Identity, Humor, Life

Iranian comedian Negin Farsad opens up on how to make white people laugh

Turns out they don't want an Iranian Muslim American female running around on television.

Named by The Huffington Post as one of their “50 Funniest Women” in 2011, Negin Farsad is a force to be reckoned with. She is a comedian, actress, writer, and filmmaker, and she has a dual degree from an Ivy League institution to boot. Her path to becoming this all-in-one master of the arts was not a usual one, and we at The Tempest had a chance to sit down with her so we can bring you her story and experience as a woman of color in the entertainment world.

The Tempest: Tell me who you are, and one thing most people wouldn’t think to know about you.

Negin Farsad: I am Negin Farsad, and I’m a comedian. Because I’m a comedian, people sort of assume that I’m dead inside and in some ways I am. This morning when I had to take my dog to the hospital, you wouldn’t have guessed that I was in tears over my dog going to surgery. I cry a lot more than people assume, but my line of work means that I have to have thick skin. 

So yeah, I can deal with heckling, but show me a really touching cell phone commercial, and I break down weeping.

How did you find yourself in the position you are in today – comedian, writer, director, and actor?

NF: It wasn’t a conventional path because I got a Dual Masters in African American Studies and Public Affairs at Columbia, interned for Charles Rangel and Hilary Clinton, and then became policy advisor for New York City. 

 I wasn’t one of those people who wanted to do things differently. 

I was in a sketch comedy troupe in college, then in grad school doing comedy/standup/sketch/writing in New York City. I carefully maintained the two lanes simultaneously for a long time before it became unsustainable. So, my friends staged an intervention for me to become a comedian. 

That’s when I ended up going into comedy full time, trying to figure out how to make a living.

Turns out they don’t want an Iranian Muslim American female running around on television.

We are still living in a sexist bigoted society, where there’s an unwritten rule about bringing on two brown people on a show at the same time. Aziz [Ansari] did an episode on Master of None around that. I just learned all of these things by going through the miserable process myself, and constantly being like, “If you’re not going to cast me in those things, I’ll make movies and insist on relevance.” 

How did you come to terms with not helping people?

NF: I tried to fight bigotry or unearth injustice in the banking business and did a bunch on healthcare reform in 2010. A couple of months ago, I did a project with MoveOn.org. I did this thing where I asked people whether they were Muslim, they had to eat the bacon and if not, they had to sign the Muslim registry like a bridal registry. 

That video got picked up by Upworthy and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

It's my way of giving back through comedy, and elevating the conversation. Click To Tweet

Lots of vile comments, but I think if someone was seeing that rhetoric around Muslims during election season if the video helped even one guy get to that point, I feel like I did a little something from a small corner of the world. Some of these issues are boring, and people don’t want to talk about them or don’t want to get into controversial discussions. 

Banking, for example, I have to figure out ways to shed light on that in amusing ways. It’s my way of giving back through comedy and elevating the conversation.

How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

NF: I was a really obedient child, and sometimes I’d beat myself up over an A-minus in geometry, which led to me being number 2 instead of number 1. I feel like I was so academically motivated and that kind of carried me through. I got into an Ivy League school, was a real nerd about that, and I honestly wouldn’t change the fact that I went to grad school for public policy, even though it put me in some debt. 

I wouldn’t change those things even if they made me a late bloomer as a professional comedian. 

It brought in another understanding of the world, gave me something to think, care, talk, about. I love being able to analyze those things and not feel completely at a loss. 

I wouldn't change those things even if they made me a late bloomer. Click To Tweet

For women, in particular, one regret of mine, is that I spent too long believing I wasn’t a content creator or writer. I spent so much time thinking that I was just a comedic actor and believed for a long time that I wasn’t good at writing scripts.  

Women tell themselves things, and those things become true. 

When I was 19, before I found out I was good at something, I would just resort to saying that I’m bad at that thing. At that age, it isn’t imposter syndrome, so much as it’s about figuring out what you’re good at. 

Now here I am! I wrote a fucking book. I don’t know why I didn’t think I was more of a writer than I thought I was.

Your work, How to Make White People Laugh, has a lot of potential to stir up some interesting conversations. How did you find yourself starting the novel? Why did you go after questions like, “Farsad asks the important questions like, what does it mean to have a hyphenated identity? How can we actually combat racism, stereotyping, and exclusion? Do Iranians get bunions at a higher rate than other ethnic groups (she’s asking for a friend)?”

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NF: I wanted to write a book about how, when you’re an ethnic person or a woman of color, you walk into every situation and have a sociological, political, an anthropological assessment of the situation first. It’s not something that every group has to do. So I wanted to write about my life and how things unfolded for me but through that lens.

 I wanted to take a micro situation and relate it to the geopolitics and sexual and racial politics because that’s how I constantly encounter everyday life. 

It’s funny — the entire last chapter is asking people to do things differently. 

Like the [United States’] census is ridiculous, and we don’t give enough info: we started out with a “black” and “white” country, and then added “Latino,” and then “Asian.” But we don’t even know whose in this country. 

So many people are filling out “Other,” and it’s totally absurd. 

A part of what I want to do with conversation when it comes to bigotry and race politics is to emphasize that it’s not a binary. There’s Filipino American and Iranian American and African American and Jewish American, and they have a legit place but are left out, because they don’t have a big identity confusion situation.  

I don’t identify with whiteness because that isn’t privilege awarded. So it sort of left me in the lurch — otherness.

What’s your advice to young women like you, looking to take on comedy and writing?

NF: You know what’s interesting? One of the biggest problems is the financial aspect. At least in the beginning, you should have a day job, so you can think about things apart from the money, and have an unfettered few years where you aren’t thinking about money, and can just focus on the comedy.

Accept it’ll take a long time to find your voice. It’s a weird abstract thing, and people will say that you should shut the fuck up, or that it’s hard to do, or it takes time. But if you really want to be a professional, go into it knowing that. I would say that there’s also a difference between being an artist full-time and wanting to be an artist as something you do in life, alongside a full-time job.

Even if you’re not full-time, it doesn’t make your murals about criminal justice system less meaningful. Some people are embarrassed, like “I’m a consultant and good at art, and you know, I guess I should quit that and be a photographer?” That’s not necessarily true: you can build art and have a full-time job because it’s not easy to professionalize any type of the arts.

 

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Make sure to follow Negin Farsad on Twitter and Instagram, and buy her fantastic book, “How to Make White People Laugh,” here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Laila Alawa

Laila Alawa

Laila Alawa is the CEO and Founder of The Tempest, a leading media company where the world goes to hear the stories of diverse millennial women. She is also the host for The Expose, a weekly podcast tackling tough topics with snark and wit. Her work has been mentioned in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, Mashable, Color Lines, Bustle, Feministing, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. She's also appeared on Al-Jazeera America, BBC World News, NPR, and Huffington Post Live.

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