October 18, 2017

Salman Rushdie, sit-com star


Admit it, you’re whistling that jaunty theme music now.

Long ago, in a distant land called “The Nineties,” there was a very good TV show called Seinfeld, which everybody loved. (Well, almost everybody.)

In a memorable scene from that show’s fourth season, Kramer, the wacky neighbor to end all wacky neighbors, meets a strange man at the gym, who introduces himself as “Sal Bass.” Never short on imagination, Kramer believes the man is none other than legendary author Salman Rushdie, living incognito because of the fatwa placed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini. (“Instead of salmon,” Kramer explains, “he went with bass!”) At the same time, in another storyline from the episode that hasn’t aged especially well, Jerry acts weird toward his new girlfriend, as he wonders if “they’re real.” It’s classic Seinfeld: characters pursuing parallel concerns over the authenticity of others in diverging and intersecting ways, in what amounts to a smirking examination of cultural preoccupations. (The technical term for this phenomenon is “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!”)

(For a closer look at the story of Rushdie and his fatwa, may we recommend Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad? It’s a definitive account of the Rushdie affair, and an investigation of how those events forever changed the relationship of Islam to liberal democracies, especially the UK.)

Seinfeld co-creator Larry David has, of course, gone on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is currently enjoying a pleasantly strange ninth season after six years off the air. This season’s plot concerns… well, it’s complicated, but part of the story concerns Larry writing a musical about Rushdie’s fatwa (it is called, not especially originally, “Fatwa! The Musical”), in the course of promoting which he himself incurs a fatwa.

This week’s episode features a particularly memorable sequence, in which Rushdie—Playing himself! What a sport, folks!—invites Larry over to talk about the upside of fatwage. What follows (sorry, guys, there’s nothing on youtube — you’ll have to bug your beloved aunt for her HBO Go password, if you haven’t seen it yet) is some return-to-form Curb, all the more hilarious for the surprising revelation that Salman Rushdie is pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good in his turn as a comedic actor. A line about “fatwa sex” isn’t necessarily easy to sell — but the Sal-man does it.

Rushdie’s appearance on the show also created the opportunity for him to appear on the new official favorite TV show of all Melville House employees, Late Night with Seth Meyers, where he spoke with eloquence about his actual fatwa, the troubled legacy it forced onto the book for which he received it, and what it was like to see the whole thing become a zany sit-com plot (short answer: “kind of cool”). The clip’s just two minutes long, and worth watching: