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Midnight's comedian: Salman Rushdie, sitcom star

To those who know Salman Rushdie’s novels, it is no surprise that he gravitates towards funny creators of TV

Salman Rushdie and (right) Alan Yentob in ‘W1A’
Salman Rushdie and (right) Alan Yentob in ‘W1A’

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In the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Disney+ Hotstar), creator and star Larry David — who plays an irascible version of himself on the show — announces that he has written a musical. His Broadway comedy is called ‘Fatwa! The Musical’ and it is about the disrupted life of the novelist Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah of Iran announced a prize on his head. It is a buzzy idea, well-suited to David’s satirical stylings, and the writer has no trouble drumming up producers and potential cast-members. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, eagerly throws his hat in the ring.)

The problems begin when David, appearing on a late-night talk show to discuss the project, makes fun of the fatwa and angers an Ayatollah. Soon the comedian — who co-created Seinfeld and now grumbles over social niceties — has a fatwa on his own bald head. The possibility of being assassinated sends David spiralling, and, after hiring a bodyguard and hiding out behind a ludicrous wig and moustache, he realises that friends aren’t showing up to his poker games because of the death-threat hanging over his head. Only one man, David says, can help him.

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This is when Larry David goes to visit Sir Salman Rushdie. The 2017 episode ‘A Disturbance In The Kitchen’ (Season 9, episode 3) contains a most sensational — and pivotal — cameo featuring the iconic and controversial novelist, where Rushdie has a blast sending up not only himself but also the fatwa. Rushdie had featured in films and TV before, but always comedies. He had a walk-on part in Bridget Jones’s Diary, played an obstetrician in Then She Found Me, and if you pause the first episode of the exceptional British satire W1A at precisely the right place, you’ll catch Rushdie arm-wrestling with BBC presenter Alan Yentob. 

To those who know Rushdie’s novels, it is no surprise that he gravitates towards funny creators. “Because the attack [on the book] was not funny,” Rushdie had complained on Late Night With Seth Meyers as he spoke about Curb, “it was assumed that [Satanic Verses] couldn’t be funny. And because the attack was kind of weird and incomprehensible and foreign and theological, it was assumed that the book would be weird and incomprehensible and theological.” Satanic Verses is still a blisteringly funny book, and the attack — as demonstrated last week when the great novelist was knifed in New York — remains patently unfunny.

Let us go back to David, be-wigged and whiskered, asking for advice. Rushdie patiently explains that for all the danger and inconvenience of the death-threat, it comes with two massive pluses: the first is the ability to get out of any social commitment, like picking someone up from the airport, merely by shrugging and mentioning the fatwa. The second is that the fatwa acts as catnip to glamorous women, seducing them with the allure of danger. The joke, of course, is on Rushdie and his many gorgeous ladyfriends. “It’s not exactly you,” Rushdie explains to the fatwa newbie, “It’s the fatwa wrapped around you, like a kind of sexy pixie dust.” 

After ripping David’s wig from his head and declaring that “fatwa sex” is the best kind of sex there is, fraught with danger, the two satirists go out to lunch, calling themselves the Fatwa Boys. As they eat — while striking women gaze at them, fascinated — Rushdie asks which actor David is considering to play Rushdie on Broadway. “The guy I had in mind was actually Jason Alexander,” David says. “You mean like ‘George’ Jason Alexander?” Rushdie says, declaring the Seinfeld actor a lot shorter than himself. “I’m thinking about Hugh Jackman,” suggests the novelist, to David’s derision.

It’s a smashing guest-appearance, allowing Rushdie not only to be riotously funny — and show off significant swagger — but to draw attention to the daftness of the whole fatwa situation. David, it must be remembered, has long had Rushdie in his sights. In the Seinfeld season 4 episode ‘The Implant’ — an episode about Jerry trying to figure out if a woman he’s interested in has natural breasts or has been surgically enhanced —  Kramer is convinced he has seen Salman Rushdie down at the health club. “Yeah right Salman Rushdie,” laughs Elaine, before admitting the possibility: “Ah well, I could see that. You got five million muslims behind you, you want to stay in pretty good shape.”

Kramer continues to insist that the bearded man he keeps running into is Rushdie, and this intensifies when he finds out the man is a writer — and that his name is Sal Bass. “Sal Bass!” he says to Jerry Seinfeld excitedly, “Instead of Salmon he went with Bass! He just substituted one fish for another!” Seinfeld corrects him — “It’s Salman, not Salmon!” — and more than two decades later in the Curb episode, David, who also pronounces the name like ‘Salmon’, is corrected by Rushdie himself. “Salman,” David says, marvelling as he finally — from a 1993 episode to a 2017 episode — learns how to say the writer’s name right. “There’s an accent on the second syllable.” 

Throughout the run of Seinfeld, David and Seinfeld set up many almost-cameos, punctuating their New York series with celebrities plucked from the zeitgeist, those the creators would admire or mock. Rushdie stood alongside other unseen guests like Woody Allen, John F Kennedy Jr and Saddam Hussain. Today, it seems appropriate, even necessary, for David — who recently wrote a fearless Curb episode about a polite Klansman — to lionise Rushdie, who has a price on his head for laughing about things. He is Midnight’s Comedian. The fish jokes in ‘The Implant’ are fun, but the true pay-off comes years later, when David sits across from the genuine article. Salman Rushdie is real, and he’s spectacular.

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Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (BookMyShow Stream) is an excessive, unsubtle celebration of the Elvis Presley mythology. The film features sensational performances from Austin Butler as the far-too-sexy Elvis, and Tom Hanks as his wicked manager. This may all be smoke and mirrors, but it's dazzling. Luhrmann has not yet left the building.

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