuted last fall, and the series has accumulated over 25,000 views and counting. Manzoor, a Pakistani-American actor-writer, plays Shugs (short for Shagufta), and Vaz, an Indian-American comedian, is Fats (short for Fatima).
The show centres on the idea of traditional Muslim women exploring life on the streets of Brooklyn. In each power-packed, three- to four-minute episode, the two find themselves in ridiculous, over-the-top situations like speed dating or trying to figure out what a vibrator does. Through situational comedy, they stumble onto some very real subjects, including sexuality, immigration, body image, and, ultimately, feminism. You’re so busy laughing at their zany antics that the hijab and burqas fade into the background — which is exactly the point.
“I have a lot of friends who wear hijab and are total goofballs, so a part of me wanted to show that we’re just all people,” Manzoor said in a recent interview with Refinery29. “That there’s something beyond our religious choices and our dress choices that connects us and makes us universal. But, often the way we dress — and our race — can prevent us from connecting with another person.”
Neither of the women behind Shugs & Fats started out wanting to be a comedian. Vaz left a thriving career in advertising, and Manzoor quit a successful job in social work, both hoping to break into comedy. They met as teachers at the New York City improv school Improvulation and became fast friends. Two years ago, they were working on their individual projects — Manzoor was writing a book about her experiences as a Muslim Pakistani growing up in the West, and Vaz was working on her stand-up show — when the now-defunct MTV Desi approached them to create a project together. The result was Shugs & Fats.
MTV Desi aired five episodes, and at the end of that run, Vaz was hesitant to continue playing a Muslim when she herself is not of the Islamic faith. Eventually, though, she and Manzoor decided to keep at it, producing Shugs & Fats independently. Today, they fund the project themselves, with some help from friends and family.
So, who are Shugs and Fats?
Fats is the older of two, a woman in her mid-40s who keeps missing the boat on marriage, so she wants to make sure her best friend, Shugs, doesn’t make the same mistake. She’s also the more serious of the two, with a dark, sexual side.
“They’re very, very close friends that are different ages and have different backgrounds,” Vaz told us. She stressed the importance of their friendship and co-dependence.
Manzoor describes her character, Shugs, as a “goofball” prone to existential rants. “You’re like, what is she talking about? But, sometimes these pearls of wisdom come about. She’s really excited about life and tries to do everything. She wants to learn and grow.”
Manzoor and Vaz hope that their series will play a part — however big or small — in cutting down society’s pervasive anti-Muslim stereotypes and show that yes, even hijabis and traditional Muslim women talk about racy subjects.
“Our original intention wasn’t to push the idea that Muslim women come in all shapes and sizes, even though that is what we do now," Manzoor said. "But, the thing for me was that you don’t see these characters in media who are just normal people."
While the first season was entirely improvised, Vaz and Manzoor decided to try a more scripted version for season 2 and for season 3, which is scheduled to be released in January 2016. (Watch the trailer here.) “We realised that in order for these characters to be a conduit to express our ideas, it needed to be more scripted,” Manzoor explained. Both she and Vaz describe the upcoming episodes as more hard-hitting, with a clear political agenda that tackles feminism, gay marriage, periods, prostitution, and naturalisation.
“We’re discussing things that are messy. We’re poking, provoking, posing important questions, and having conversations,” Manzoor said.
They're trying to keep the momentum going with a fourth season in the works and — dream! — a Shugs and Fats movie some day.
“I wanna do a comedy-action movie!” Vaz exclaimed. “There’s nothing more exciting than keeping the heat up, but also being funny!”